Of all the 13-year-old white girls to wash up on a newly deserted island, Daphne is about the best you can hope for. Maybe the gods are looking out for Mau, after all.
Nation is as much about a light-skinned European girl as it is about the dark-skinned island boy. We only mention her second because the novel mentions her second, even though their stories are happening at the same time (and trying to read two different pages simultaneously might cause an eyeball to pop). So who is this girl?
Well, first thing to notice is that she has a lot of different names. Her birth name is Ermintrude Fanshaw, which she hates: "She hated the name Ermintrude. It was the trude really" (3.61). The mutineers meanly call her "princess," and the islanders call her "ghost girl." She calls herself Daphne. Why? "She'd always liked the name" (3.101). That's good enough reason for us, so that's what we'll call her too.
Still, it's worth a quick look at her other names. The mutineers' use of "princess" is ironic, given that she actually does become a princess when her father is king. Instead of being the pretty-pretty princess type the mutineers try to make her out to be, she becomes a fair and honest ruler, which takes that irony to extreme. (Of course, since they're both dead, they probably don't care.)
As for ghost girl—well, she's a foreigner to Mau and his people, who call white explorers trousermen, thinking, at the extreme, that they're not even "proper human beings!" (4.174). You can thank Ataba for that lovely sentiment. He also calls them "unbaked people" (4.176), implying they're incomplete somehow. The thing is, Daphne feels that way—incomplete, half-done—when she first arrives on the island, but she quickly learns her purpose and place (and it's not in the kitchen).
So how does Daphne transition from an unbaked ghost girl into a woman of power? It's all in her education—and we don't mean reading, writing, and arithmetic.
During her first few days on the island, Daphne frets that she's learned no useful skills. "If only she'd been taught properly!" she wails (3.63). Knowing how to curtsy and cross-stitch doesn't help one bit when you're shipwrecked on a tropical island.
Oh the other hand, her education did teach her at least one invaluable lesson: manners. It sounds silly, but her manners and courtesy help her communicate patiently with Mau and all the islands residents. It's a good thing she paid attention in lady-class: "[Daphne] was always superstitious about remembering useful things she had been told. [...] You would be bound to need it one day. It was a test the world did to make sure you were paying attention" (6.61).
We'd hate to see what would happen to a lady with no manners if she were to end up shipwrecked. We're guessing that Shark Word would come in handy.
With manners as her foundation, Daphne does learn a few more practical skills: making beer, stitching wounds, setting bones, dying and coming back to life. Useful girl to have around, right? On the island, she learns to value what she can do, not just how she looks: "Here I'm not some sort of doll. I have a purpose" (15.51). It's all in a day's work for a woman of power on a tropical island.
Almost all these skills come from Daphne's time being mentored by Cahle at the Woman's Place. Most of the skills involved luring a husband: "It was like being in a Jane Austen novel, but one with far less clothing" (9.82). In other words, not much different than what Daphne would be taught back home.
But Daphne's not really interested in boys though, or getting married and having kids: husbands "seemed like a lot of work," and, after watching Cahle give birth, "[s]he was certain that if she ever wanted children she'd buy some ready-made" (6.84). Near the end of the book, Daphne spends some time chastely observing Mau's muscular back and the way the sun shimmers off his glistening brown skin, but she's mostly focused on educating herself and finding her purpose in life. In other words—just as this book is about Mau growing up and becoming a man, it's about Daphne growing up and becoming a woman.
Another thing she and Mau have in common: hearing voices. Mau thinks that girls "magically knew things" (5.122), it seems like, in Daphne's case, that's actually accurate. When Cahle is about to give birth, Daphne has no clue what to do. (We think maybe it involves boiling lots of water?)
And then, suddenly, she does: "Here came another thought, as if it had been lying in wait: This is what you do..." (6.15)
We would just chalk it up to instincts taking over, except that these voices keep speaking to her. And less like the Grandfathers, which say things that could very well be inside Mau's own head, these voices seem to be coming from an outside source of intelligence. They're also surprised they're even being heard: "Our voices are weak, but you, a trouserman, heard our struggling silence! How?" (9.48).
Well, maybe because Daphne isn't the type of person to hear only what she wants to hear. It's those cursed manners coming into play again: Daphne's actually listening. The voices tell her that they belong to the Grandmothers. Why Grandmothers? "Old men get confused and dead men don't notice the turning of the world. The world must turn" (9.61)—so it's left to the women to change the world. Whatever name she goes by, Daphne is just the lady—and woman—to do it.
One final thing about Daphne: in case you haven't figured it out already, she's no wilting English rose. She consistently shows bravery and determination from the moment she shipwrecks on the island. First, she tries to shoot Mau (okay, that was a mistake caused by misconceptions about island people, but still...). Then, she acts as a midwife to Cahle. Heck, she even dies to save Mau. She poisons Foxlip, smashes Polegrave in the face with a bowl, and amputates a wounded man's leg.
We have to agree with her when she says, "[My family] might be pigheaded and stupid, but we do fight" (9.93). If we ever find ourselves shipwrecked on a deserted island, we definitely want the pasty white English girl on our side. The sailors can stay take their chances with the sharks.Daphne's Timeline