Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Big Houses, Fancy Dress, National Tragedy

My favorite thing about Tina Brown's Diana Chronicles was her literary frame of reference - in addition to the obligatory Austen, she mentions Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and The Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. These last two are stories that help us better understand our heroine, Diana: the deep, dark women and history and houses she's up against, in the first case, her super-natural ability for kindness, in the second.

However, Manderley is spelled wrong. Seriously. Someone said she mixes her Austen references, but I thought that was kind of intentional? Whatever.

Back to Rebecca. One of the reasons it's such a brilliant book is that it combines two things Brit lit has historically been good at: romance-and-repression (that's the first thing) and murder mystery (that's two). In both of these narrative formulae, there is only one solution - one true love, one guilty party. And the whole novel long you are waiting to find out who it is, even if you already know. Or you're waiting to find out how, exactly, it's possible.

Diana's story is the same. A romance and a murder mystery.

The book is well researched, for sure. And I love it when Brown includes history of the Tatler coverage of Diana, written in the first person. Or first person plural, hooray! The royal we, as they say.

But as a biography, it isn't quite smart enough. With this subject matter, it could even be a history, if it were much, much smarter. Brown ought to defer more to the psychological "insights" of Diana's acquaintances. While these would be ridiculous and not, in any way, true, this approach might cumulatively create a richer picture of the bizarre time and place Brown is trying to capture. Psychological insights from Brown (there are way, way too many) sound a little short-sighted and naive.

So, that's my somewhat disjointed, idiosyncratic book review of Diana Chronicles. Maybe it's more of a book report, like the kind you did in third grade, with projects, or costumes. I'm dressed as Mrs. Danvers.


Blogger Raquel Laneri said...

I really need to read Rebecca again. It's one of those books I read when I was ten and much too young and not able to fully appreciate it. I do like the idea of Tina Brown using it as a parallel to Diana's story, however. And I do love The Little Princess.

Interesting about the bio vs. history thing and that Diana is a bio but not a history, and maybe it should be a history. Though, after reading your "report" (ohh... I remember those...) I felt even more conflicted about whether I want to read the book or not... Maybe I will wait for it to come out in paperback...

3:22 PM  
Blogger zp said...

Oh, Rebecca.

I read it when I was "too young" too. My best friends mother liked it and recommended that we read it. Among other (awesome) things about her (the mom) was that she liked Amy best in Little Women. Apparently, this is uncommon.

But I've read Rebecca (often) since then - sometimes I read only the part where she's "young," sometimes I read only the part where she's all grown up. When I was in college I read it for the hot lesbian themes.

I read it yesterday and I found it to be a strange monogamy fantasy. Not only did he never love another woman, he hated her so much he killed her. Now, isn't that romantic? I mean, psychotic.

When I was younger it was all about the heroine's early awkward self-consciousness. Like Selznick tried to tell Hitchcock, I super-identified, I totally felt it. Now I feel like she handles herself pretty well in the new household. When I'm 36 in pearls I hope I do as well.

(I was really bored by the movie. Hitchcock totally flubbed it. How is this possible?)

Back to the myriad sexual tensions. Feminist film historians (among others) make a big deal about the aforementioned hot lesbian themes. But the book goes out of its way to indicate that all of Rebecca's lovers are men. So repeatedly as to be paranoid? And Danvers is, as the novel, says, also repeatedly, pretty "queer." And pathologized.

Basically, the book gets to have it all. Queer Danvers, incestuous nympho Rebecca, deadly monogamy Maxim, tweedy Bee and Giles marriage, innocent fliration with Frank.

Oh, wait a second. And I think the heroine is frigid. "I felt like a barmaid." That line, and other like it, jumped out at me this time too.

Check out Diana Chronicles from the library. Or I'll send you mine. Or maybe you want to skip it and re-read Rebecca.

11:51 PM  
Blogger Raquel Laneri said...

Wow, I'm definitely reading Rebecca again! There were hot lesbian themes? See, I did not get that when I was ten. It's somewhere in my parents' basement...

There is one copy of Diana available at one of the city's libraries, but I think I'll read Rebecca first... and maybe the four other books I have checked out of the library... oops.

10:50 AM  

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