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"...stories birling through my mind..."
I waited my whole life to go to Manderley.
At least, I was vaguely aware of its greatness for half my life.
As I trudged, strangely willingly, through the literary shell-shock of existentialism, communism and fascism in the French department at university, I often wondered what literary delights that period of the “interwar years” bestowed upon the students of the English department a few doors up. Were they as knee deep in la condition humaine as us? Were there to be men on the march of a red tide, all contemplating deep and meaningful isms? And Freud, let’s not forget him. Always there in the background with his dreams.
What of Rebecca? Was this the thinking woman’s novel of the 1930s? A white azalea in a path of blood red rhododendrons?
Rebecca is, on the surface, a feminine novel that has us squirming with discomfort as du Maurier tells the world our innermost thoughts and our most terrible weaknesses. We find ourselves protesting as we read: do we wish to be represented by a heroine who is weak and afraid and who stammers ‘little’ in almost every paragraph? Is our heroine betraying us by revealing our rambling dreamscapes and the winding paths of our imaginations that heave with monstrous plants and our own looming deficiencies?
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
The first line of Rebecca sucks us into a world where nothing is as it seems. Manderley is a place, an estate, and a home, but most of all Manderley is a woman. She is a woman whose mind and whose body is that of the two wives in this novel; the first, Rebecca, pulsating with death; the second, our narrator, barely alive. Du Maurier has given us a glimpse of ourselves, our east wing, our west wing, our failures and our triumphs, and if we don’t pay attention, we might read this novel without seeing the reflection of our own potential self-destruction.
The first wife and the second wife represent extremes of women, neither of them possessing the feminine grace or masculine stoicism we crave from our heroines. The unnamed narrator is weak and withdrawn and Rebecca is vulgar and pretentious. Or is she? We don’t quite know because de Winter’s mother loved her and the scheming Mrs Danvers loved her, and her crimes revolve around her beauty and her freedom. In another story, she might have been locked up for her beauty as a victim in a Magdalene asylum because in the literary history of beautiful women, few have faired well. As for her freedom, it tips the masculine balance, turning stoicism into something vile and repulsive, so that we focus on her pretentious socialising and decorating, and we ignore the fact that she is content to live in a small cottage and that she is strong enough to man a boat alone in an untamed sea.
The novel is filled with questions and after reading it, we are haunted by them like dreams of Manderley, where the rhododendrons stand fifty feet high in their alien marriage with nameless shrubs. And we ask ourselves if we are happy for our heroine, who is in her twenties, to live with de Winter, a cold, unfeeling man in his forties, the underlying villain of the piece. We can’t possibly approve of this, yet at some point we fought in our heads for this alien marriage, this cruel conclusion.
Our changing perceptions are hinged to the fact that there appear to be no values in the lives of the characters. Anna Karenina is another beautiful adulterer who decided to leave her husband and her story is shaped by the morals of Christian, Tsarist Russia. We understand the moral landscape and can form our opinions about this woman whether we agree with the landscape or not, but in the upper class world of Rebecca, where divorce was was a real possibility, we wonder why murder was the answer to de Winter’s first marriage. The reader becomes implicated in this shift of normal values. In our minds, at least for a moment, it becomes acceptable for a man to murder a woman (believed to be pregnant) on account of her vile temperament and wayward morals. We are even brought to a point where we champion the perpetrator’s freedom so that he can ride off into the smoky sunset with our quiet heroine, the one not defined by her beauty, and then we sit back watch Manderley and all the ghosts of its women go up in flames.
Perhaps the isms of the interwar years of French literature aren’t so far removed from Manderley. The control that de Winter exerts over his wives is every bit as clever as a fascist dictator controlling its people, moving between powerful and pathetic, the master and the lapdog, the murderer and the witness to his wife’s masterful suicide. Rebecca is a woman living out her life in existential truth, exploiting her passions at will, obliterating nothingness with her selfish desires. And our narrator, blinded by her imagination and her dreams, is at the other end, an example of bad faith, merging into her husband through her love, acting out a lie so successfully that it becomes believable to the reader and to herself. “I ride no more tormented, and both us are free.” This is a novel that comes alive after reading it, when the gusts and the tremors of du Maurier’s tremendous narrative rest, when our frustrations with the characters relax, and we see Rebecca as meaningful and complex study of la condition des femmes.
Angeline King is the author of A Belfast Tale and Snugville Street. Click the links below to learn more:
A Belfast Tale: Troubles and misplaced passions course through rivers and oceans in this beautiful transatlantic story and uniquely Belfast Tale.
Snugville Street: A tapestry of love and loss is woven through humour and heart-ache as we move from Belfast to Brittany on a journey of shame and redemption.
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