Hilary and Jackie, (formerly titled A Genius in the Family) is the biography of the English cellist, Jacqueline du Pre' written by her siblings, Hilary and Piers du Pre. The book provides a detailed and compelling insight into the life of a staggeringly gifted but volatile musical talent. Jacqueline du Pre made her professional debut in 1961 aged 16, but her glittering career was plagued by self-doubt and cut short by multiple sclerosis when she was just 28. The disease took its cruel toll in the years that followed, leaving Jackie feeling frustrated, trapped and no longer able to express herself through the music she loved. She died in 1987, aged just 42. This biography reveals the isolation, vulnerability and dark, troubled private life behind Jackie's confident, charismatic public persona. It is a moving, frank and often shocking portrayal which sheds light on the cost of Jackie's genius to herself and to her family, a family that was constantly in awe of her and loved and supported her through everything.
The book alternates between the accounts of Piers and Hilary. Unlike his sisters, Piers did not become a musician, but Hilary and Jackie's life revolved around music from an early age. We are taken back to the beginning and Hilary explains how Jackie came to play the cello in the first place, after hearing it played on Children's Hour then woke up on her fifth birthday to find her first cello, which she referred to as "a whopping creature in my room!" Despite being a gifted flautist, Hilary's achievements would always be overshadowed by those of Jackie. Although Hilary is frank about the feelings of inferiority that she experienced when she compared herself to Jackie, her undeniable pride in her sister's achievements also shines through. It quickly becomes apparent that living with Jackie was not easy. It was a tortuous journey, fraught with conflicting emotions, glorious highs and crushing lows. In Piers' memoirs, we learn how difficult it must have been for him to live with the expectations that went with being part of a musical family and how he had to struggle to find his own path in life (he eventually became a pilot.) Hilary and Piers both seem to accept without question that their role in life was to support and protect Jackie so that her genius could flourish. Whilst it was moving to read of their devotion, it left me feeling rather uncomfortable. It seemed wrong that one individual should exert so much influence and power over an entire family. In spite of this unhealthy situation, it does seem that the du Pre family had a perfectly ordinary, warm family life outside of music and there are some lovely descriptions of the childhood games Jackie, Piers and Hilary shared and the family holidays they enjoyed.
Jacqueline du Pre comes across as a complicated character. Being from a very protected family, she clearly didn't find it an easy transition when her career took off and she was suddenly required to travel the world and fend for herself. Extracts from her many letters reveal a playful sense of humour, which no doubt helped her to survive in the unfamiliar territory. Jackie's relationship with Daniel Barenboim, pianist and conductor, is dealt with in some detail and it is clear that although they complemented each other perfectly in a musical sense, their marriage was problematic. Jackie's strong associations with the Elgar concerto throughout her career are explored fully, with reference to the extraordinary emotional insight she brought to the music and her own unique interpretations. In her later years, as her illness took hold, Jackie's personality seems to have changed dramatically, her sense of humour developing into a belligerence towards those close to her. Piers and Hilary refer to being on the receiving end of Jackie's cutting remarks and cruel accusations, but they are remarkably charitable and forgiving. At times I felt desperately sorry for Jackie when I read of how her illness robbed her of her career, but at other times she came across as ungrateful, self-centred and an extremely difficult person to be around. Like her siblings, as I read the book I found myself torn between different emotions, wondering how I would have coped in their situation. Would I have been so tolerant? I doubt it.
One of the most absurd revelations in the book is of Jackie's sexual relationship with Hilary's husband. Hilary describes how a mutual decision was reached between the three of them so that Jackie, who was going through a mental breakdown at the time, would be able to 'share' her husband. Hilary's insistence that this was done with her full consent as a way of making Jackie more emotionally strong does not ring true. Hilary comes across as incredibly naïve and deluded, not for one minute entertaining the idea that perhaps her husband was taking advantage of a mentally unstable young woman and that he got some kind of thrill from sleeping with the pair of them. It is a shocking example of how far she was prepared to sacrifice her own security for the sake of the sister she adored. This would have torn many families apart but Hilary expresses no bitterness. I certainly could not imagine being so loyal to a sister who had put me through so much emotional suffering.
The depth of Hilary's devotion towards Jackie is expressed in a very powerful description dealing with Jackie's final hours of life. This passage brought a lump to my throat. Hilary's ability to forgive and to be the rock for her sister until the very end is astonishing in the circumstances.
It may sound like a grim read and certainly some of the parts dealing with Jackie's mental breakdown and her multiple sclerosis make difficult reading, but there are many happy and amusing memories amongst the pages too. There are lots of anecdotes about Jackie's many adventures on the concert circuit and a lovely, romantic description of her wedding to Barenboim at the Western Wall in Jerusalem at the height of the Middle East conflict. I was particularly amused by a reference to a meeting with Princess Ann and Prince Charles, who were guests of honour at one of Jackie's early BBC performances. When Charles, who was only eight at the time, asked Jackie if he could have a go on her cello and promptly sat astride it, she snapped - "Don't do that to my cello......It's not a horse!"
This book is available new from Amazon sellers from £4.88 (paperback) with used copies starting at £0.01. It is a fascinating, unusual story which I found a gripping and emotionally-charged read. A few years ago the book was made into a film starring Emily Watson as Jackie, but there is so much more detail within these pages than on the screen. Whether or not you are a fan of classical music and of du Pre's work, I would recommend it.