Daphne and Daphne

My nod to International Women’s Day 2023 comes in the form of noting two women named Daphne.

The first is the original Daphne, a figure from Greek mythology. Not important enough to be a goddess, she was a type of nymph associated with freshwater structures, such as wells, streams and brooks. Her story is certainly a woman’s story. Determined to be independent, Daphne wanted to stay single and untouched by a man for the entirety of her life. Unfortunately, she was beautiful, and even worse, Apollo wanted her. In one version of this tale, Eros, punishing Apollo for his hubris, speared Apollo with a golden arrow, making him desire Daphne. To protect her from Apollo’s clutches, the river god Paneus transformed Daphne into a tree. A linguistic aside: In English, the type of tree that Daphne becomes is called a laurel tree, and in Greek, the word for laurel is the same as Daphne.

Was Daphne happy and fulfilled being a tree? That, we don’t know as Daphne’s storyline ends there. From versions and adaptions written by men, this is Apollo’s tragic story. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the moral is the lesson Apollo learns about his haughtiness. Daphne is left in the dust, a conduit for the man’s (or god’s) story. Ovid’s version also has Daphne being pierced by Eros’s lead arrow to make her repel Apollo – that is, she loses her agency and her desire to be independent from men. I’m waiting for a feminist scholar to take up the perils of this Daphne.

The other Daphne is du Maurier. You probably guessed that. The author of modern classics Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and The Scapegoat was only on my radar as a novelist until I read Margaret Forster’s biography. Du Maurier was also a scriptwriter and film producer, eventually owning a production studio, none of which were easy feats for women in post-war Britain or America. She was also the breadwinner, earning a great deal more than her army general husband – who was portrayed by Dirk Bogarde in the film A Bridge Too Far.

Yet, du Maurier was not just another woman of extraordinary accomplishments bucking the social gender-defined trends. For me, she was also an everywoman of sorts. According to Forster, du Maurier battled with depression throughout her life and was at its worst towards the end when it was accompanied by anxiety. Women are more likely than men to experience depression and anxiety. Women are also more likely to speak about these conditions and to be prescribed medication. Between 1977-81, du Maurier suffered from such a severe bout of depression she couldn’t write. She was trapped in a cycle of being too depressed to write while believing that some inspiration to write would take her out of her depression. She was prescribed Halcion (a benzodiazepine). That medication heightened her anxiety, which du Maurier felt was caused by a lack of creativity. For the anxiety she was put on the sleeping pill Mogadon, which triggered a deeper depression, for which she was given Prothiaden (a tricyclic antidepressant). After a severe panic attack accompanied by spells of not eating, she was taken to hospital. She wrote about it in verse:

“They said it was not my body but my brain,

Had ceased to function in its normal way,

So back to hospital I went again, Doctors

Would find out what had gone astray.

A week of tests. Results? I am not told, but

Appetite has gone, has ceased to be. The sight

Of food appals me, hot or cold, the character sitting here

No longer me. I walk around the block, then

Come inside, no reason to exist or to reside upon

This planet here, myself has fled to unknown starts

Far lower than this earth.

Dear God, did you intend this from my birth?”

These Daphnes shared more than a name and an undaunted spirit. They both struggled in ways clearly indicative of their womanhood.

Schjerfbeck, really

Since the last International Women’s Day, I’ve blogged about, among other things, the historical violence against suffragettes, the exclusion of women from medical studies and the alarming rise in femicide. At the risk of appearing to downplay the plight of women, I’m taking a more positive approach to this year’s holiday, for which no one anywhere gets the day off work.

Last autumn I went to the Royal Academy of Arts in London to see their exhibition on the works of painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946). Who? Exactly – unless you’re from Finland. Not being from Finland, I hadn’t heard of her until the exhibition came along and received thunderous reviews in the press. The Guardian referred to Schjerfbeck as ‘Finland’s Munch.’ Other papers described her techniques in terms of Frans Hals and Velazquez and mentioned her being influenced by her contemporaries Cezanne and Picasso. All a rather blokey affair.

Yet, Schjerfbeck’s works have also been described as realism and expressionism, as haunting and melancholic and as pensive and intelligent. I went to the exhibition with these gender-neutral descriptors in mind, determined to judge the works devoid of comparisons to the male masters. Here are some examples of the paintings that moved me and made me feel that I had made a worthwhile discovery:

I especially liked the self-portraits made over time, drawing attention to the inevitable changes nature puts us through.

I suppose I could have written about this exhibition closer to the time, but as the weeks and months passed what seemed novel and intriguing simply become less so.  I wonder now if my mind had subconsciously compartmentalize Schjerfbeck’s paintings as being like this man’s and that man’s, and that I was no better than the arts reviewers in the newspapers. Asking myself to unlearn years of exposure to the male masters may have been a tall order. Yet, I’m glad I’m reacquainting myself with Schjerfbeck’s works and for having discovered many more of them online – she lived a long life and was highly prolific.

For those who say International Women’s Day serves little purpose and that men have the other 364 days of the year, without it, I probably wouldn’t have given Schjerfbeck a second chance. Happy International Women’s Day 2020!