The road to Man­der­ley

Eighty years af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion, Re­becca con­tin­ues to en­thral and un­set­tle. Flora Watkins ex­plores our fas­ci­na­tion with Daphne du Mau­rier’s clas­sic novel and why Corn­wall was a life­long in­spi­ra­tion

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Re­becca con­tin­ues to en­thral 80 years af­ter pub­li­ca­tion. Flora Watkins ex­plores Daphne du Mau­rier’s clas­sic novel

Asin­is­ter tale about a woman who mar­ries a wid­ower… Psy­cho­log­i­cal and rather macabre,’ wrote Daphne du Mau­rier to her pub­lisher of the novel on which she was about to em­bark in 1937. On tak­ing de­liv­ery of Re­becca the fol­low­ing year, Vic­tor Gol­lancz at once realised that his young author had writ­ten the book that would launch her into the lit­er­ary strato­sphere. the novel’s ‘bril­liantly cre­ated at­mos­phere of sus­pense’, of which Gol­lancz en­thused in his let­ter to book­sell­ers, is struck in that first, haunt­ing line—‘last night i dreamt i went to Man­der­ley again’— and main­tained tautly, ex­pertly, through­out, un­til the book’s sud­den end­ing.

Re­becca sold 45,000 copies in the first month alone and has never gone out of print. it has in­spired a se­quel (by su­san Hill), a pre­quel (sally Beau­man) and nu­mer­ous adap­ta­tions for stage and screen (most no­tably, Al­fred Hitch­cock’s Os­car-win­ning fea­ture film of 1940). Last year, it was voted the na­tion’s favourite book of the past 225 years in a poll run by Whsmith.

‘it’s a puz­zle,’ ad­mits du Mau­rier’s son Kits Brown­ing, lean­ing back at his desk at Fer­ry­side, the house at Bodin­nick-by­fowey in Corn­wall that the du Mau­rier fam­ily has owned since the 1920s and where the author penned her first novel. ‘i think the only quick ex­pla­na­tion [for the book’s suc­cess] is that it’s a very good story.’ His mother, the lit­er­ary ex­ecu­tor dis­closes, ‘sim­ply didn’t know why it should have been the favourite of so many peo­ple’.

Put sim­ply, Re­becca is a story about two women, a man and a house, the lat­ter— Man­der­ley—in­voked so in­tensely that it be­comes a char­ac­ter in its own right. the name­less nar­ra­tor is work­ing as a lady’s com­pan­ion in the south of France when she meets Maxim de Win­ter, rich, hand­some and re­cently wid­owed. His sud­den pro­posal takes her back to his West Coun­try es­tate, where the mem­ory of his dead wife, re­becca, is kept alive by the for­bid­ding house­keeper, Mrs Dan­vers. ‘Lit­tle by lit­tle i want to build up the char­ac­ter of the first [wife] in the mind of the sec­ond,’ wrote du Mau­rier in her note­book, ‘… un­til wife 2 is haunted day and night, then… Crash! Bang! some­thing hap­pens.’

she de­scribed the book as ‘a study in jeal­ousy’, but the seed out of which Re­becca grew came from an in­ci­dent in her own mar­riage. Be­fore he met du Mau­rier, when still a ma­jor, the dash­ing Grenadier Guards of­fi­cer Lt-gen sir Fred­er­ick ‘Boy’ Brown­ing, ‘tommy’ to his fam­ily, had been en­gaged to a glam­orous woman, Jan ri­cardo.

‘she was dig­ging around in his desk and found these let­ters [from ri­cardo] that, rather stupidly, he’d left,’ ex­plains their el­dest daugh­ter, tessa, the Vis­count­ess Montgomery of Alamein. the let­ters, signed with a flour­ish, touched a nerve. Why had tommy been so at­tracted to this woman? Did he still think about her? By all ac­counts, ri­cardo pos­sessed many re­becca-like qual­i­ties: she was beau­ti­ful, dark and vivacious. Du Mau­rier, on the other hand, loathed the du­ties and the so­cial­is­ing ex­pected of an of­fi­cer’s wife—never more so than when her hus­band was posted to egypt, as com­mand­ing of­fi­cer of his reg­i­ment.

‘My grand­mother could never quite let go of why this woman fas­ci­nated him so much,’ muses ru­pert tower, whose mother, Flavia, is the mid­dle sib­ling. Mr tower is a Jun­gian an­a­lyst and in­her­ited his grand­mother’s col­lec­tion of Jung’s work. ‘Par­tic­u­larly when she was taken away from Corn­wall and was writ­ing Re­becca in Alexan­dria, which she loathed, she felt re­ally adrift,’ he con­tin­ues. ‘some­how, the Jan ri­cardo el­e­ment then be­came so pow­er­ful that it needed to be writ­ten into and thought about.’

it may come as a sur­prise to read­ers to learn that the writer, in pos­ses­sion of a con­sid­er­able beauty and glam­our her­self (her

The seed out of which Re­becca grew came from du Mau­rier’s own mar­riage

fa­ther was the ac­tor Sir Ger­ald du Mau­rier, her grand­fa­ther, Ge­orge, the Punch il­lus­tra­tor and author of Trilby), iden­ti­fied with the sec­ond wife. Meek and over­awed, the sec­ond Mrs de Win­ter be­wails her gauch­eness, her lank hair and her bit­ten nails, in com­par­i­son with Re­becca, whose very name, ‘writ­ten in a bold, slant­ing hand’, was ‘a sym­bol of her­self, as­sured and con­fi­dent’.

‘Daphne is, of course, her,’ says Mr Brown­ing. ‘The sec­ond Mrs de Win­ter bit came from hav­ing to cope with Dad’s army and all those bor­ing drinks par­ties, which were anath­ema to her,’ he chuck­les. He also sees his mother in Re­becca, how­ever, in her bold­ness and fear­less­ness: ‘All that be­ing great with horses, and on the boat—they are all things that Daphne was.’

Writ­ing in ex­ile, du Mau­rier dreamt of her beloved Corn­wall and of the aban­doned house, Men­abilly, where she had tres­passed with her sis­ter and with which she had be­come ob­sessed. These dreams sus­tained her through the fierce heat and dust of an Egyp­tian sum­mer. She wan­dered in her thoughts, like the sec­ond Mrs de Win­ter, exquisitely evok­ing the Cor­nish land­scape and weather: ‘Wet earth… the sour tang of moor­land peat… the smell of the flood tide.’ Men­abilly had been owned by the Rash­leigh fam­ily since Tu­dor times, but du Mau­rier was able to rent it from 1943 un­til 1969, when the new heir wanted to move in. The house also in­spired her nov­els My Cousin Rachel and The King’s Gen­eral (see box).

‘My mother, as a child, re­mem­bers see­ing her kiss the walls of Mena and whis­per­ing softly “My house of secrets”,’ re­calls Mr Tower. ‘For her, it was like com­ing home to a place that re­flected her inner na­ture.’ Liv­ing at Men­abilly sat­is­fied the author’s need for space and soli­tude, earn­ing her a rep­u­ta­tion for reclu­siv­ity and adding to the mys­tery and fas­ci­na­tion swirling around Re­becca.

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, Lady Montgomery re­calls, Amer­i­can sol­diers would ‘come up to the house in their Jeeps and ask for her. She’d send me down to say that she’d gone for a walk and wouldn’t be back. I had to go out and tell these whop­pers!’.

Beloved by the pub­lic, Re­becca hasn’t, un­til rel­a­tively re­cently, en­joyed the crit­i­cal

ac­claim that it de­serves. ‘The crit­ics will never for­give you for writ­ing Re­becca,’ warned du Mau­rier’s great men­tor Sir Arthur ‘Q’ Quiller-couch. Con­tem­po­rary re­view­ers com­pared it un­favourably with

Jane Eyre, dis­miss­ing the later work as ‘ro­mance in the grand tra­di­tion’ and lit­tle more than ‘a nov­el­ette’.

This is ab­surd, thinks Dr Laura Var­nam, an ex­pert in me­dieval English at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford, who is in­creas­ingly su­per­vis­ing stu­dent the­ses on du Mau­rier. ‘Re­becca is an in­cred­i­bly so­phis­ti­cated and in­tel­li­gent novel,’ she stresses. ‘It’s not only a crack­ing story, it deals with is­sues that

are im­por­tant to­day.’ It also, she muses, ‘reads quite dif­fer­ently a sec­ond time’—and with age. ‘In the cur­rent cli­mate [of #metoo], Maxim seems quite dan­ger­ous.’

Vi­rago’s ed­i­to­rial di­rec­tor, Donna Coo­nan, agrees that the writer’s ge­nius has been over­looked. ‘When we started publishing her in 2003, there were a lot [of cover illustrations] of women look­ing out to sea,’ she dis­closes. ‘She’d very much been dis­missed as an his­tor­i­cal-ro­mance writer—this is the woman who gave us The Birds and Don’t Look Now. Her books are sat­u­rated with this dis­turb­ing at­mos­phere.’ In­deed, French­man’s Creek was the only ro­mance du Mau­rier set out to write, call­ing it ‘ro­mance with a big R’. Vi­rago has since brought all of the books, in­clud­ing her his­tor­i­cal and fam­ily bi­ogra­phies, back into print.

Re­becca will al­ways haunt us, thinks Mr Tower, be­cause ‘we all strug­gle with jeal­ousy’. The 1930s coun­try-house set­ting may now be a pe­riod piece, but the ‘emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence’ of it, ‘par­tic­u­larly the male­fe­male power-dy­nam­ics, speaks to us still’.

The in­flu­ence of Re­becca is as per­va­sive and in­deli­ble as her sig­na­ture, which so haunts the sec­ond Mrs de Win­ter, ‘black and strong, the tall and slop­ing R dwarf­ing the other let­ters’. It is there in di­rec­tor Paul Thomas An­der­son’s re­cent Os­car-nom­i­nated film Phan­tom Thread. Sarah Perry—author of last year’s must-read The Es­sex Ser

pent—de­clares in her in­tro­duc­tion to the new edi­tion of Re­becca that ‘ev­ery nov­el­ist since has ground their teeth in envy’ at its bril­liance. Miss Coo­nan de­tects ‘a very strong thread’ of du Mau­rier in the cur­rent ‘grip lit’ phe­nom­e­non.

A new film is also in the works: Mr Brown­ing re­veals that the book has been op­tioned by Work­ing Ti­tle and there is a first draft of a screen­play. He smiles as he re­calls his mother’s ‘ex­traor­di­nar­ily blue, twinkly eyes’, mis­chievous sense of hu­mour and tal­ent for mimicry, quite dif­fer­ent to the aloof recluse that she has some­times been por­trayed as. ‘I think she would be in­cred­i­bly pleased and proud,’ he con­cludes. ‘And thank­ful—that at last peo­ple had taken her se­ri­ously.’

The “emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence” of Re­becca, “par­tic­u­larly male­fe­male power-dy­nam­ics, speaks to us still”

Fac­ing page: Hitch­cock’s 1940 film was suit­ably Gothic, win­ning the Os­car for cin­e­matog­ra­phy. Left: Daphne du Mau­rier ap­peared in Coun­try Life on July 18, 1947, as Lady Brown­ing. Be­low: The 80thanniver­sary edi­tion of the novel

For Mrs Dan­vers, the sec­ond Mrs de Win­ter is but a pale im­i­ta­tion of her beloved Re­becca

En­ter­ing the lion’s den: Maxim (Lau­rence Olivier) brings his bride (Joan Fon­taine) home to Man­der­ley as the stony-faced Mrs Dan­vers (Ju­dith An­der­son) looks on

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