The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE - SARAH PERRY

Du Mau­rier’s ‘Re­becca’ 80 years on

Early one morn­ing, al­most a cen­tury ago, a young woman tres­passed on the grounds of a house called Men­abilly. The Cor­nish sea was pink with sun­rise, and black­birds were singing in the hedge; a five-kilo­me­tre path un­wound be­tween banks of scar­let rhodo­den­drons, and the lawn was wet with dew.

Here she stood, gaz­ing at white win­dows shut­tered fast and grey walls con­cealed be­hind ta­pes­tries of ivy. It was, she said, “like the sleep­ing beauty of the fairy tale, un­til some­one should come to wake her”. And in­deed the house was wo­ken, and has never slept since: the tres­passer was Daphne du Mau­rier, and the house slum­bered on un­til she be­gan to write Re­becca, with Men­abilly rechris­tened Man­der­ley.

Re­becca be­gins: “Last night I dreamt I went to Man­der­ley again.” Ev­ery nov­el­ist since has ground their teeth in envy: here is all the en­chant­ment of a child’s story, with an ir­re­sistible melan­choly hung about it. The nar­ra­tor is on a wind­ing path alone, and her way is barred. The dreamer is the sec­ond Mrs de Win­ter (we never know her name), and Man­der­ley has been to her both a heaven and a hell.

Em­ployed as com­pan­ion to the wealthy vul­gar­ian Mrs van Hop­per, she meets Maxim de Win­ter in a Monte Carlo ho­tel. He owns the fa­mous Man­der­ley, and is per­fectly cal­i­brated to the needs of an ar­dent virgin: he is sar­donic, so­phis­ti­cated, oc­ca­sion­ally mo­rose; he is Mr Rochester at the wheel of a mo­tor car. Reader, she mar­ries him. In due course she is con­veyed to Man­der­ley through rhodo­den­drons blooming “slaugh­ter­ous red, lus­cious and fan­tas­tic” and is greeted by the black-clad house­keeper Mrs Dan­vers, her “skull’s face, parch­men­twhite, set on a skele­ton’s frame”.

Man­der­ley is “a thing of grace and beauty, ex­quis­ite and fault­less” – but it is haunted by the spec­tre of Re­becca, the first Mrs de Win­ter, who drowned out in the bay. Her body may be rot­ting in the fam­ily crypt, but her spirit is vi­tal and se­duc­tive: she lives in the in­scrip­tion on the fly­leaf of a book, the per­fectly cho­sen drapes and or­na­ments, the evening gowns still hang­ing in her closet. Re­becca, it seems, was beau­ti­ful but boy­ish, brave but gra­cious, an at­ten­tive host­ess and a lov­ing wife. How can the sec­ond Mrs de Win­ter, with her thin hair and dispir­it­ing clothes, com­pete?

This, how­ever, is not a book to be trusted. Du Mau­rier holds up the gilded mir­ror in which Man­der­ley is re­flected, but first she broke the glass. For Re­becca lives also in Mrs Dan­vers’s cu­ri­ously bit­ter grief and in Maxim’s rest­less fits of anger; in the boathouse with its moul­der­ing books and fur­nish­ings, and in the stut­ter­ing ter­ror of the sa­vant Ben, who digs for seashells on the shore. Nor can you trust the in­no­cent nar­ra­tor. For all her in­sis­tence that she is drab, shy, un­cer­tain of her­self, we cer­tainly know this: the name we’re never told is “lovely and un­usual”, and it be­comes her well; she lands her­self a wealthy lover in a Monte Carlo ho­tel; her pas­sions are ig­nited as much by vi­o­lence as by ar­dour. Soon the reader wan­ders from room to room “a lit­tle fear­ful, a lit­tle afraid”, with the “odd, un­easy feel­ing” that they “might come upon some­thing un­awares”.

An in­sti­tu­tion

Re­becca sold in vast num­bers, and has never been out of print. In the 80 years since its pub­li­ca­tion it has in­spired pre­quels, se­quels and an opera, with Man­der­ley built and re­built for tele­vi­sion, film and stage. Dur­ing the sec­ond World War a copy was used by Ger­man in­tel­li­gence as a code book. It is not a novel: it is an in­sti­tu­tion. Its wild suc­cess and su­per­fi­cial re­sem­blance to a love story earned its au­thor the du­bi­ous ti­tle “ro­man­tic nov­el­ist”. On her death, the New York Times, in tones less ob­se­quious than ac­cusatory, called Du Mau­rier “the au­thor of Re­becca, and other highly pop­u­lar Gothic and ro­man­tic nov­els”. But she was cer­tainly no ro­man­tic: she de­clared, with the faintest trace of mis­chief, “There is no such thing as ro­man­tic love. This is a state­ment of fact, and I defy all those who hold a con­trary opin­ion.”

No ro­man­tic nov­el­ist, then, but cer­tainly a Gothic one. Re­becca is in the grand, dis­rup­tive tra­di­tion of the Gothic: it is de­li­ciously trans­gres­sive, en­tic­ing the reader into com­plic­ity; it shocks all the more be­cause its men­ace blows in on Re­becca’s aza­lea scent; it cre­ates a dwelling place within which ev­ery furtive long­ing of the hu­man heart seems not only pos­si­ble but per­mis­si­ble – if you can stand the pun­ish­ment.

The care­ful reader will dis­cern du Mau­rier’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with gen­der and sex­u­al­ity, which grows more per­ti­nent with pass­ing years, not less. It is telling that the sec­ond Mrs de Win­ter muses on Re­becca’s short hair, her sport­ing courage, her dis­taste for male at­ten­tion; she has lib­er­ated her­self from the so­cial con­fines of her sex, and her suc­ces­sor – ea­ger to play the du­ti­ful wife, with man­ners and dress above re­proach – looks on with trou­bled awe. In

this re­spect Re­becca re­calls du Mau­rier’s own sex­u­al­ity and gen­der anx­i­ety: as an ar­dent young lover of women as well as men she adopted the iden­tity of the dash­ing “Eric Avon”, the “boy in the box” who was her se­cret self, and once wrote of her adored cousins, “They are boys. Hur­rah for them!”

I first read Re­becca at per­haps 13, half-drows­ing in the back of the fam­ily car. Ar­rested at once by that open­ing line I said to my mother, “Where is Man­der­ley?” She turned in her seat and said, “Oh, some­where in Corn­wall, I sup­pose,” with such an air of stat­ing fact that it was years be­fore I re­alised I could never buy a ticket to the house and gar­dens – would never see the boathouse, the Happy Val­ley, the slop­ing lawns. But it is as real to me as the bricks-and-mor­tar houses where I have lived. The name arouses in me not the pleas­ing rec­ol­lec­tion of a well-loved book but a re­sponse rooted in the senses that is in­dis­tin­guish­able from memory.

The boat that Re­becca sailed sin­gle-handed in that glit­ter­ing Cor­nish bay was called Je

Re­viens – “I Re­turn”. And so it is for me, and for other read­ers of this mas­ter­ful, trou­bling and wickedly se­duc­tive novel: we sigh, close the cover, put the book back on the shelf; but again and again, when the scar­let rhodo­den­drons are in bloom, we re­turn to Man­der­ley.

■ This is the in­tro­duc­tion by Sarah Perry, au­thor of Af­ter Me Comes the Flood and The Es­sex Ser­pent,tothe80th-an­niver­saryedi­tionof Re­becca, by Daphne du Mau­rier (Vi­rago Mod­ern Clas­sics,£14.99)

Du Mau­rier was cer­tainly no ro­man­tic: she de­clared, with the faintest trace of mis­chief, ‘There is no such thing as ro­man­tic love. This is a state­ment of fact, and I defy all those who hold a con­trary opin­ion’


Above: Daphne du Mau­rier and her two chil­dren at Men­abilly House in 1947. Left: Joan Fontaine and Lau­rence Olivier in Al­fred Hitch­cock’s 1940 film adap­ta­tion of Re­becca.

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