“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again” – is the unforgettable opening line of Daphne du Maurier’s immortal classic Rebecca – and this dream of entering a dark and frightening forest reminds me very much of Dante’s opening lines of The Inferno.
Ah, questo a dir qui l’era è dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova e paura
Tant è amare che poco è piu morte….
“In the middle of the path of my life I found myself in a darkened wood where the direct way was lost. Ah how hard a thing it is to tell of that wood savage and harsh, the thought of which renews my fear, so bitter it is that death is hardly more.”
Translation A. Alvarez.
Both Rebecca and The Inferno begin with a dream of entering a dark frightening forest. In fact the first thirty- one lines of The Inferno could in fact be considered a part of the character of Rebecca as well. The Inferno as the dwelling of tormented souls could just as well apply to Manderley – and one wonders if the naming of Mrs. Danvers (d’enfer) was not a well-placed pun by Du Maurier.
Whether such dreams are celestial or infernal, they have the virtue of permitting the exploration of hidden places. The images in dreams might be cryptic or explicit, and the details may be recalled in their entirety of only in the form of a powdered residue, but their power to reveal even in an encrypted form that which we cannot deduce by merely willing is the sovereign gift they bestow upon the dreamer.
In the case of Dante the dream reveals an elaborate revenge fantasy, but in the case of Rebecca the dream of Du Maurier’s unnamed protagonist – and perhaps in many respects her alter ego – it reveals the revisiting of the unretrievable but unforgettable self, here represented a beautiful and stately home now lost – hidden and overgrown in the thick undergrowth of tangled memories. Is it an unlikely stretch to imagine that a ruined and deserted house might be an apposite stand-in for a ruined and deserted self?
There have been some arguments advanced in support of a Freudian/ Oedipal subtext for Rebecca, but such arguments are quite inept and easily dismissible in the total absence of a ‘mother’ figure in the novel. More significant however to the rejection of the Freudian premise, is the thorough discrediting of this and so many other of Freud’s quaint ideas that held such inexplicable sway in the voodoo age of popular psychoanalysis.
Du Maurier herself said that Rebecca was a study of jealousy – but whose? The obvious explanation – that the diffident young wife was jealous of her assertive and overweeningly confident predecessor, is unconvincing. It is rather more likely that the jealousy is that of Mrs. Danvers, who is jealous of the space and position formerly occupied by her deceased mistress – a space now being filled by an interloper who despite her diffidence and inexperience, nonetheless resides in the land of the living.
Another suggestion raised by the critic Álvaro Lins is that Du Maurier’s plot was filched from the novel of Brazilian writer Carolina Nabuco’s A Succesora. As if to underscore this claim, The Italian version of David .O. Selznick’s ‘Rebecca’ was screened under the title of La Prima Moglie which means ‘The First Wife’. But it is far more likely that, with some minor variations, Rebecca is essentially an intertextual re-write of Jane Eyre.
Several ‘Gothic’ features are shared in both novels: The gauche young girl, the arrogant aristocrat, the great country house, the lurking evil, the sinister housekeeper who prowls secretly around the house, the secret kept hidden in plain sight, the resurfacing of the sordid past, the denouement, the fire, and the reversal of roles….
The plots of both novels relate to how a genteel but poor, naive, refined, educated, sensitive,cultured, upper-class, young girl/orphan paid companion with fine sensibilities is wooed by/marries upper class self confident, wealthy autocratic older man with evil/mad, former wife who has a sinister ‘keeper/servant’. The uneasy relationship/marriage persists for a while, until there is a disastrous fire in which the older man is injured in a way that diminishes and enfeebles his physical/psychological nature, but the relationship/marriage survives. The intrusion/ghost of the former wife is banished forever.
In my view the relationship between the first wife and her ‘keeper’ is the story that haunts the text throughout. What makes Grace Poole a drunk and Mrs. Danvers obsessed and obviously unbalanced? – perhaps it is because they – the keepers – are alter egos of the dead Rebecca and the insane Bertha – which make them the alter egos of alter egos and as such, the reverberations of echoes.
An established feature of lesbian novels of a certain vintage is the character that the writer and critic Terry Castle refers to as ‘The Unnatural Older Woman’. The ‘Unnatural Older Woman’ is usually a sinister amoral seductress, and is usually the ‘real’ lesbian in the plot. She attempts – and sometimes succeeds in ‘ruining’ the young woman she seduces – or attempts to seduce – and unless the younger woman is ‘saved’ by the lucky expedient of a heterosexual marriage, the fate of one or both of them has got to be abandonment, madness or suicide, and Mrs. Danvers whose obsession with Rebeca borders on madness, gets a double dose. The tinge of evil which colours the characters of both Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers would appear to shade well towards the crypto-lesbian, especially since Mrs. Danvers describes Rebecca as not loving either Max or her supposed paramours, but rather ‘toys’ with them. This is borne out as well in the book the narrator finds inscribed to ‘Max from Rebecca’. The absence of love could not be more clear.
The relationship between the unnamed second wife in Rebecca and her husband Max and Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, does not become ‘real’ until the manor is destroyed by fire and the two men have sustained a serious injury that changed them for life. Both Mr. Rochester and Maxim de Winter are shattered and stripped of all their social context and privilege. Before that there is a strange and vacuous formality to their pairings.
Then in each case, after the destructions of the mansions and the extirpations of the first wives, the ingenue/masterful male relationships morph into handicapped aging male/solicitous caregiver. Quite seamlessly the young girl becomes the strong caretaker of the formerly dominant man
There are several other commonalities between the two stories: The former (and exotic) wife is hidden’: The young girl does not understand the nature of the ‘secret’: And it turns out that in both these novels the first wives actions cause their own ‘well-deserved’ violent deaths. Both first wives have male allies who intrude in an attempt to blackmail/destroy the happiness of the couple: Both first wives appear to reflect hidden, unacceptable, non conforming, antisocial, unsubmissive, destructive, unacknowledged parts of the female psyche that the young girls and second wives of both these husbands did not yet possess.
But what lurks behind this cold and unlikely May-December marriage, which despite its world-wind courtship is curiously unpassionate, is never really clarified. It would appear that The Mrs. Van Hopper’s paid companion has somehow deduced the futility of pursuing love. She has come to terms with the indignities imposed upon by the need to make her living in servitude, and perhaps she sees marriage with coolly taciturn aristocratic and very English Max de Winter with whom she has a shared distaste for crassness and volubility of her employer Mrs. Van Hopper. Mrs. Van Hopper, who when she eats ravioli allows the sauce to run down her chin, is despite her wealth and social pretensions, the emphatically vulgar sort of American that upper class English women and men reflexively despise. It could be that a in their shared disdain for this rather unrefined older woman, a tacit understanding about shared social – and by extension other values as well – was established between the young narrator and Mr. de Winter. It would appear that by this ant-like exchange of chemical signals through a tenuous touching of their social antennae, taciturn Mr. de Winter and the narrator arrived at an understanding of sorts, an understanding which would deepen to the degree that they when Mr. de Winter proposes to her the narrator accepts, and so they embark upon the marriage by means of which they hope to make a clean break from their calamitous past lives, and in a sense rescue themselves and each other.
This strange marriage, which seems from the outside so unsatisfactory and vacant – more like an alliance of two lost and injured souls, is something she adapts to. Just as the narrator has no name, she has no established ‘self’ (that she is aware of) and she simply adapts and conforms, first as a young and powerless wife, and later as a much more confident woman in the role of her husband’s caretaker. But she will not live the rest of her life as the weaker half of the couple. We sense that she might still might find it in herself to nurture her own strength – Jane became the confident mother of a young son, and the unamed heroine of Rebecca, as her the protector and caregiver of her ruined and traumatised husband condemned to a now vastly reduced sphere of influence and interest. His dim and dwindled world is now a suite of rooms – or perhaps a single room – in a quiet foreign resort, where he reads English newspapers, falls into fits of chain-smoking and meaningless volubility railing about the “Surrey bowling”.
Here they both eagerly await the arrival of old newspapers for the results of test matches (cricket scores) because they tried but cannot stand the noisy wireless. They treasure the outdated magazines that remind them of the English Spring and articles about chalk streams, mayflies, moss and wood pigeons…. All that remains of a past in which they lived as vital human beings – their halcyon days – is nostalgia and reverie. They live their isolated lives, not coincidentally on ‘an indifferent island’ with a ‘glittering sky’. I wondered what this island could be – Corsica? Sardinia? one of the Greek islands? Prospero’s island?! And I marveled that except for the crushing nostalgia that makes for an invidious comparison with a past now forfeit forever, that anyone could speak so dismissively and disparagingly of any of these merely for the sin of not being England.
Recently, (near as I can tell in February of this year) a ‘lost’ short story of Du Maurier’s, written by her in 1928, called “The Doll” was unearthed by book store owner Ann Wimore in a 1937 collection of stories entitled The Editor Regrets. It was “a macabre short story about a man who discovers that the girl he’s smitten with is besotted with a mechanical sex doll.”I cannot help feeling that the relationship between the emotionally frozen Max de Winter and the narrator of Rebecca is characterised by the kind of lifelessness and unreality one would expect to find in a drastically mismatched liaison. It is very probable that Du Maurier herself lived with the deep sense of a lost life. We never completely outgrow the the tints of the first loves in which our hearts are dyed, and Du Maurier’s was distinctly Sapphic. Margaret Forster’s biography of Du Maurier (titled Daphne du Maurier) mentions correspondence concerning affairs with the actress Gertrude Lawrence and Ellen Doubleday the wife of her publisher, and Du Maurier’s admission of possessing a ‘male energy’, the source of her creative impulse. It would seem likely that this ‘male energy’ was both the source of her creativity as well as her repressed and denied lesbian self. Many photographs of Du Maurier as a young woman (meaning those taken after her girlhood) show her looking quite splendidly dykely, as a pale lanky darkly beautiful figure wearing shabby and baggy men’s clothes. It seems probable that she internalised her father Gerald’s outspokenly homophobic views, which may have themselves been generated by the ‘irregularity’ he sensed in his own daughter, and the not to subtle incestuousness of his own feelings towards her. Du Maurier’s internalised homophobia and all the conflict and repression that it must have induced was the ‘male energy’ – which emerged in her novels. The love-lives of the young male narrator of My Cousin Rachel (whom Du Maurier revealingly says she ‘was‘ during the writing of the book) and the young woman in Rebecca are both tragically blighted. There is a lingering, aching, unremediated sadness in both that haunts us as readers, and this is in part because the seeming causes are inadequate and incommensurate to such a gaping emotional wound.
The first three pages of Rebecca which are about a dream – hold some fascinating clues.
“I could not enter, for the way was barred”
“I called and there was no answer”
“No smoke came from the chimney”
“The windows were forlorn”
“I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barriers before me”
The narrator does not recognise the way (the driveway leading to the house) because “Nature had come into its own…. the woods…. had triumphed in the end”. Then the woods take on an almost human aspect: …. “They crowded dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white naked limbs, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace…. There were other trees I did not recognise – squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches and had thrust themselves out of the earth…”
These images of nature having gone wild, and echoing strangely of miscegenation, are at one cthonic and erotic. Here I am again reminded of the Sicilian garden described by Tomasso Lampedusa in his classic The Leopard about the how the delicate French Roses imported from France years ago, have now been transformed by the climate of the island into fleshy and heavy-scented carnality and no longer at all resemble the crisp prettiness of their beginnings. It is the image of a civilised garden slipping out of control and running amuck. At the end of the lost driveway is the house “secretive and silent.” Though nature has wrought its vulgar depredations, the skeletal architecture of a ruined house still retains the ravaged semblance of its former beauty, “a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”
Within the dream the narrator’s house is for a brief moment once more restored. It is almost as if the house in some way house represents herself. But now the pace of the imagery quickens: alien marriages, nameless bastard shrubs clinging to the roots of other plants, lilacs mated with copper beeches imprisoned by the vines of “malevolent” ivy, “others… halfbreed from the woods….. nettles – vulgar and lanky…. And the house a living thing which ” lived and breathed as it had lived before”…. And again, Lampedusa – like the image of the beloved pet dog. Then a cloud rolls in across the moon – the illusion dies, life is extinguished The house becomes ” a sepulchre”.
Morning finds her awakening from her dream in “an alien land” – a bland and featureless hotel room, and tellingly with no one lying beside her. She lives her life in a terra incognita that is neither temporary nor permanent, in a marriage that is not really a marriage. The tale has come full circle: She is once more the companion of an older person – and her life is a holiday which is not a holiday in an impersonal hotel – in a foreign land where she has come to terms with a very sparse and minimalistic life. She and her valetudinarian husband are deracinated shell-shocked victims of a war they can’t forget – a war in which they lost their lives. Now they both only crave only the tranquility in which to nurse their unrecoverable wounds – or so she says.
But her dreams speak of something quite different – and will I think speak to her more loudly as the years go by. Will she will listen to and heed what they are trying to tell her. Could it be that her left brain will become aware of what her right brain is doing, and that one day she will really listen the implications of her words when she says to herself “It is his dependence upon me which has made me bold at last”. and “I have lost my diffidence and my timidity, my shyness”…. These observations about herself may seem to be made solely in relationship to her husband – after all, now she is the one who must protect him.
But one can only hope they will be extended to her larger self. And that her own true nature will be permitted ‘to come into its own’ as well.
Stories that are written from the perspective of flashback seem to possess this haunting quality, because they distort time and remove our thoughts from the present and replace them in the past. Another novel, Sarah Water’s The Night Watch does this in a very disturbing way. This narrator (of Rebecca) does not have a name – and we know nothing about it except that it is elegant and unusual and difficult to pronounce – so if I had to guess, I would say it was Cleis.