Title: Daphne before She Died
Author: Michael Allen
Page count: 226 (Amazon estimate)
Genre: Contemporary romance; mainstream women’s fiction
Price: $4.99 (£3.28 in UK)
Michael Allen’s first novel was published 49 years ago, in 1963. Since then he has written many more, in several genres and under several different pen names. Michael’s early books are now out of print, but he is gradually republishing them himself, in Kindle format. Here are some comments on his fiction from major review sources:
‘Absolutely first class’ The Bookseller
‘Solidly constructed’ New York Times Book Review
‘A pleasing narrative style’ Daily Mail
‘Beguiling entertainment’ Kirkus Reviews
‘Don’t miss it’ The Observer
Tell us about your book:
Daphne before She Died was first published in the UK as a trade paperback in 2002. Michael has now revised the book and given it a fresh title.
This novel is related in the first person by Robert Duval, an old friend of Daphne’s:
Daphne, before she died, made me promise to tell you this story. It’s the story of a secret love affair – one which nearly destroyed her life, but which made her intensely happy. It was what she thought about most, during her last days in the hospice.
When she was a respectable married woman of nearly forty, Daphne fell in love with a young man half her age. For the best part of a year, she conducted a reckless and passionate affair with him – one which put her constantly at risk of scandal and disgrace.
My mother, who was Daphne’s best friend, demanded my help in ensuring that all of this remained a secret. And why was my mother so desperate to protect Daphne? Because she deserved to be protected. During the second world war, Daphne had risked her life many times over, and had never betrayed her friends, even under torture. For such a woman, my mother and I would go a long way.
Here are some reviewer’s opinions:
From Kirkus Reviews on the original paperback edition: ‘Scandal, intrigue, midnight excursions to distant bedrooms, these are all here; yet the author’s fascination is with the nature of the obsession, bordering on lunacy, which drives two sets of lovers to take the most appalling risks. The couples seem fearless in the pursuit of their desires, almost as if the strength of their feelings renders them immune to discovery…. This is a fascinating account of the consuming power of sexual passion, and a remarkable insight into the claustrophobic world of traditional English public-school life.’
Jenny Haddon (who writes as Sophie Weston and Sophie Page): ‘It seems to me that in Robert, our hero narrator, the author has created a genuine original. Yet this is a story which is driven entirely by women: the rules of engagement are female, the decisions are female, the enabling alliances and stratagems are female. Interesting, evocative, tender, original (and profoundly politically incorrect), this is a book which stays with you long after you have closed it.’
How long did it take to write the book?
About six months.
What inspired you to write the book?
Good question. I originally wrote it as one of a series of books which were aimed at women readers. I also wanted to write something which reflected my own early love affairs without being directly autobiographical.
Talk about the writing process. Did you have a writing routine? Did you do any research, and if so, what did that involve?
I normally plan a novel with some care. Rough rule of thumb: one hour’s planning and research for each 1,000 words of text. Then I write the book (another one hour’s work for each 1,000 words), and then I revise it (a final one hour per 1,000 words). After that I leave it alone and let it make its own way in the world as best it can.
What do you hope your readers come away with after reading your book?
I hope they will come away with a sense of satisfaction at a life well lived. Daphne is in some ways not an admirable person – she does after all pursue a passionate extra-marital affair. But, as the book makes clear, it was her experiences in World War II which changed her whole attitude to life and love. Daphne was one of many brave English women who risked their lives to help the French Resistance movement; like many of those women, she was captured by the Gestapo, tortured, and nearly died. Her willingness to take risks, and her obsession with a younger man, are directly related to those dangerous years. And, with the help of her friends, she does escape disaster and she does recover her senses.
Where can we go to buy your book?
Daphne before She Died is available only in Kindle format, on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
Any other links or info you’d like to share?
From 2004 to 2007, Michael wrote a daily blog about books and publishing, The Grumpy Old Bookman. Michael has recently begun to revive this blog.
Excerpt from book:
Daphne, before she died, made me promise to tell you this story. It is the story of how, as a respectable married woman of nearly forty, she fell in love with a young man half her age. For the best part of a year, she conducted a secret but reckless affair with him – one which put her constantly on the edge of exposure, scandal, and disgrace.
You might think that this was simply an unfortunate episode of madness, something that happened a long time ago and is best forgotten. But that is not what Daphne wanted. She wanted her story to be put down on paper, for the benefit of the young, if you please.
The nature of the story is such that I have had to include an account of a separate but parallel love affair of my own. This was a juvenile infatuation, I suppose, but it was intense enough at the time, and it was consummated just as often, and with every bit as much passion, as was hers. These two affairs were in any case dangerously interlocked, each threatening to expose the other; and if I am confessing to Daphne’s sins, I can hardly shrink from confessing mine.
No harm can come from my telling you these stories now; but if it had not been for my promise, which I gave to a woman close to death, I would never have written a word.
Perhaps I had better explain at the outset that my mother was English, but my father was French. As a result, my brother and I were brought up to refer to our mother in the French way, as Maman.
Maman rang me one evening in September of the year 2000.
‘Daphne Bannister wants to see you,’ she said abruptly.
Maman never did hang about on the phone; she was always brusque to the point of being rude.
‘Daphne Bannister,’ I repeated thoughtfully. She was my mother’s oldest friend. ‘And what does she want to see me about?’
‘That’s what I asked her, but she just said she had a little job for you. I imagine it’s her will.’
‘Oh. Well, I’m always pleased to see Daphne. I’ll give her a ring.’
‘I’m afraid you won’t be able to reach her at the usual number. She’s not very well at the moment.’
‘Oh dear. Is it anything serious?’
‘Oh,’ said Maman vaguely, ‘she has the same problem as all the rest of us.’ By which she meant cancer – the disease which had eventually killed my wife and which Maman had already had one contest with. ‘She’s in the Manor hospice over at Langley.’
‘I see,’ I said slowly. ‘Is it terminal?’ This was not quite such a silly question as you might think. I gather that these days the hospices do have some patients who go home again.
‘Well, Daphne says it is, and I guess she must know…. Anyway, she wants to see you. She has good days and bad days, so you’re to ring before you set off. But don’t leave it too long.’
In fact, I went the very next day.
The Manor hospice at Langley occupies a building which was once the home of a Victorian poet called Denham – a man who was never very famous even in his own time, and is now wholly forgotten except by a few eccentrics such as myself. All that remains of him is a small plaque on the wall beside the front door.
I found Daphne in a sort of communal sun-room on the south side of the building. She was sitting in a comfortable chair, with her feet on a stool in front of her. A rug covered the lower half of her body, and she was having a little doze.
The nurse who had guided me to her announced me gently, and Daphne pulled herself slightly more upright in the chair. She was not too weak to do that.
‘Ah, Robair,’ she said, evidently quite pleased to see me.
And at this point, having explained about my French father, I should also explain about my own name.
I was christened Robert, and most of the world knows me by that name, as pronounced by the English. But my French relations naturally use the French pronunciation, and so do my English intimates, when they are pleased with me. When they are not pleased with me they revert to the hard-edged English version – Robert – spitting out the final T with some asperity; as a child I was never in any doubt when I had incurred my parents’ displeasure. In this book, I shall always use the phonetic spelling, to give you an insight into people’s reactions to me at any given time.
I kissed Daphne on the cheek, and was frankly rather dismayed to see how ill she looked and how waxy her skin was. But I tried not to let my reaction show. She was in any case a woman of nearly eighty, but it was a year or two since I had last seen her and I was shocked by the change in her appearance.
Unthinkingly, I asked how she was.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I should have done away with myself while I still had the strength. It would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.’
‘Nonsense,’ I protested.
‘Oh yes, it’s true…. Do you know the story about Albie?’
Albie was a long-dead schoolmaster whom we had both known at Follington.
‘No?’ I said. ‘What about him?’
‘Well, he was once addressing a group of sixth-formers, and somehow or other the talk got on to senile dementia. A wonderful red herring, of course.’ (Nominally Albie was a teacher of biology, but he was notoriously easy to sidetrack.) ‘Anyway, Albie said the trick was to bring people’s lives to a tactful conclusion before they got too completely gaga. In his own case, he said, he had made an arrangement with his wife, and when he got to the point where he was no use to anybody she was to take him down the garden and have an accident with a shotgun. Whereupon a voice from the back said, Hasn’t she left it a bit late, sir?’
We had a quiet chuckle about that, and then we talked about Albie for a while. And others. Caught up on some mutual gossip.
‘Well now,’ Daphne said, once we had broken the ice, ‘I’ve asked you to come and see me, Robair, because I have a little job for you.’
‘So I gathered.’
‘I want you to write my story.’
My mind went completely blank. But then, trying not to sound too dim, I said: ‘What particular story is that, Daphne?’
‘Why, the story of me and Pete, of course. What else?’
‘Ah,’ I said. Thoughtfully.
‘And then, of course, there is the story of your own passionate affair with Suzanne. In parallel.’
‘Ah yes,’ I said again. Even more thoughtfully.
And I went very quiet.
There were, of course, many stories that could have been told about Daphne Bannister. Stories of courage and self-sacrifice – heroism even. But apparently she wasn’t interested in any of that. No. It was the story of her love affair with Pete which now, at the very end of her life, was occupying her mind. And, once she had mentioned it, I can’t say that I was altogether surprised.
‘I want you to write an account of those two terms in Daubeny,’ she said. ‘The summer and Michaelmas terms particularly. You know more about that time than anybody. No one else could do it but you.’
There must have been a considerable pause, perhaps longer than I realised, because eventually she said: ‘You’re not saying much, Robair.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Because I’m thinking about it.’
‘It’s quite a long story. It’ll make a book.’
‘Do you think so?’
‘Oh yes. I’m sure of it.’
I was silent again, though I did look at her from time to time, and I could see that she was serious. Deadly serious. A dying woman, giving me instructions, in effect, and not about to take no for an answer.
‘There’s no one to sue,’ she said. ‘If that’s what your legal brain is worried about. And there’s no one left to be hurt by it, either. Ben’s dead.’ (Ben was her late husband.) Your wife, poor thing, can’t be upset and embarrassed by the fact that you once worshipped another – and it was, in any case, long before you married her. They’re all dead, and I soon will be too. You’re the only one left who knows the truth.’
She was right, of course. I didn’t even have to think about it to know that she was right. I was the only one left – apart from herself. True, Suzanne may still be alive, but she doesn’t count because we lost touch with her decades ago. Daphne never had any children; neither did Pete; and although I do have children they are not going to be disturbed by the revelation that I was once passionately in love with a French girl. So if I did write an account of Daphne’s great love affair, no one was going to feel hurt or betrayed. There was nobody here but us chickens.
‘Hmm,’ I said.
Seeing that I was still hesitating, Daphne proceeded to persuade me.
‘Write it up in the form of a book,’ she said, ‘and put a copy in the house library.’
By that she meant the library of Daubeny House in Follington School. And Follington, just in case you’ve never heard of it, is a public school some twelve miles south-west of Granborough. It’s co-educational now, but in the 1950s and ’60s it was a boys’ school exclusively, and Daubeny House is still a boys’ house. So what she was suggesting was somewhat extraordinary, to say the least. Extraordinary, but not unamusing.
‘And what,’ I asked her with a smile, ‘do you think the present housemaster would think of that?’
‘If he has any brains at all he would welcome it.’
‘Hmm,’ I said again. I wasn’t at all sure that the present housemaster actually would welcome a book which provided a lurid account of an affair between a previous housemaster’s wife and one of the senior boys. Not sure at all. Even in this enlightened and liberal age.
‘Education is the name of the game,’ said Daphne. ‘And if that isn’t educational then I don’t know what is.’
I think I was still behaving rather ungraciously, but then I am famous for it; always have been. A wiser and more considerate man than I would have gone along with Daphne’s proposal at once. Agreed to it readily. Said what a splendid idea it was. And then, after her death, he would have done nothing.
I, on the other hand, took the matter seriously. Which was perhaps not a smart move. And because I took it seriously I still hesitated. It seemed to me that Daphne’s affair with Pete was a matter best forgotten. Not to mention my own dalliance.
Daphne continued to argue the case. ‘There’s always something interesting about being in a spot where something happened,’ she said. ‘Don’t you think so? Take this place, for instance. Home of a famous poet, apparently. Can’t say I’ve ever heard of him, but this is where he lived. Very possibly where he had affairs. He may have screwed one of the maids, right here in this very room.’
‘Daphne,’ I said. ‘Please.’ There were two other elderly patients present in the room, and her voice was loud.
‘It’s true! He may have. We don’t know what he got up to. But if he had written it down then we would know. And we could look about us and say, this is where he proposed, and that is where he wrote his poem about sunsets, and next door was his library. So that’s what you can do for me, Robair. And for Pete and Suzanne. And for yourself. You can write it all down. And then, years later, when the boys in Daubeny read about it, they can identify where things happened. And they can say look, this is the very spot where Daphne first kissed him. This is the place where she first put her arms around him. And this is the room in which she finally became completely insane.’
At which point Daphne laughed. How she laughed. And for just one brief, painful moment, I saw a glimpse of the beautiful vibrant woman who had once lived inside that body. But was now long since departed.
‘Dust to dust, Robair. Ashes to ashes. But I would like to be remembered. And so I want you to write that story. And not when you retire, either. You must start as soon as I’m gone.’
Our talk was interrupted by the offer of a cup of tea, which we gratefully accepted.
I am ashamed to say that even when the tea lady departed, I still tried to present objections to Daphne’s proposal.
‘But, you know, Daphne, the truth is that nothing much happened.’
‘Nothing much happened?’ Daphne was amazed. ‘But it was the time when you and I were most alive. Did you ever again feel such overwhelming love and desire for a woman as you did then?’
I looked around, thankful that the only other occupants of the sun-room were asleep. ‘Well, no,’ I admitted.
‘Did you ever again have such marvellous sex? Don’t worry, I won’t tell your wife if I meet her.’
‘Er, well, it was pretty hot stuff, certainly.’
‘Hot stuff? It was fantastic! Sex when combined with passionate obsession and love is the most powerful combination in the world, Robair. We were on a permanent high, for months. You with your voluptuous, empty-headed little French girl and I with Pete.’
Still I didn’t say yes. Oh dear, what an awkward fellow I am. I just sat there, looking nervous.
‘The passion, Robair, that’s what you’ve got to convey! The sense that nothing else mattered except to see one’s loved one again. To possess him, hold him close. Or in your case, her. The readers won’t altogether believe it, of course. The young ones, I mean – the boys in Daubeny House. It’s like the idea that one’s parents had a sex life – it seems impossible to believe. But you must try, Robair, you must try. You must make the attempt to convey what we felt.’
A dying woman, making such a simple request. And even then I didn’t agree.
‘Come on, boy,’ said Daphne after a pause. ‘I’m running out of steam.’
At last I relented. ‘Of course, Daphne,’ I said. ‘If that is what you want, then that is what I will do.’
But I still wasn’t at all sure that it was a good idea.