It was while enjoying the wafts of heady perfume coming from the daphne shrub in the garden (see above – and yes, I am transitioning into Fotherington-Thomas) that I began to muse on all that the Daphnes of various sorts have given us, and what a pity it is that it is not a popular name now, being down at 496 on the list of names chosen for girls in Britain in 2015.
The first known holder of the name would surely have founded the #MeToo movement if she could. The nymph Daphne was a creature of springs, wells, and brooks. But her great beauty attracted the attention of the god Apollo. As she fled from his unwelcome approach she called for help from her father, the river god Ladon. Just before Apollo could catch her, Ladon transformed her into a laurel bush. The Roman poet Ovid describes the moment: ‘A heavy numbness seized her limbs, then bark closed over her breast, her hair turned to leaves, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy. Only her shining beauty remained.’ Like her sisters after her, she paid a high price for resisting the advances of a powerful male.
But how different from the home life of our next two Daphnes!
Daphne du Maurier was the imagination behind some of the most thrilling narratives the cinema has given us, as the author of the novel Rebecca and of the short stories ‘The Birds’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’. She was also the reluctant recipient of a damehood, only agreeing to go to the investiture to please her grandchildren, and never using her title. Despite accusations of plagiarism and rumours of bisexuality (was it these that led English Heritage to turn down an application for a blue plaque on her Hampstead home?) her stock remains high: she is that rare writer who manages to combine the sensationalist genre with a literary style.
Altogether less controversial, Daphne Oxenford is the defining voice of my distant childhood: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’ Repeated daily at 1.45, this introduction to Listen with Mother heralded fifteen minutes of song and story on the wireless that never failed to entrance. But Daphne Oxenford was more than just a voice: her television appearances read like a roll-call of the nation’s best loved programmes: Coronation Street, To the Manor Born, The Sweeney, Dr Who, Midsomer Murders, and All Creatures Great and Small, to name but a few.
Finally, full circle to the daphne in my garden. In one of my gardening books, daphne was described as being difficult to grow, but as I struggle to make even the most robust plants survive, I figured I had nothing to lose. And how that ‘difficult’ reputation (ring any bells?) has been disproved! I must have planted it about fifteen years ago, and I haven’t done a thing to it since (in fact, it has suffered regular assaults from the prop for the clothes line falling into it), yet it flowers several times a year, smells heavenly, seems immune to slugs and insects, and as an evergreen it is a reminder in the middle of winter that all is not lost. Oh, and it’s poisonous . . .