“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley….”

March 12, 2011 at 7:34 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

There was never any question in my mind as to what the title of this post would be.

Ever since it was announced that the Usual Suspects would be discussing Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, the lines spoken at the start of the Hitchcock film had been resonating in my mind:

There is something hypnotic and haunting here that goes beyond the  actual story to which the famous opening sequence is a preface. It has to do, I think, with memory, with loss, and with the inexorable passage of time.

I’ve seen this film several times in the past, but not recently. I had never actually read  the book. And so there were surprises in store, right from the beginning. For instance, the  descriptive passage at the novel’s beginning is far more extensive than the segment from the film would indicate. And oh, the writing!

The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done, but as I advanced I was aware that a change had come upon it; it was narrow and unkempt, not the drive that we had known. At first I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realised what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers. The  woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church. And there were other trees as well, trees that I did not recognise, squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered.

Rarely if ever has the menace of untamed nature been so vividly evoked. It reminds one of nothing so much as Dante “In a dark wood wandering,” preparing for his descent into the infernal regions. (Toward the end of our discussion, Anne commented on Du Maurier’s exceptional knowledge of the natural world and her use of flowers and trees to convey states of mind.)

At length the narrator – the oddly unnamed narrator – catches sight of the house itself:

There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the grey stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and the terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, not the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.

Manderley was for the most part modeled on Menabilly, the house Du Maurier lived in with her family from 1943 to 1969. An essay entitled “The House of Secrets” is included in my edition of the novel (Harper, 2006). In it, Du Maurier describes how, when her family first came to spend the summer in Cornwall, she and her sister Angela took their dog and went out walking in search of Menabilly:

The trees grew taller and the shrubs more menacing. Yet still the drive led on, and never a house at the end of it. Suddenly Angela said, “It’s after four…and the sun’s gone.” The pekinese watched her, pink tongue lolling. And then he stated into the bushes, pricking his ears at nothing….

“I don’t like it,” said Angela firmly. “Let’s go home.”

“But the house,” I said with longing, “we haven’t seen the house.” She hesitated, and I dragged her on. But in an instant the day was gone from us. The drive was a muddied path, leading nowhere, green no longer but a shrouding black, turned to fantastic shapes and sizes. There was not one owl  now, but twenty. And through the dark trees, with a pale grin upon his face, came the first glimmer of the livid hunter’s moon.

They were forced to turn back before reaching the house.. The family soon returned to London for the winter. But they came again to Cornwall the following spring, and with that return came Du Maurier’s determination to see Menabilly. This time, setting out at daybreak instead of dusk, she took a slightly different route:

I followed the path to the summit of the hill and then, emerging from the woods, turned left, and found myself upon a high grass walk, with all the bay stretched out below me and the Gribben head beyond.

I paused, stung by the beauty of that first pink glow of sunrise on the water, but the path led on, and I would not be deterred. Then I saw them for the first time–the scarlet rhododendrons. Massive and high they reared above my head, shielding the entrance to a long smooth lawn. I was hard upon it now, the place I sought. Some instinct made me crouch upon my belly and crawl softly to the wet grass at the foot of the shrubs. The morning mist was lifting, and the sun was coming up above the trees even as the moon had done last autumn. This time there was no owl, but blackbird, thrush and robin greeting the summer day.

I edged my way  on to the lawn, and there she stood. My house of secrets. My elusive Menabilly…

I’ve been continually revisiting this essay and getting chills every time I read it. One is grateful for the chance to draw  close to the wellspring of an artist’s creativity. But there is more here than just that. In her search for Menabilly, Du Maurier gives voice to an indeterminate longing felt by all too many of us, to penetrate to the heart of a mystery, to gain access to the sublime – in short to discover some fundamental truth of our existence. At times, we attain the place of our dreams and find only a charred ruin in a desolate place. Ultimately, this is what happens to the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca. Innocent and unworldly, she is swept up in a whirlwind romance by a handsome but enigmatic Prince Charming in the form of Maxim de Winter. After a hasty marriage and blissful honeymoon, Maxim installs his new bride in Manderley, the ancestral home of his family. She is assured by all that the place is glorious, a kind of paradise. And so it would seem to be, at first glance. But it’s a paradise with a sinister underbelly – and a particularly venomous snake nestled at its heart, just waiting to strike.

**************************************

Menabilly was owned by the Rashleigh family, whose considerable wealth and ancient lineage were well known in Cornwall. Eventually, Daphne Du Maurier secured from them the lease of the house. At thetime, it was unoccupied and had fallen into a state of decrepitude . She set about restoring it and was finally able to move in with her children in 1943. (Her husband, Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick “Boy” Browning, was away at war.) She lived there until 1969.

Slowly, in a dream, I walk towards the house. “It’s wrong,” I think, to love a block of stone like this, as one loves a person. It cannot last. It cannot endure. Perhaps it is the very insecurity of the love that makes the passion strong. Because she is not mine by right. The house is still entailed, and one day will belong to another….”

I brush the thought aside. For this, and for this night, she is mine.

And at midnight, when the children sleep, and all is hushed and still, I sit down at the piano and look at the panelled walls, and slowly, softly, with no one there to see, the house whispers her secrets, and the secrets turn to stories, and in a strange and eerie fashion we are one, the house and I.

In this film clip, Du Maurier and her children are seen in the grounds of Menabilly. The author is wearing her “Marlene Dietrich” suit:

[Wikipedia defines the law of entail as “…an estate of inheritance in real property which cannot be sold, devised by will, or otherwise alienated by the owner, but which passes by operation of law to the owner’s heirs upon his death.” Click here for further information.]

*********************************

Daphne Du Maurier

This edition of Rebecca also contains an Author’s Note written more than forty years after the initial publication of the novel. In it, Du Maurier tries to answer some of the questions that have continued to be asked about her most celebrated work of fiction. One of the most recurrent concerns the protagonist’s Christian name, or rather, lack of one. Why is this most basic piece of information never divulged? The author’s response: she could not think of a name, by which I assume she means, she could not decide upon one. It then, she says, became “a challenge in technique,” made workable by the fact of the novel’s being written in the first person.

As to the plot, the inspiration came from several sources. In the early years of the war, Du Maurier and her children were with her husband while he was stationed  in the Middle East. She was deeply homesick for Cornwall and had decided to set her next novel there. She was friendly with Foy Quiller-Couch, daughter of the distinguished author and editor Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. With Foy as her guide, she had visited several of the great houses of Cornwall: “Houses with extensive grounds, with woods, near to the sea, with family portraits on the walls….” She was also thinking of Milton, an estate in Northamptonshire where she had stayed for a time as a child. She and Foy also visited Menabilly, and Du Maurier recalls, or seems to recall, that the Quiller-Couches had told her that the owner of the home had divorced his beautiful wife and soon married again,  a much younger woman:

I wondered if she had been jealous of the first wife, as I would have been jealous if my Tommy had  been married before he married me. He had been engaged once, that I knew, and the engagement had been broken off–perhaps she would have been better at dinners and cocktail parties than I could ever be.

Seeds began to drop. A beautiful home…a first wife…jealousy…a wreck, perhaps at sea, near to the house, as there had been at Pridmouth once near Menabilly. But something terrible would have to happen, I did not know what…I paced up and down the living room in Alexandria, notebook in hand, nibbling first my nails, and then my pencil.

Thus did the story of Rebecca de Winter and Maxim and the nameless heroine and the great landed estate to which they are all three inextricably bound begin to take shape in the mind of Daphne Du Maurier.

Daphne Du Maurier and her children at Menabilly

 

Manderley: according to an article in Architectural Digest: "The one exterior view of the house was actually a miniature built on a table and then blown up to appear as an imposing mansion."

************************************

More on the discussion will follow in another post.

8 Comments

  1. Lourdes said,

    Thanks for the, as always, insightful essay. I recently read Rebecca for the first time — loved it. You might want to read Tana French’s The Likeness — it very much opens like Rebecca, and is also quite gothic.

  2. Barbara said,

    Another wonderful post. Did you by chance see Downton Abbey on PBS recently? The entire series swirled around the concept of “the entail”…almost like another member of the family. Thanks for tis most interesting glimpse into the roots of Rebecca.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Barbara, thanks for the gracious comment. And yes, I’ve been watching Downton Abbey. I was thinking of it when I came upon the entail reference in regard to Menabilly.

  3. Yvette said,

    I read this years ago and never forgot it. I’ve also seen the Oliver version as well as the PBS one which was nearly as good. A wonderful post, but I’ve come to expect that from you. 🙂

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Once agsin, many thanks, Yvette. Appreciation like yours makes the hard work seem worthwhile.

  4. Sue K said,

    This is so evocative – thank you for the details in this piece.

    “The King’s General” by Dauphne Du Maurier focuses on Menabilly, telling the story of events centring upon the house in the Civil War, involving the Grenvilles and Rashleighs and Honor Harris. Her writing immerses you in this corner of Cornwall, weaving into the story an explanation for the fate of the young Cavallier whose body was found when that buttress was demolished in the renovation of the house.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Many thanks for this tip. I shall seek out “The King’s General.”

  5. geri darley said,

    Sorry, but the timescale is wrong in your article. Rebecca was published in 1938, so no way was du Maurier thinking about it during the war. I believe it was written when she was just married, and feeling inadequate compared to her husband’s previous fiance.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: