Romance with Daphne du Maurier: Revisiting the Ruins of Englishness in
- Author: Kim Youngjoo
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 19, Issue3, p5~44, 31 Dec 2011
Until recently, the tag of romance novelist and regional writer has been attached to Daphne du Maurier, leading to the critical neglect of the generically varied and discursively complicated nature of her writing. This paper aims to place du Maurier’s
Rebeccain the tradition ofEnglish country house fiction and argue that du Maurier renders the pastoral Cornish landscape as a site wherein mythical Englishness is given a concrete, palpable form, only to disclose the phantasmagoric nature of such Englishness. In Rebecca, the romantic fantasy of Englishness is disturbed when Manderley, the epitome of the prestigious authority and culture of the past, becomes a site wherein contradictory and interrelated female desires and feminine sexuality are contested and negotiated. The literary elevation of the domestic England in Rebeccaproduces a troublesome realignment of sexual politics at home, which is part of redefining and reshaping Englishness. The intimate and desirable landscape of Manderley is intertwined with the treacherous landscape of a psychology that projects contradictory ideals of femininity, unburies forbidden, unruly female desires, and thereby destabilizes the space of feminine, domestic Englishness both in fascination and in terror.
the English country house , Englishness , femininity , sexuality , romance , Daphne du Maurier , Rebecca
Daphne du Maurier, a prolific British woman writer of the twentieth century, has long enjoyed national and international fame, particularly for her bestselling
Rebecca.1 This novel, first published in 1938 and the most famous of du Maurier’s works, was soon adapted for stage and film and has fascinated readers and viewers alike. It went through twenty-eight printings in four years in Britain alone. It has never been out of print since its first publication (Beauman 49). The novel was dramatized by du Maurier for stage in 1939, and the stage version ran for 380 performances in London’s West End after a first performance in Manchester in 1940 and went successfully on provincial tours throughout the duration of the Second World War (D’Monte 142). The Oscar winning success of Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Rebeccain 1940 further fueled the enthusiasm of a mass audience. The novel was again dramatized in 1978 for a BBC TV series, contributing to the revival of the cult of the English country house in postwar Britain.2 Du Maurier is also known as a writer whodiscovered a romantic geography in Cornwall, the far west region of England. She describes the rustic landscape of Cornwall by the sea with a strong sense of place and presents it as a territory of the imagined Englishness of the past. In recent British culture, Fowey, a small town in Cornwall that London-born du Maurier adopted as her own, is now known as “du Maurier Country.” The Daphne du Maurier Festival of Arts and Literature, established in 1996, attracts literary tourists into the region, Menabilly in particular, a mansion in Cornish woods that is known to be transmuted into Manderley in Rebecca.3 The enduring popularity of du Maurier and her novels is suggestive of her status as a classic cultural icon in the fields of publishing industry, media practices, and English heritage industry. Sally Beauman aptly observes that Rebeccahas “passed from bestseller, to cult fiction, to cultural classic status”(50).
The overwhelming commercial success and immediate appeal to the wide readership of
Rebecca, however, are not matched by literary critical attention. Until recently the patronizing tag of romance novelist and parochially regional writer has been attached to du Maurier, leading to the critical neglect of the generically varied and discursively complicated nature of her writing. Superficially read, Rebeccais a cliché-ridden love story in which a young, innocent, faithful woman triumphs over an older, immoral, promiscuous woman by winning a man’s love and redeeming him from a treacherous past. A young, plain, and poor woman who is the narrator of the novel marries a rich aristocrat widower, Maximilian de Winter, and faces the dark secret of his past. Manderley, the stately ancestral home of the de Winters, becomes a house of secrets where the young bride is haunted by the ghostly presence of the first wife until she discovers that Maxim murdered Rebeccato vindicate the authority and the respectability of the old aristocracy threatenedby her sexual and moral licentiousness. This version, with echoes of fairy tales such as Cinderellaand Bluebeardas well as Jane Eyre, emphasizes the elements of the very genre to which reviewers and critics consigned the novel to -- Gothic romance. On publication, Rebeccawas promoted to booksellers as an “exquisite love story” with a “brilliantly created atmosphere of suspense”(qtd. in Beauman 49). Upon her death in 1989, du Maurierwas still hailed as “the last of the great romantic writers” and Rebeccaas “the archetypal romantic novel”( Daily Telegraph, 20 April 1989; Guardian, 20 April 1989. qtd. in Light 158).
From a close reading, however,
Rebeccafails any attempts to consign the novel to a neat category of genre studies; it blurs the category of romance with elements of fairy tales, the Gothic, the family saga; it has elements of crime-novels, mysteries, and possibly ghost-stories; it can also be read in the lines of the tradition of the country house literature as well as the novel of domesticity and Bildungsroman. Despite her sophisticated engagement with various generic forms of the literary past, du Maurierwas not taken seriously until recently because she is mainly regarded as a popular authoress of romance for women. Considering the enduring popularity and cultural significance of Rebecca, du Maurier deserves a further critical revision for a place inliterary criticism and in wider cultural concerns.4 In Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism, Alison Light acknowledges generically subversive strains in Rebeccathat involve “a reinterpretation of the idea of the woman’s novel”(159). Light redeems du Maurier as a writer who resists modern cultural connotations of the genre shaped between the warsand who writes “a better class of romance”(164). She argues that du Maurier returns to the romantic writing of the nineteenth century and “re-stage[s] a literary romanticism” by reviving the “language of sensibility” with “the primacy given to her protagonists’ thoughts and desires, to the idea of a tumultuous inner life and to a language of a developing selfhood”(165). From a materialist feminist stance, Light examines thoroughly du Maurier’s imaginative terrain of romance and offers one of the most inspirational studies of du Maurier’s writing.
Light’s study of du Maurier in
Forever Englandtakes on great significance as it studies middle-class women writers’ share in reflecting and creating a literary response to modernity in Britain in the interwar years and paves a way for a further extended critical concern in redrawing the map of English literary culture with a focus onwomen’s domestic novels of the interwar years. In The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism, Nichola Humble rehabilitates the term “middlebrow” fiction as applied to the body of literature, mostly written and consumed by women, that dominated the publishing market in the first half of the twentieth century but was neglected by literary critics and historians. Noting the nexus between gender, genre, and class, Humble observes that the feminine middlebrow in the period is “also very much the literature of the middle classes, paying a meticulous attention to their shifting desires and self-images”(3). Humble further argues that the feminine middlebrow, a product of the interwar years, renders a “powerful force in establishing and consolidating, but also in resisting, new class and gender identities”(3). She contends that the feminine middlebrow acquired a generic identity of its own that is established through a complex interplay between texts and the desires and self-images of its readers. Although Humble does not include du Maurier in the discussion of the body of middlebrow writing, the issues involved in the reassessment of the middlebrow women’s fiction during the interwar years offer valuable insights in examining du Maurier’s contestation of conflicting categories of female sexuality in the domestic space of the country house in Rebecca, a novel that certainly displays the generic hybridity.
It is my purpose to place du Maurier’s
Rebeccain the tradition of the English country house fiction and discuss its critical engagement in the discursive operation that produces imaginary Englishness in the domestic space of femininity. I argue in this paper that du Maurier is a writer who has brought alive the topology of the far west region of England through a deliberate sense of place and rendered the pastoral Cornish landscape as a site wherein mythical Englishness is given a concrete, almost palpable form, only to disclose the phantasmagoric nature of such Englishness. Profoundly atmospheric settings and precise descriptions of place in Rebeccamake Manderley one of the most haunting, fascinating sites where the national fantasy of Englishness unfolds itself in a mixture of desire and terror. In the nameless heroine’s narrative in Rebecca, Manderley is romanticized as the epitome of the prestigious authority and the respectable order of the past. The romantic and mystical fantasy of Englishness of the past, however, is disturbed when Manderley becomes a site wherein contradictory female desires and feminine sexuality are contested and negotiated. While du Maurier’s embrace of the symbolic configuration of the English rural landscape reflects a socially conservative inward-looking turn in national imagination during the interwar years, the literary elevation of the domestic in Rebeccaproduces a troublesome realignment of sexual politics at home, which is part of redefining and reshaping Englishness. The intimate and desirable landscape of Manderley is intertwined with the treacherous landscape of the psychology that projects contradictory ideals of femininity, unburies forbidden female desires, and thereby violently destabilizes the space of femininity and Englishness both in fascination and in terror.
1Du Maurier’s novels have been translated into many languages and her stories have been adapted into renowned films including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963) and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). Many of her works were continuously dramatized for television, radio, and stage, all of which have enhanced her fame to a global reputation. She still remains one of Britain’s most popular novelists. The recent BBC reading campaigns, the Big Read in 2003 and Women’s Watershed Fiction in 2004, proveRebecca’s continuing popularity (Hansen 336-37). 2It was also adapted to the screen for the U.S. TV viewers in 1962 for NBC and again in 1997 for Masterpiece Theater on PBS. 3According to Margaret Forster’s biography, Daphne du Maurier found Menabilly, a landed estate in Cornwall, in the late 1920s and, fascinated with its rugged, inhospitable landscape, she wrote to the absent landowner and asked permission to walk in the grounds. Many years later, du Maurier acquired the lease of the house and restored the derelict mansion, making it her home for more than twenty years. As for Manderley, the house in Rebecca, two different country houses, Menabilly in Cornwall and Milton in Northamptonshire, provide the inspiration. Du Maurier explains that the site and the landscape of Manderley“was very much where Menabilly stands, but the interior, the rooms, the gallery, the ‘feel’ was . . . Milton,” a grand country house where she stayed as a child during the First World War (Enchanted Cornwall 19). 4Public interest in du Maurierhas continued since her death in 1989, as proven in a series ofpublications of her biography, including Judith Cook’s Daphne: APortrait of Daphne du Maurier(London: Bantam, 1991), Margaret Forster’s Daphne du Maurier(London: Arrow, 1994), and FlaviaLeng’sDaphne du Maurier: A Daughter’s Memoir (Edinburgh and London: Mainstream Publishing, 1994). Alison Light offered the pioneering analysis of du Maurier and established du Maurier’s work as a worthwhile subject for critical discussion in the 1980s. Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik also contributed to the study of du Maurier by presenting a fully extended reading of her Gothic fiction. Recently Ina Harberman considered du Maurier’s novels as middlebrow fiction that reveals the process of shaping mythical Englishness through memory and fantasy.
RebeccaNotebook,” du Maurier lays out her original plans for the novel. Du Maurier began to write Rebeccawhen she was stationed as an army wife to her husband in Alexandria, Egypt. “Homesick for Cornwall,” she wants to write “a novel set in [her] beloved Cornwall”(3), and the novel is to be “set in the present day, say the mid-twenties, and it would be about a young wife and her slightly older husband”(4). Du Maurier imagines that Maxim, named Henry then, takes the young wife to “a beautiful house that had been in his family for generations” and wonders if the young wife is “jealous of the first wife”: “Seeds began to drop. A beautiful home . . . a first wife . . . jealousy . . . a wreck, perhaps at sea, near to the house”(ellipses original; 4).Whereas the remarks align the plot of the novel with that of Jane Eyreand Bluebeardas intertexts, they foreground strongly the rural landscape of Cornwall, which embodies a sense of the mythical present for du Maurier. 5 “The RebeccaNotebook” shows that the strong sense of place with a longing for a familiar and yet inaccessible landscape of England is a crucial property of the novel from the very moment of its conception.
Rebecca, the narrator’s romance with the aristocratic Maxim develops with her psychological investment in the fantasy of Manderley, a grand estate that is known to have been in the possession of the de Winters “since the Conquest”( Rebecca16). The courtship and the proposal scenes at the beginning of the novel unfold around the figure of Manderley. In the south of France, Maxim describes for her Manderley in a language that provokes the romanticized English bucolic landscape:
Here the English gentleman’s sense of homeis captured as intensely sensuous experiences and preserved in forms of memory. The nostalgic remembrance of the pastoral land is symptomatic of the national imagination during the interwar years when cultural discourses on national identity dwelt on a surge of sentimental and nostalgic celebrations of the English countryside and the traditions and values of old rural England. In
The Country and the City, Raymond Williams notes the discursive operation of national imagination in which the Victorian rural idyll serves as a compensatory fantasy of the homely England: “From about 1880 there was. . . a marked development of the idea of England as ‘home,’ in that special sense in which ‘home’ is a memory and an ideal . . . .[M]any [of the images of the ‘home’] are of an idea of rural England: its green peace contrasted with the tropical or arid places of actual work; its sense of belonging, of community, idealised by contrast with the tensions of colonial rule and the isolated alien settlement”(281). As Alison Light argues, Britain in the interwar years underwent a “move away from formerly heroic and officially masculine public rhetorics of national identity”and shifted its selfimage to “an Englishness at once less imperial and more inwardlooking, more domestic and more private-- and . . . more ‘feminine’”(8). Amidst such national quests in search of Englishness, the idea of pastoral England was given particular attention as a bulwark against the permanent sense of crisis and the threat of war in the 1930s. Rural England in discourses of the English national imagination served as a still center, the origin of English culture, and the authentic ground for unifying the English collective consciousness.
Maxim’s romantic recollection of Manderley in
Rebeccais suggestive of the discursive operation of the myth of pastoral England in which the English country house serves as an essential expressive sign of homely England. The pastoral language in his act of remembrance is in sharp contrast with the banal, unromantic language used in the proposal scene. Maxim proposes marriage over hotel breakfast in Monte Carlo as ifoffering her a business deal: “[T]he choice is open to you. Either you go to America with Mrs. Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me”(51). While such a proposal leads the narrator (and the reader) to question the nature of the proposal and the authenticity of the romance itself, 6 it also suggests the significance of Manderley at the heart of the courtship and marriage. It is only after the narrator pictures herself to be the lady of Manderley that she realizes that she will be “Mrs. de Winter”: “Going down to the lodge with a basket on my arm, grapes and peaches for the old lady who was sick. Her hands stretched out to me, ‘The Lord bless you, Madam, for being so good,’ and my saying ‘Just send up to the house for anything you want.’ Mrs. de Winter. I would be Mrs. de Winter”(54). As Ina Habermann points out, this vision is clearly “shaped by stereotypes of an English heritage” and implies “the narrator’s gradual investment in and exploration of upper-class Englishness”(179).
Rebecca, while reanimating the Cornish landscape so palpably and vividly, presents Manderley as an emblem of mythical Englishness. Although “the Rebeccanotebook” testifies that the “beautiful house” in Rebeccais given an immediate association with historical houses -- Menabilly and Milton, Manderley in the final published version is dislocated in the expectations of realism. As Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik note, the “geographical vagueness” in the novel is “suggestive of a desire to create a ‘dream’ text rather than a realist one”(101). “The RebeccaEpilogue” in the original notebook places Manderley into the passing of time by describing the house and the estate sold to entrepreneurs and turned into a country club with a golf course and a cocktail lounge ( The Rebecca Notebook29-30), which is close to the actual history that befell many stately houses in interwar and postwar Britain. Those lengthy passages are curtailed in the final published version of the novel in which Manderley is completely destroyed by fire and transformed into a place of the past and the memory. “The RebeccaNotebook” also shows that the original epilogue merged into the prologue of the published Rebecca. Thus the novel begins with the narrator’s nightmarish dream in which she visits Manderley in ruins and then launches into retrospect. The change in the structure of the novel puts forward the nostalgic longing for the lost place as well as the contrast between the past and the present. At the beginning of the novel, the de Winters have already been in exile abroad for quite a while after the destruction of Manderley, living in a series of dull, impersonal hotels in Europe and painfully acknowledging that “Manderley is no more”( Rebecca4).
In the middle-aged resignation and perpetual exile, the de Winters, the “wandering English”(
The Rebecca Notebook21), pursue fetishes of Englishness. He desperately waits for “the result of a cricket match played many days ago”( Rebecca6); she avidly reads articles from outdated newspapers and magazines on the English countryside -- on manor houses, deer-hunting, hound puppies, and the state of the crops and cattle, “breath[ing] the air of England”(8) as she reads them. She seeks to recover herself out of the ennui of homelessness by restoring the memories of Manderley and rendering them inviolable; she recalls wistfully the routines, conventions, rituals and traditions of Manderley: maids drawing back the curtains in the morning, the footman laying the table for breakfast, and the old butler ceremoniously performing the ritual of afternoon tea. In Rebecca, Englishness is anachronistic and fetishized in the act of keeping it in memory. Then, the more vivid andpalpable the memories of Manderley are, the more pressing and ominous becomes its loss. The circular structure of the novel, which begins with its epilogue and takes the reader on a journey back into memory, foregrounds the nostalgic interwriting of the past and the present with Manderley as the embodiment of the desirable and yet foreverlost Englishness.
Rebeccathe fetishization of Englishness has already been in progress even before the narrator’s marriage and exile. Manderley is depicted as part of the modern cultural discourses that reify English stately homes by romanticizing and recuperating the country-house version of mythical Englishness. Manderley has long been imprinted upon the narrator’s fantasy of aristocratic Englishness in the form of a picturepostcard that she bought at a village shop on holiday in the West Country as a child(23). The picture-postcard version of Manderley is suggestive of the public search for the authenticity of the national past in interwar Britain when a national pastime took the form of visiting stately country houses open for the public inquisitive of the routines and traditions of the English upper-classes. Du Maurier portrays Manderley caught inbetween the ideological discourses of reifying the English country house as a showcase for mythical Englishness and the historical process of its creation and disintegration. When she finally sees Manderley, the narrator finds incongruity between her vision of the house in the picture postcard and what she witnesses in its reality. The long driveway under the colonnade of trees “twisted and turned as a serpent,” and the rhododendrons, “slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic,” bewilder her as if they are “monsters, rearing to the sky. . . too beautiful. . . too powerful”(64, 65). Overwhelmed by the graceful beauty and order of the house, she sees herself behaving like aninterloping visitor; she is impressed and over-awed by “the magnificence of the breakfast” with a slightly criticizing note toward Maxim who sees “nothing ridiculous about it, nothing wasteful”(78, 79); she finds the drawing room with the carved mantelpiece, period furniture, and the portraits on the wall to have “all the formality of a room in a museum”(82). Manderley is presented as a queer composite of the “exquisite and faultless”(65) respectability of culture and the monstrous nature in profusion.
The monstrosity in the landscape of Manderley is previously signaled in the opening scenes of
Rebecca. The Gothic quality in Rebeccaforegrounds a vision of a Manderley that is quite different from the Manderley in Maxim’s romantic recollection or the picturepostcard version of Manderley. The opening dream of the novel betrays Manderley already in ruins, haunted by the narrator who is “possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier”(1). The landscape surrounding the house in the moonlight is not pastoral but grotesque, suggestive of “violence and eroticism”(Peterson 56):
Nature in the dream sequence is grotesque and monstrous, posing the threat of illegitimacy and disruption onto “the perfect symmetry” of the house. In this grotesque landscape, Manderley is associated with death and destruction: with the lights in the windows extinguished, the house stands in “choked wilderness” like “a sepulcher” with “fear and suffering. . .buried in the ruins”(2, 3). In
Rebecca, the topology of Manderley is set up in an eerie dream space where it is pursued as an object of both desire and terror only accessible in a nightmarish fantasy. The circular structure of the novel shows that the narrator’s vision of herself as the lady of the stately house hovers precariously between the romantically sensuous landscape of Manderley as it is recollected in a pastoral language and the ruinous and deathly landscape of Manderleyin nightmarish fantasies.
It is notable that the narrator gradually identifies the beauty and the order of Manderley and its “too beautiful” and “too powerful” landscape with the ghostly presence of Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. The morning room, furnished “in such exquisite taste” and “so lovely and so rich in colour,” testifies to Rebecca’s refined taste to perfection; it has “the same glow and brilliance” of the luscious rhododendrons beneath the window that Rebecca had planted. The morning room, clearly “a woman’s room,” is not only “graceful, fragile”(82) but also “business-like and purposeful”(83). The narrator finds Rebecca’s writing table, “beautiful as it was, was no pretty toy where a woman would scribble little notes, nibbling the end of a pen”(83). The table demonstrates the efficiency with which Rebecca had run Manderley: “The pigeon holes were docketed, ‘letters-unanswered,’ ‘letters-to-keep,’ ‘household,’ ‘estate,’ ‘menus,’ ‘miscellaneous,’ ‘addresses’; each ticket written in that same scrawling pointed hand”(83). The narrator regards the morning room, delicately furnished with Rebecca’s choices and vibrantly tinted with the fragrance and color of the flower planted by Rebecca, to be “in harmony. . . with her own personality” (83).
The shadow of Rebecca pervades not only the interior of Manderley but also its enchanting rustic landscape. The narrator realizes that at the core of Manderley is always Rebecca. The pastoral scene in which the narrator is sensuously aroused by the scent of azaleas is strongly reminiscent of Maxim’s romantic recollection of Manderley: “I brushed the dipping heads of the azaleas as I passed . . . . Little drops of water fell on to my hands from the soaked petals. There were petals at my feet too, brown and sodden, bearing their scent upon them still . . . . The spell of the Happy Valley was upon me. This at last was the core of Manderley, the Manderley I would know and learn to love”(109). The narrator recognizes later that the scent of “the crushed white petals of the azaleas” is the fragrance that Rebecca uses as a perfume(118). The blood-red rhododendrons of the drive and the heady scents of the azaleas remind her of Rebecca’s sensuous and sexual identity. The sea, another quintessential element characterizing the Manderley estate, is also closely associated with Rebecca she used the most beautiful bedroom looking down to the sea; she had moonlight picnics in the boat-house cottage at the private cove; she enjoyed sailing alone; she was drowned and buried in the sea. The phantom of Rebecca reigns over Manderley.The narrator’s romance with Manderley, initiated by her marriage to Maxim, is transferred into the psychologically and emotionally unsettling romance with Rebecca, whose ghostly presence remains indelible in the domestic space of Englishness.
The narrator sees, hears, and feels the ghostly woman as “real.” The felt presence of the first Mrs. de Winter at Manderleydrives the narrator to be intensely jealous of and fascinated by her. The narrator finds in Rebeccaa woman who embodies all that she is not; she is plain, timid, diffident, inexperienced, just like “the raw ex-schoolgirl, red-elbowed and lanky-haired”(16), while Rebecca is beautiful, confident, sophisticated, and well-liked. Beatrice, Maxim’s sister, says to the narrator, “you are so different from Rebecca”(105). All the differences stir up the narrator’s anxiety to establish herself as a proper lady of Manderly: “all the time I keep remembering how -- how it must have been at Manderley before, when there was someone there who was born and bred to do it, did it all naturally and without effort. And I realize, every day, that things that I lack, confidence, grace, beauty, intelligence, wit -- oh, all the qualities that mean most in a woman --she possessed”(131). The specter of Rebecca drives her to feel “like a guest, biding . . . [her] time, waiting for the return of the hostess”(137). She sees herself “sitting in Rebecca’s chair” and “leaning against Rebecca’s cushion”(77); she finds herself wearing Rebecca’s mackintosh and using Rebecca’s handkerchief.She follows the phantom of Rebecca in everyday routine: “as I put the sweet lilac in the vase and arranged the sprigs. . . I thought:‘Rebecca did this.. . . This is Rebecca’s vase, this is Rebecca’s lilac’”(137). The shadow of Rebecca overwhelms the narrator to the extent that she puts herself under self-erasure. The narratoreven blunders to deny her own presence at Manderley as Mrs. de Winter by answering Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper of Manderley, over the phone, “‘Mrs. de Winter has been dead for over a year’”(84).
The narrator’s obsessive fantasy brings out imagined memories of Rebecca and captures her in the space between presence and absence, between memory and loss. In the course of the novel, the narrator collects fragmentary and contradictory memories of Rebecca from different characters. Rebecca is remembered as the most beautiful, sophisticated, and confident woman who is much admired as the perfect hostess of Manderley. Yet, she is also remembered as a threatening woman: “Tall and dark she was . . . . She gave you a feeling of a snake” (154). Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper of Manderley, describes Rebecca as knowledgeable, skillfully and ferociously manipulative of difficult horses and people alike, and sexually unbounded: “No one got the better of her, never, never . . . . She did what she liked, she lived as she liked”(243). For Maxim, Rebecca is “damnably clever” and yet “vicious, damnable, rotten through and through”; she is “incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency” and “not even normal”(271). Gina Wisker sees “[v]ampiric” elements in the narrator who, jealous of and fascinated by Rebecca, “feeds off Rebecca’s memory” (91). Du Maurier’s embrace of the Gothic in Rebecca transforms the architecture of respectability and order into a haunted house of secrets at the center of which is Rebecca’s bedroom. Mrs. Danvers, whose physical appearance is profoundly associated with death, preserves the dead woman’s bedroom “as though in use” (
Rebecca164) and lays out the nightdress and the slippers and the brushes for Rebecca as if “she had just gone out for a little while and would be back in the evening”(172). The narrator touches the brush, holds the slippers in her hands, and puts the nightdress against her face, finding it still exuding the illusive scent of the azaleas. The sceneremindsthe narrator so palpably of the female body of Rebecca, whose ghostly presence only exists as absence. Mrs. Danvers paints to the narrator Rebecca’s bodily presence in stark contrast between life and death; when alive, Rebecca was a tall, slim woman of a beautiful figure with dark hair, but “The rocks had battered her to bits” so that “her beautiful face [was] unrecognizable, and both arms gone”(170). Rebecca is captured and preserved in a space between life and death, between presence and absence, between fantasy and memory, as a ghostly presence that haunts Manderley.
It is while Maxim is away from Manderley that the narrator, “curiously happy” and “aware of a sense of freedom”(150), sets off down the valley to the beach, remembering Maxim’s dislike of the cove and the boat-house cottage, and trespasses on Rebecca’s bedroom. This episode echoes the motifs of
Bluebeardand Jane Eyrein that a young bride ventures to enter the forbidden room against her older husband’s order only to discover the unsettling secrets of his previous wives. When the young, inexperienced -- both socially and sexually -- narrator trespasses on the terrain of Rebecca hitherto forbidden to her, she enters into the realm of alluring female sexuality grotesquely caught in between presence and absence. It is not a coincidence that the narrator is reminded of a portrait of a medieval figure at the first encounter with Maxim: “He belonged to a walled city of the fifteenth century . . . . His face was arresting, sensitive, medieval in some strange inexplicable way”(15). The narrator imagines Maxim as a man cloaked in black with lace at his throat and wrists, a man from “a long distant past . . . a past of narrow stairways and dim dungeons, a past of whispers in the dark, of shimmering rapier blades”(15). The strong association of Maxim with the medieval, the exotic, and the Gothic here is suggestive of the dark, secretive, and torturous masculinity as in Bluebeard. The newspaper report that describes the finding of Rebecca’s body reinforces such associations by callously noting the first Mrs. de Winter’s death “a year ago, and then Maxim marrying again the following spring, bringing his bride straight to Manderley”(301). In Bluebeard, the secret of the forbidden room, which is the male violence upon woman for her curiosity about sexual difference, is both guarded and reproduced by the authority of patriarchal masculinity. The same logic of sexual power operates in Rebecca. With the secret of the previous wife Rebecca prohibited to the narrator, Maxim presides over the young woman as the paternal authority, confining her within the realm of “Alice-in-Wonderland” (196), innocent, sexually naïve girlhood. While a “frightened furtive seed of curiosity” grows “slowly and stealthily” in the young bride’s mind (120), Maxim forbids her from trespassing on the terrain of Rebecca -- Rebecca’s bedroom, Rebecca’s boat-house cabin, and Rebecca’s tomb. His desire to keep the young bride from turning into a “woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls”(37) is to forbid her from acknowledging Rebecca’s mature female sexuality, undisciplined and unbound by social regulations.
The paradox of the motif of the forbidden room, however, lies in the implication that the authority and the power of patriarchal masculinity grounds itself on nothing but the perpetual prohibition itself, the prohibition of female desire and its enactment. The mechanism of prohibition on which the reproduction of masculine authority is contingent demonstrates that the patriarchal power fails to authenticate itself. The connection with the motifs of
Bluebeardin Rebeccathen not only suggests the secretive, murderous nature of the husband but also questions the authenticity of his patriarchal authority. The naming of the aristocratic husband in Rebeccafurther destabilizes his status as the epitome of established power of Englishness. “Maximilian de Winter,” an exotic name that du Maurier chooses for him over more English “Henry” in the finalized version of the novel( The Rebecca Notebook5), implicates the master of the grand English country house in a familial history alien to authentic Englishness.
Maxim’s confession of his murder of Rebecca proves that the respectability of the grand English house and the honor of the English gentleman are nothing but an illusion. Manderley, the symbol of grand Englishness, lies at the heart of their marriage that begins with lies and ends in violence. With knowledge of Rebecca’s moral and sexual promiscuity, Maxim agrees on the “bargain” of marriage that Rebecca proposes with promises to make Manderley “the most famous show-place in all the country”(273). Rebecca successfully creates the myth of Manderley as the home for “the luckiest, happiest, handsomest couple in all England”; Rebecca’s taste, skill, and care have made “Manderley as it is to-day.”With Rebecca directing “the shabby, sordid farce” in which Maxim plays a role of a seemingly grand master of the house, Manderley, once “wild and lonely,” becomes “the Manderley that people talk about and photograph and paint”(274, 275). The transformation of Manderley from a derelict big house to a stately home, the house on a picture postcard, is only possible as an illusion created on “the shame and degradation” of their marriage(274). Although the beauty and the order of Manderleydepend on the sham with which he collaborates, Maxim kills Rebecca to keep the myth of Manderley as if it were authentic. Maxim claims the self-righteousness in the murder of Rebecca, who threatens to taint the blood-line of the de Winters. He meticulously erases the blood stains and buries the corpse of Rebecca into the waters. He identifies falsely the washedup body of a nameless woman as Rebecca’s and seals it in the crypt of a church with no remorse: “I’m glad I killed Rebecca, I shall never have any remorse for that, never, never”(298). His great concern regarding any gossip that his new bride may have heard indicates not the guilt-driven remorse for his murder but the anxiety to cover up the lie and the violence and thereby to sustain the fantasy of Manderley.
Despite the surveillance of masculine authority, Rebecca, the embodiment of forbidden knowledge, surfaces from the burial site. The discovery of
Je Reviens, Rebecca’s boat, brings Rebecca’s body back to presence, disturbing the habitual order of Manderley and the authority of its master. The return of Rebecca is symbolically signaled in the climatic episode of the Manderley costume ball as well as in the episode wherein the narrator mimics Rebecca secretively in her reverie during dinner with Maxim. She imagines herself impersonating Rebecca talking to Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin and lover, on telephone and on resuming conversation, winning Maxim’s humor back again. In fact, the narratoris so identified with Rebecca “that [her] own dull self d[oes] not exist”(200). Maxim notices that she looks unlike her, “look[ing] older suddenly” while she “[has] been Rebecca.” He reprimands her for having “a flash of knowledge in [her] eyes. Not the right sort of knowledge”(201). He adds, “There is a certain type of knowledge” that he prefers her “not to have,” knowledge that is “better kept under lock and key”(202).
At the climactic episode of the Manderleycostume ball, the narrator literallyembodiesthe specter of
Rebeccawhen she is induced by Mrs. Danvers to dress up for the ball as Caroline de Winter, “a sister of Maxim’s great-great-grandfather”(203). Not knowing that Rebecca chose the same costume at the previous Manderleyball, the narrator transforms herself into “a famous London beauty for many years” before her marriage. The narrator’s impersonation of Caroline/Rebecca derives from her desire to transgress the masculine construction of her femininity. Maxim suggests that she present herself as “Alice in Wonderland” at the ball; Frank Crawley, Manderley’s overseer,observes that “Joan of Arc” will suit well for her. When she costumes herself as Caroline, she sees a stranger in the mirror: “I did not recognize the face that stared at me in the glass. . . . I watched this self that was not me at all and then miled; a new, slow smile”(212). The stranger, the new self that she sees in her own reflection, proves to be no one but Rebecca, as demonstrated in Maxim’s reaction at the sight of the narrator costumed as Caroline. Her own secretive desire to construct herself against the forms of an idealized femininity causes a crack in the hard-shell of the husband’s secret by materializing the specter of Rebecca at the Manderleyball, whom she has unwittingly summoned to step out of the shadow world “like a living figure”(272).
The narrator’s double impersonation of Caroline and Rebecca transforms the traditional ritual of the Manderley Ball into a site where the contradictory and interrelated desires of female subjectivity are contested and negotiated. While it projects the narrator’s desire and failure to establish herself as a great lady of the stately house by “inscrib[ing] herself in her husband’s family history”(Harbermann 183) or by “mimic[king] the apogee of Rebecca’s success as society hostess”(Horner and Zlosnik 116), the very failure leads her to the discovery of forbidden knowledge -- Rebecca’s monstrous sexuality and Maxim’s violent execution of her. The impersonation of the narrator as Caroline/Rebecca releases the narrator’s desire to break free from her husband’s curse to put her eternally into sexual naivety. The narrator’s secretive desire is paradoxically realized by the memory of Rebecca’s impersonation of Caroline at the previous Manderleyball since it registers not only the purity of virginal femininity but also the unruly female sexuality. Female desires and anxieties of feminine sexuality cross the boundaries of the past and the present, and the grand costume ball becomes a volcanic site where the indeterminacy of female sexuality erupts and explodes, not to be contained within the boundary of the idealized femininity. While confessing his crime, Maxim rages against Rebecca’s voracious sexuality, which crosses the social boundaries of class and familial pact: “[I]f I happened to be away when she was here at Manderley I could be never certain what might happen. There had been Frank, and Giles. She might get hold of one of the workmen on the estate, someone from Kerrith, anyone”(276). His accusation that Rebecca is “not even normal”(271) implicitly suggests the possibility of her bisexuality. Rebecca’s voracious sexuality threatens the established order of Manderley, dangerously destabilizing heterosexual desires and undermining the structures of family, social networks of male friendship, and class-hierarchy.
As Nicky Hallett argues, the relationship between the three women, Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers, and the narrator, in
Rebeccais erotically and ambivalently interwoven with the parameters of lesbian desire. When the narrator trespasses on Rebecca’s bedroom with her heart beating “in a queerexcited way”(163), Mrs. Danvers enters the room and, “excited in a strange unhealthy way”(167), sees her touching Rebecca’s hairbrushes and nightdress. Mrs. Danvers holds up the nightdress and urges the narrator to touch it again:
Hallet interprets the sexual implication of the touching of erogenous objects in this scene: “So the relationship between Mrs Danvers and her mistress was mediated erotically via hairdressing, in which role she replaced Mr de Winter. In Rebecca’s bedroom, the new mistress caresses, via the bedclothes, and enters the inner spaces of the late mistress. The housekeeper is portrayed as a seducer of them both. Social and sexual boundaries are broken”(45). Here the space is at once erotically charged by “the lesbian presence, current and past”(Hallet 44), and transported onto a battlefield wherein lesbian desire competes with heterosexual love. The space inhabits Rebecca’s complex and polymorphous sexuality, which Maxim finds dangerously unsettling and unsuitable to be contained within the boundaries of Manderley as indicated in his disapproval of Rebecca’s short hair and the portrait of her on horseback -- signs of her transgressive femininity. According to Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca refuses to take seriously masculine authority and romantic love: “She was not in love with anyone. She despised all men . . . . Lovemaking was a game with her, only a game. She told me so. She did it because it made her laugh”(
Rebecca’s unforgettable laughter both at the moment when Maxim agrees to her proposal and at the moment when he executes her mocks the romanticized fantasy of the countryhouse version of Englishness. Rebecca mocks the propriety of refined culture in the English country house by first replicating the much-admired cultural practices of grand Englishness -- costume balls, parties, visiting cards on a silver tray, ornaments and period furniture, the feast of breakfast and the solemn ritual of afternoon tea, seasonal hunts -- and then nullifying the authenticity of all such practices. Rebecca also ridicules the English law of property, the law of entailment in particular, by threatening to disrupt the inherited wealth of the grand estate. Entailment, the law restricting the bequeathal of property to the landowner’s lineal descendants unless that line is female, is the legal device to preventlanded property from being broken up and from descending in a female line. It contributes to maintaining the socioeconomic foundation of aristocracy and guarantees the patriarchal practice of inheritance. Maxim murders Rebecca, for he finds unbearable the future of Manderley if passed onto the bastard son that Rebecca claims to carry, though she is actually terminally ill rather than pregnant. In this last bluff, Rebecca threatens the respectability and the order of Manderleyupheld by the law of entailment by resignifying her terminal illness as a pregnancy. Such virtues of the English gentlemanas “pride” and “honour” serve only aspretense for the self-righteous violence of patriarchy uponungovernable and unruly female desire. Rebecca creates the myth of Manderley, the Manderley of the picture postcard, and deconstructs it by entailing cracks and fissures on its refined façade ofEnglish values, and finally explodes its very patriarchal foundation.
The Manderley costume ball demonstrates that feminine sexuality remains amorphous, endlessly dividing itself and crossing the boundaries of the space of domesticity. The narrator struggles to construct a solid imaginary self out of her own desires and anxieties, producing a series of differentiations from and identifications with animagined Rebecca. The sexually ambiguous relationship between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers and the narrator in the very space of domesticity triggers the fractures in the nexus between the propriety of femininity and the property of grand Englishness, both of which are consolidated by romantic heterosexual desire. The narrator’s appearance as Caroline/Rebecca at the Manderleyball brings the fissure into sharp relief. In dressing as Caroline, the narrator wishes to exorcise the phantom of Rebecca and to position herself as the grand lady of the stately house. Mistaken a moment for Rebecca, she fails in exorcism and releases the specter of Rebecca who has been trapped in the cabin of her boat, symbolically named “Je Reviens”(I come back), under the seawater into the very domestic space of mythical Englishness from which she was violently expelled. The surfacing up of Rebecca brings out a disastrous result to the ritualized tradition of the English country house that contributes to the making of mythical Englishness. The patriarchal sham and hypocrisy in the picture postcard Manderleyare perpetuated in the present de Winters’ painstaking act as the seemingly grand master and the seemingly proper mistress of the great house: “We stood beside one another, the host and the hostess, and we were not together. . . . We were like two performers in a play . . . . [W]e had to put up this show, this miserable, sham performance for the sake of all these people I did not know and did not want to see again”(225). The celebrated ritual of the countryhouse ball becomes “automatic and the work of a machine,” nullifying its authentic functions -- the festive assertion of the spirit of village community and the ceremonial consolidation of the social fabric -- heterosexual marriage -- of the established power.
5In her memoir, Enchanted Cornwall, she writes that she discovers “a sense of timelessness” in Cornwall: “A sense of continuity with ancient times, and more than this, a present which resonated with past and future -- a sense indeed that past, present and future are not isolated milestones in time, to be feared, longed for. And finally met, but that they are one, each part of a whole, existing side-by-side”(7). 6If romance as a generic term refers to a body of writing that “became more narrowly specialized between the wars, coming to signify only those lovestories, aimed ostensibly at a wholly female readership, which deal primarily with the trials and tribulations of heterosexual desire, and end happily in marriage”(Light 160), Rebecca is differentiated from other romances in its treatment of marriage, sexuality, and desire. Rebecca certainly unfolds its narrative anchored upon marriage plot; yet, courtship, proposal and marriage rituals all happen swiftly at the beginning of the novel as if these scenes are a prologue to a story rather devoted to the relationship between the first and the second wife. The narrator of Rebecca, the heroine of the “romantic” marriage, remains nameless throughout the novel the title of which is given to the other woman whose glamorous and vibrant presence haunts the young bride. The narrator’s romance is anything but romantic; she loves her husband who is “[her] father and [her] brother and [her] son” (Rebecca 145); the young bride’s conjugal bliss only lies in the security and boredom as indicated in her description of marriage as they “sit here every evening, [he] with a book or paper, and [she] with [her] knitting. Just like cups of tea. Just like old people, married for years and years”(146). Her claim for the conjugal bliss at the moment is ironically reminiscent of the middle-aged resignation and boredom of the de Winters in exile introduced in the beginning of the novel.
Forever England, Alison Light notes in du Maurier’s writing a “romance with the past” that caters to the middle class women in need of escapist fantasies in the interwar period. With the profoundly atmospheric setting of grand Englishness, Rebeccacertainly provokes “romantic Toryism, one which invokes the past as a nobler, loftier place where it was possible to live in a more expansive and exciting life”(156). The old-fashioned grandeur of Manderleyserves as a haunting vision of a forever lost past to be contrasted with a lacklustre present. Readings in such a vein, however, often dismiss the textual undercurrents that revealan acute recognition of the constructed nature of this Englishness of the past that often places women in a precarious position within domestic space. The haunting power of Rebeccalies not in the façade of the grandeur of Manderley but in the nameless narrator’s fantasy of Rebecca who haunts Manderley, a house of dark secrets, as the signifier of mysterious, amorphous, contradictory female sexuality.
It is Rebecca who has created the mythical form of Englishness embodied in Manderley, both its bucolic landscape that its master once so dearly recalled in Monte Carlo and its grand and delicate interior so delicately ornamented with chairs and tapestry of choice that the butler shows “so proudly to the visitors on the public day”(274). Although she is the creator of glamorous mythical Englishness, Rebecca is representative of female desires that cannot be reduced to the confines of idealized Englishness. Executed by her husband and expelled violently from Manderley, Rebecca has made Manderleypart of her own -- her taste, her scent, her laugh, her personality -- with the same ferocity and vitality as she had “slash[ed] at her horse” and “seiz[ed] life with her two hands” (272):
Rebeccatraces the nameless narrator’s fantasies and imagined memories of Rebecca in which she decodes the cryptic signs that Rebecca has left, summons the specter of Rebecca, and finally encodes Rebecca in the narrative that she writes.
It is Rebecca’s signature that is most suggestive of Rebecca’s multifarious subjectivity as well as of the complicated nature of the narrator’s engagement with Rebecca. The narrator first finds Rebecca’s signatureon the fly-leaf of a book of poetry that she takes from Maxim’s car while driving in the south of France. The narrator reads out of Rebecca’s signature the writer’s confidence and strong personality, traits that she lacks: “‘Max -- from Rebecca. May 17th,’ written in a curious, slanting hand . . . . the name Rebecca stood out black and strong, the tall and sloping R dwarfing the other letters”(33). The “tall and sloping R” in black ink is emblematic of Rebecca’s body, a “dark-haired” woman of the “tall and slim” figure. Rebecca’s signature is also suggestive of the way she makesthe relation with her husband: “Max from Rebecca. . . Max was her choice, the word was her choice, the word was her possession” (43). The motif of doubles is clear in the differences of the two women’s handwriting. The narrator notices her own handwriting is suggestive of her personal traits: “how cramped and unformed was my own hand-writing, without individuality, without style, uneducated even, the writing of an indifferent pupil taught in a second-rate school”(87). Horner and Zlosnikobserve that the narrator’s handwriting, “small” and “square,” reveals “the intimations of uniformity, immaturity and social inhibition” (114), while Rebecca’s writingsuggests a duality in the production of her subjectivity. If the household documents written by Rebecca testify to “both the acceptance of a social role of the ideal wife and the ability to carry it out with verve and sophistication,” the manner in which she writes implicates her in “a wayward, willful quality which runs counter” to the idea of a good wife(Horner and Zlosnik 114). “[T]he tall and sloping R” signifies the autonomous economy of female sexuality that freely crosses the boundaries of femininity -- both socially endorsed and tabooed.
After Maxim proposes to her, the narrator cuts, tears up, and sets fire to the page as a symbolic gesture to erase memories of
Rebecca: “The flame had a lovely light, staining the paper, curling the edges . . . . The letter R was the last to go, it twisted in the flame, it curled outwards for a moment, becoming larger than ever. Then it crumpled too; the flame destroyed it. It was not ashes even, it was feathery dust”(57). The tall and sloping letter “R,” however, embroidered or inscribed on the handkerchief, the leather book, and the nightdress case, erupts into the sanitized space ofManderley as if Rebecca has sealed the space of domesticity as her own with the signature. The narrator retrieves all the floating signs of Rebecca -- the signature, the scents, the dress, the handkerchief, sayings, gestures -- that lead her beyond the confines of the respectability and order of Manderley. The narrator’s journey into the past entails both the decoding of the mysterious sign of Rebecca and the encoding of her own female desires and sexual anxieties.
At the end of the novel as Manderley is set on fire,7 the narrator dreams:
The dream condenses all the motifs of doubles and the mirror images that the novel unfolds so far. The contrasting differences in the two women’s writing are blurred. The nameless narrator unconsciously resignifies herself as the other woman by writing in “long, and slanting” letters. While the narrator’s projection of herself as a writing subject indicates the growth of her self-esteem in the production of autonomy and thereby places
Rebeccagenerically in the literary tradition of Bildungsroman, the “slanting” letters imply the nature of the text that the narrator will produce, the narrative that becomes Rebecca. The mirror image in the dream completes the narrator’s search for the absent woman. It is reminiscent of the narrator’s previous evocation of Rebecca in her bedroom preserved in a grotesquely erotic passion: “In a minute Rebecca herself would come back into the room, sit down before the looking-glass at her dressing-table, humming a tune, reach for her comb and run it through her hair. If she sat there I should see her reflection in the glass, and she would see me too, standing like this by the door. Nothing happened” (165). At the moment the narrator is only able to capture Rebecca tantalizingly between presence and absence, between memory and loss; now Rebecca returns as she is desired and registers the female body in the erotically charged space of the narrator’s dream.
If the nightmarish dream in the opening of the novel locates Manderley, the mythical form of Englishness, in the terrain of the Gothic and transforms it into a house of secrets, the eerie dream toward the end of
Rebeccareinforces the fluidity of feminine sexuality. The dream resolves a series of the narrator’s differentiations from and identifications with Rebecca in fashioning her female desires and feminine sexuality in the domestic space of Manderley. The composite of the fragmentary signs of Rebecca shows her as a fluid subject with “the ability to shift between subject positions and across social and cultural spaces” (Harbord 102). Rebecca is both fascinating and menacing, for she produces the female subjectivity that is transgressive of the categories of class, gender, and sexuality. In the dream, the boundariesbetween the two women are blurred; the sexual subjectivity is imagined fluid; the Medusa-like image of locks is both erotic and deadly. In this dream, the narrator is transformed into the woman whose laughter is suggestive of her transgressive desires to mock the romanticized fantasy of the country house version of Englishness and dismantle the security of its patriarchal foundation.
As the two women merge together in the eerieanderoticdreamtoward the end of
Rebecca, du Maurier invites the reader to return to the other dream, also grotesque and deathly, that begins the novel.With Manderley, the house of dark secrets, turned into ashes, the narrator is now in exile away from England and takes on a journey into memories. Shedreams of the moon-lit ruins of Manderley and slips into secret reveries, awaiting for a woman in evening dress and satin shoes to return as Mrs. Danvers once did. The nameless narratorof Rebeccathus haunts Manderley, the ruins of fetishized Englishness, as she writes the story of Rebecca and herself, openingthe script with a sentence that haunts the reader:“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” In Rebecca, the fantasy of mythic Englishness is replaced with nightmarish visions of the ruins of Manderley wherein the narrator haunts the ghostly woman ina mixture of desire and terror and encrypts the enduring story of Rebecca, whose shadowy presence unburies monstrous female desires and embodies a mysterious, amorphous feminine sexuality.
7The burning of Manderley is certainly reminiscent of the burning of Rebecca’s signature. Malcolm Kelsall interprets the burning of Manderley as symbolic of “purgatorial flame” and the ensuing exile of the de Winters as symbolic of “progressive pilgrimage” away from England (183). In this reading, Rebecca becomes a symptom of cultural degeneracy that should be destroyed through fire. Indeed, the wartime experience in Britain entails readings of the novel in which “[t]he fire that destroys Manderley can stand for the fires of the Blitz England”(D’Monte 145). These readings see in Rebecca an allegory for the nation in crisis and emphasize the respectability of Manderley as an emblematic form of ideal Englishness while characterizing Rebecca as a sign of degeneracy alien to such Englishness.