Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 705
Daniel Martin is, ostensibly, an autobiographical novel that portrays the life of a middle-aged British playwright who has betrayed himself and his craft by marrying the wrong woman and by selling out to Hollywood as a highly successful screenwriter. In a sense, the novel is the script, or reinscription, of Daniel Martin’s existence: Called to the deathbed of Anthony Mallory, a friend whom he has not seen in many years, Daniel is forced to confront a land and a past he had formerly forgotten and repressed. Through a variety of cinematic techniques grafted onto the writing of the novel (flashback, cuts, angled shots, rewrites), the reader sees Daniel as he sees himself—at times narcissistically, at other times with a seeming objectivity that compels him to refer to himself in the third person. In this way, Daniel recounts his Edenic existence as a minister’s son in the village of his youth, where he gains and loses his first love, Nancy Reed. He reconstructs his days at Oxford, particularly one day when, while boating, he and his fiancee’s sister, Jane, discover the body of a dead woman in the marshy reeds of the river. The trauma of the event leads to a declaration of love between Dan and Jane—and a onetime tryst—but immediately afterward, Jane insists that they marry the people to whom they are engaged and that their “affair” be buried forever. Dan’s marriage to Nell, while he struggles for success as a dramatist, is a disaster; his divorce from her, the reaction of Jane and Anthony Mallory to Dan’s play, The Victors, a thinly disguised rehearsal of their Oxford years, and an unsuccessful affair with a woman who, later, commits suicide, precipitate his departure from England, Nell, and their daughter, Caro, for a new life as a Hollywood screenwriter. Dan has a number of sporadic and temporary relationships, and in the “present” of the novel, he is deeply involved with a young British actress Jenny McNeil. Their affair, represented as almost a parody of the crise de quarante stereotype in which the older, middle-aged father figure seeks a daughter who will restore his youth, is already in decline at the beginning of the novel, when Daniel receives a phone call from Jane asking him to return to England to see Anthony in his last hours.
Dan’s return is a catalyst for a number of related events: his decision to turn away from Hollywood screenplays and to write a novel, his reunion with his daughter, Caro, and most important, the rekindling of his relationship with Jane. As a final wish, Anthony (who, hours later, will commit suicide by jumping from the balcony of his hospital room) asks Daniel to unbury Jane’s “former self”—the self which Anthony believes has been lost in their marriage. In his desire to respect Anthony’s “last will,” and with an increasing sense that he would be serving his widow as a friend by doing so, Dan invites Jane with him on a weeklong journey down the Nile which he takes in order to conduct research on Horatio Herbert Kitchener, the British war hero, who is the subject of Dan’s next screenplay. On this symbolic journey, Dan and Jane rediscover each other as they research their own past while delving into Kitchener’s history and the more ancient history of Egypt. They decide (Jane, unwillingly) to take a detour on their return to England by going to the ancient city of Palmyra, in Syria. As Egypt was a lush, tropical Eden for the voyagers, so Palmyra is a wasteland representing the loss that Dan believes has characterized both his and Jane’s lives of misplaced opportunities. In this most unromantic setting, Jane and Dan renew their love and acquaintance; they return to England engaged. In the novel’s final scenes, Dan explains the turn of events to Jenny McNeil, breaks off their affair, and gazes, tellingly, at Rembrandt’s self-portrait in an art gallery, watching the painter’s eyes which “seemed to follow Dan . . . as many years before . . . his father had once unwittingly terrified him by insisting that Christ’s eyes followed . . . wherever you went, whatever you did, they watched.”