Maurice Baring is one of those writers who, celebrated in life, quickly fell into oblivion after their demise. The Englishman, a close friend of Chesterton and Belloc, in addition to being one of the most brilliant Catholic authors of the early twentieth century, was widely appreciated by the public and critics both for his novels and for his essays. Recently however, after years of oblivion, his best works are being reprinted again.
Daphne Adeane is undoubtedly one of Baring’s most significant novels. The book, first published in 1926, appears to be a sentimental drama, but it also has a strong religious core that emerges in the spiritual quest of the female protagonist.
Despite some flaws, the formula manifested by Daphne Adeane, which echoes that of the best works of Ford Madox Ford, was later taken up, with some innovations, by other Catholic writers such as Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited and in the Sword of Honor trilogy, and Graham Greene in The End of the Affair.
The story, set around the time of the First World War, opens on the young parliamentarian Michael Choyce who, after the painful conclusion of his clandestine relationship with Hyacinth Wake, decides to marry Fanny Weston, the charming daughter of a diplomat. If at first all seems to go well between the two, over time the young woman realizes that her husband does not really love her: Michael still dwells on the memory of Hyacinth and not even the birth of two children is sufficient to put things right. In the second part of the novel the roles are reversed and this time it is Fanny, disillusioned with the marriage, who no longer feels anything for Michael; the latter, in the meantime, realizing the serious mistake made, feels for the first time a sincere affection for his wife. The barrier of silence that is created between the two only further weakens a bond on the verge of collapse. Thus, between ups and downs, the story continues until the unexpected happy ending, marked by a miraculous conversion and an unforeseen reconciliation.
Around the couple there are numerous friends and acquaintances, but it is above all the memory of a certain Daphne Adeane, deceased wife of a City tycoon, that exerts on them – in particular on Fanny, who resembles the woman – a strange but significant influence. The story of Daphne, a deeply Catholic Creole who lived with her family in the splendid Seyton mansion, is revealed to the protagonist and to the reader little by little through the testimonies of the writer Leo Dettrick, of the doctor Francis Greene and of the many who have had the opportunity to know her in life and to appreciate her extraordinary gifts. Although her name already appears in the first chapter, it is only from the middle of the novel that the ghost of the woman acquires consistency, and that the reminiscences about her begin to juxtapose to form a clear image (destined in any case to remain contradictory, the inevitable outcome of stories that are not always perfectly in agreement). The mysterious presence of Daphne then becomes an instrument of divine grace capable of influencing the choices of a resigned Fanny.
In the end, in fact, the young woman is unfaithful to Michael, giving herself to a man she loves and by whom she is loved with equal intensity. Just when all seems lost, following a conversation with a priest, Father Rendall, she converts to that Catholic Church that she had always rejected.
Her story, amidst unexpected and sudden changes of course, confirms what Baring argued in the very first lines of the novel, when it is emphasized that, between the drama of life and that of the stage, there is the profound difference that in the first the decisive details acquire importance only after a long time. The painting depicting Daphne, observed casually during the exhibition in which she meets Michael, thus becomes for Fanny the most evident sign of a God who has love as a law and who would never abandon his child in hopeless pain.