BBC2′s “Daphne” Explores Du Maurier’s Bisexuality

Once Daphne and Gertrude are having an affair, Daphne tells Gertrude that "ever since the ma’m'selle at finishing school [whom she had a crush on], I've known I had Venetian tendencies." When Gertrude looks puzzled by the phrase, Daphne tells her that it's "Du Maurier code for the L people."

"You mustn't despise the L people," Gertrude says.

Daphne answers, "All right, but I'm not one of them."

In a climactic scene, Daphne accuses Ellen of rejecting her only because she cares about what society thinks. Ellen responds that it is Daphne who cares about what society thinks; Daphne who won't allow herself to be happy. And there is a sense that perhaps this is true — Daphne has continued to pursue Ellen partly because she knows that she will never give in.

Daphne follows on the heels of two groundbreaking BBC miniseries that put lesbian relationships front and center: Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith. At 90 minutes, Daphne inevitably has less time to develop complex relationships than the two Sarah Waters miniseries. It is also less overtly sexy. Kim Thomas, executive producer of Daphne, told British newspaper The Observer that she wanted to mimic the sensibility of the films of Du Maurier's own era, such as Brief Encounter.

Unfortunately, Daphne is also less lively and entertaining than Tipping or Fingersmith, due partly to a rather limp central performance from Geraldine Somerville as Daphne. Elizabeth McGovern is radiantly beautiful and warm as Ellen (and also very funny in a scene where, distraught at having to turn Daphne down again, she sobs that perhaps she should try and take hormones to change her sexuality). Janet McTeer is instantly compelling and glamorous as Gertrude, with a strong masculine as well as a feminine energy. But in Somerville's portrayal, Daphne frequently comes across as someone who was invited to a lot of rather fun-looking parties, only to sit at them looking tired and long-suffering.

The story is well-constructed, however, and writer Amy Jenkins does a good job of winding Daphne's two loves together, showing the ways in which they affect and complement each other.

It is worth noting how unusual it is to see a love triangle on television that takes place entirely between women. Outside The L Word (and even inside it), drama in lesbian TV relationships is usually created by one of the women falling for a man. Although Daphne and Gertrude are both bisexual, their husbands barely figure as part of the plot. The drama is also notable for centering entirely around the sexualities of middle-aged women — something very rarely seen on television.

This fictionalized portrayal of the real-life Daphne Du Maurier's sexuality is also worth considering in light of a tradition of biopics that have censored or edited out their subject's queer relationships. In recent years, this trend has seemed to improve, at least for gay men; Kinsey, Alexander, Capote and Infamous all acknowledged, to some extent, their central subject's queerness.

But these portrayals are still likely to be controversial. Michael Thornton, a writer for the conservative British newspaper The Daily Mail, wrote a piece denying that the real-life Du Maurier had any lesbian feelings, even as he quotes her referring to her "obsessions" for Ellen and Gertrude.

But Margaret Forster's biography of Du Maurier, on which Daphne is based, makes it hard to escape the conclusion that the author had feelings for women, though the claim that she had a sexual affair with Gertrude Lawrence may be more tenuous. However, if Daphne has indeed exaggerated its real-life heroine's queerness, then perhaps this can be seen partly as a counterbalance for all the years of biopics that would have ignored it entirely.

Daphne will premiere on Logo (with limited commercial breaks) on July 15th at 10 pm.

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