Sex, jealousy and gender: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca 80 years on
Du Maurier’s bestselling novel reveals much about the author’s fluid sexuality – her ‘Venetian tendencies’ – and about being a boy stuck in the wrong body, writes Olivia Laing
Fri 23 Feb 2018 11.00 GMT Last modified on Sat 24 Feb 2018 00.10 GMT
In 1937, a young army wife sat at her typewriter in a rented house in Alexandria, Egypt. She wasn’t happy. Despite coming from an ebullient theatrical family, she was reclusive and agonisingly shy. The social demands that came with being married to the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards were far beyond her. It was too hot and she missed England bitterly, though not the small daughter and new baby she’d left behind.
At the age of 30, she had already published four novels and two biographies. Yet 15,000 words of her new book were torn up in the wastepaper basket, a “literary miscarriage”. She knew the title but not what would constitute the “crash! bang!” of its plot, just that there would be two wives, one dead, and the name: Rebecca.
Inchingly, Daphne du Maurier’s difficult novel came together. She wrote it in the first person, from the perspective of a young unnamed narrator, who meets the dashing, yet unhappy Max de Winter while working as a lady’s companion in a grand hotel in Monte Carlo. The girl is anxious, observant, dreamy, terribly romantic, a perennial fantasist whose fears and insecurities bloom out of control when she becomes mistress of the haunting Manderley.
Rebecca is a very strange book. It’s a melodrama, and by no means short on bangs and crashes. There are two sunken ships, a murder, a fire, a costume party and multiple complex betrayals, and yet it’s startling to realise how much of its drama never actually happens. The second Mrs de Winter might not excel at much, but she is among the great dreamers of English literature. Whole pages go by devoted to her imaginings and speculations. The effect is curiously unstable, not so much a story as a network of possibilities, in which the reader is rapidly entangled.
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” Simone de Beauvoir said, and there aren’t many darker illustrations of what this might mean and what it might cost than Rebecca. The narrator is raw as an egg, practically a schoolgirl, with her “lanky” hair and bitten nails, her inability to talk to servants or run a house. Rebecca, on the other hand, is finished: lacquered and exquisite as the priceless china cupid her clumsy replacement breaks. It was Rebecca who created Manderley, turning the lovely old house into the apotheosis of feminine talents and virtues.
Of course, this paragon of beauty and kindness turns out to be a malevolent fake. In the Du Maurier family slang a sexually attractive person was a “menace”, and Rebecca unites both the word’s meanings. She is an animal, a devil, a snake, “vicious, damnable, rotten through and through”. She’s destroyed because of her poisonous sexuality, what the Daily Mail might euphemistically call her “lifestyle”.
Amazingly, the reader is somehow manipulated or cajoled into believing her murder and its concealment are somehow necessary, even romantic; that being cuckolded is a far worse fate than a woman’s death. It’s a grim reworking of “Bluebeard”, in which the murderer is suddenly the victim, adorable despite his bloody hands.
But who is really punished, and for what? Rebecca has a disturbingly circular structure, a closed loop like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. It ends with Manderley in flames, but the first two chapters are also the conclusion. Husband and wife have been condemned to the hell of expatriation, in a hot, shadowless, unnamed country, staying like criminals in an anonymous hotel. It is apparent that they are revenants in a kind of afterlife, their only pleasure articles from old English magazines about fly fishing and cricket. The narrator attests to their hard-won happiness and freedom, while knowing it resides in a place accessible only by the uncertain routes of dream and memory, expelled from the Eden they never quite possessed.
Du Maurier was under no illusions as to the bleakness of what she had written. “It’s a bit on the gloomy side,” she told her publisher, Victor Gollancz, adding nervously “the ending is a bit brief and a bit grim”. But her predictions of poor sales were inaccurate. Rebecca was a bestseller; 80 years on it still shifts around 4,000 copies a month.
What really startled her was that everyone seemed to think she’d written a romantic novel. She believed Rebecca was about jealousy, and that all the relationships in it – including the marriage between De Winter and his shy second wife – were dark and unsettling. (“I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” hardly betokened love between equals.) The idea had emerged out of her own jealousy about the woman to whom her husband, Tommy “Boy” Browning, had briefly been engaged. She had looked at their love letters, and the big elegant “R” with which Jan Ricardo signed her name had made her painfully aware of her own shortcomings as a woman and a wife.
As a child, Du Maurier dressed in shorts and ties and spent most of her time pretending to be her alter ego, Eric Avon
It wasn’t just that Du Maurier was shy, or disliked telling servants what to do. Though she was beautiful, she had never wanted to participate in the masquerade of femininity. She didn’t want to be a mother (at least not of daughters) or wear dresses, though she painted her face even to go on her beloved rain-lashed walks. What she liked was to be “jam-along”, scruffy, perpetually in trousers, messing about in boats or living at large in her own head.
As Margaret Forster’s revelatory 1993 biography made clear, Du Maurier had been like that since childhood, always dreaming up other possibilities, never certain that people, or even time, were as stable as they seemed. She certainly wasn’t. From a very young age she was what she called a “half-breed”, female on the outside “with a boy’s mind and a boy’s heart”.
As a child, this didn’t pose problems, especially in a family of actors. She dressed in shorts and ties and spent most of her time pretending to be her alter ego, Eric Avon, the splendid, shining captain of cricket at Rugby. But as she reached adulthood, this boy self “was locked in a box”. Sometimes, when she was alone, she opened it up “and let the phantom, who was neither boy or girl but disembodied spirit, dance in the evening when there was no one to see”.
This hidden boy exploded into the light in 1947, when Du Maurier met and fell in love with Ellen Doubleday, the wife of her US publisher, and the addressee of the letter in which these revelations were made. Her feelings were not reciprocated, but they opened the gates for a later affair with Gertrude Lawrence, an actor with whom her father had also been involved.
Du Maurier’s sexuality is complicated to understand. The word transgender was not yet in common currency. She didn’t think her desire for women made her a lesbian and fought against her “Venetian tendencies”. (Heterosexual sex was known in the family, even more exotically, as “going to Cairo”.) Actually she felt she was a boy, very much in love, and stuck in the wrong body. At the same time – perhaps pragmatically, perhaps not – she was a woman committed to staying married to her husband.
She was by no means the only writer to feel herself two things at once. Many critics have caught a similar note in Ernest Hemingway, who often wrote about sex as a place in which genders could be temporarily and blissfully exchanged. Virginia Woolf, too, experienced herself as protean, slipping between sexes; her gender-shifting, time-distorting romp Orlando gave voice to her feelings for her lover Vita Sackville-West.
How much of Du Maurier’s sexuality is visible in Rebecca? The narrator repeatedly casts herself as an androgyne. She offers herself to Maxim as “your friend and your companion, a sort of boy”. The full heat of her desire is for Rebecca. She speculates about what her body might have looked like: her height and slenderness, the way she wore her coat slung lazily over her shoulders, the colour of her lipstick, her elusive scent, like the crushed petals of azaleas.
When her husband's affairs were exposed, she wrote how her life was entangled with the plot of her most famous book
She isn’t the only one obsessed with Rebecca’s absent body. Mrs Danvers serves as a much more obvious proxy for Venetian tendencies. In the novel’s most sexual scene, “Danny” forces the narrator to put her hand in Rebecca’s slipper and fondle her nightdress, while she murmurs an incantation to Rebecca’s hair, her underwear, how her clothes were torn from her body when she drowned.
No wonder Mrs Danvers’ was the face that launched a thousand drag acts. She was embodying closeted lesbian realness even before Judith Anderson catapulted her into the high camp stratosphere in the Hitchcock film. Mind you, Anderson is given a run for her money by the revelation that Philip Larkin used to cheer himself up by looking in the mirror and declaiming throatily: “I am Mrs de Winter now.”
It’s not unusual for a novel to contain traceable elements from its author’s life. What’s odd about Rebecca is that it seemed somehow predictive, too packed with things that belonged not just to Du Maurier’s past but to her future, as well.
The most noticeable is Manderley, “secretive and silent as it had always been … a jewel in the hollow of a hand”. Manderley was based on Menabilly, an abandoned house near Fowey in Cornwall, which had bewitched Du Maurier as a girl. Like Manderley, Menabilly was strangely elusive. After she returned from Egypt, she managed to lease it from the owner and remained based there for most of her life. She loved the house feverishly, calling it “my Mena”, even though it was freezing, rat-run and chunks of the old wing kept crashing off. But she never quite possessed it, and in 1967 she was expelled after years of legal battles. Though she could still walk its grounds, Mena was as lost to her as if it had been swallowed in a fire.
“What is past is also future,” she once observed. When, in 1957, her husband had a breakdown and was discovered to have been having two affairs concurrently, Du Maurier wrote a long letter to a friend, in which she speculated about how her own life had become entangled with the plot of her most famous book. Was her husband identifying her with Rebecca, she wondered, and her writing hut with the sinister cottage on the beach? Would he shoot her in a blind access of rage, and take her body out in Yggie, their beloved boat?
She was under a great deal of stress at the time, but the fantasy aligned with her feelings about the oddities of time, how it seemed to run simultaneously, so that the distant past sometimes came very close, or repeated in inexplicable ways. She explored this in novel after time-slip novel, from her 1931 debut The Loving Spirit to The House on the Strand (1969), in which a young man takes an experimental drug that allows him to view events taking place in his own house in the 14th century.
The haunted house on the Strand is rather like a Du Maurier book in its own right. Her novels are storehouses in which she deposited emotions, memories and fantasies. Their function was intensely personal, but also public. If you’ve read Rebecca you have no doubt wandered Manderley in your mind, passing through the tunnel of scarlet rhododendrons in the hope of tea and dripping crumpets by the library fire, entering vicariously into moods of love and terror.
Du Maurier was not the most intellectual of writers. What she did was build emotional landscapes that can be entered at will, in which difficult and untamable desires were given free rein. Maybe because of her relationship with gender, she was able to make worlds in which people and even houses are mysterious and mutable, not as they seem; haunted rooms in which disembodied spirits sometimes dance at absolute liberty •
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing is published by Canongate. Rebecca (80th anniversary edition) by Daphne du Maurier is published by Virago on 1 March.
" Set during the years between the "Rebecca" trial and the writing of Du Maurier's "My Cousin Rachel," including her relationship with her husband Frederick 'Boy' Browning, and her largely unrequited infatuation with American publishing tycoon's wife Ellen Doubleday and her involvement with the actress Gertrude Lawrence. The atmosphere is well-invoked, bringing the late '40s early '50s easily to life. What is most striking about the production is the frequent use of the Cornish coast. For those who have seen "Rebecca" or know anything of DuMaurier's background this will come as an added welcome."
Du Maurier's lesbian loves on film
Screenplay examines writer's infatuation with American publishing tycoon's wife and actress
Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent
Sun 11 Feb 2007 11.45 GMT First published on Sun 11 Feb 2007 11.45 GMT
Daphne du Maurier's name has long been linked with the destructive story of one woman's obsession with another. Her novel Rebecca tells of the second Mrs de Winter's desperate struggle to break free of the shadow cast by her beautiful predecessor. To commemorate the centenary of the writer's birth this year, the BBC has turned to another story full of passionate intrigue between women: Du Maurier's own life.
Daphne, based on the controversial central chapters in Margaret Forster's 1993 authorised biography, is being filmed on location this month in London, Devon and Cornwall. It stars Geraldine Somerville in the role of Du Maurier, and Elizabeth McGovern and Janet McTeer as her two great romantic loves - the American publishing tycoon's wife Ellen Doubleday and the actress Gertrude Lawrence.
The screenplay has been adapted from Forster's book by Amy Jenkins, the creator of This Life, in her first attempt at period drama. It will chart du Maurier's deep and enduring love for her husband, Frederick 'Boy' Browning, but will also explain how her largely unrequited infatuations with Doubleday and Lawrence were reflected in her writing.
The 90-minute drama, to be shown on BBC2, focuses on what the BBC describes as the 'fraught' period of Du Maurier's life that followed the success of Rebecca and led up to the writing of My Cousin Rachel and her short story The Birds, famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Jenkins has worked with both Forster and with the Du Maurier family to shape the script. 'Daphne du Maurier was not what you would expect,' she said. 'She was irreverent, reclusive, funny, and tortured during this period of her life. I always want to write about strong, interesting women and Daphne's story is both tragic and illuminating. You'll never read Rebecca in the same way again.'
Du Maurier first met the glamorous Doubleday, who was married to her own publisher, Nelson Doubleday, on a voyage to New York on the Queen Mary. The novelist was sailing out, accompanied by two of her three children, in order to appear in a trial which revolved around accusations that she had plagiarised sections of Rebecca
The unsuccessful case had been brought against her by the writer Edwina MacDonald, who claimed that the 1940 Hitchcock film of the book relied heavily on her own work, Blind Windows
At some point during Du Maurier's stay in the Doubledays' comfortable New York home, she fell in love with her hostess.
Private letters written between the two women reveal the intensity of their relationship and show how hard the novelist tried to understand her own sexual and emotional needs. Somewhat mysteriously, she habitually referred to her heterosexual encounters as 'Cairo' and to homosexual encounters as 'Venice'. The code is thought to relate to her feelings about the nature of the two cities.
Du Maurier wrote a play, September Tide, about her forbidden love for Ellen, 'the Rebecca of Barberrys', and its staging then led her straight into a life-changing and doomed second lesbian affair with Lawrence, the vivacious actress who had inspired Noel Coward.
'What is fascinating is the way her personal life informed her writing,' said Kim Thomas, the executive producer of Daphne. 'Once you know this story, it changes the way you read everything. I would say that in My Cousin Rachel, Rachel is Ellen.' The film, Thomas adds, will be a contemporary take on the story, but with a strong sense of the films of Du Maurier's own era. The lesbian love scenes, she suggests, will be more reminiscent of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter than Sarah Waters's more graphic Fingersmith
At the time of her book's publication, Forster acknowledged the complexity of Du Maurier's emotional life. 'I accept her word that she was a hybrid, with tendencies both ways,' Forster said. 'But she said she felt the pleasure was greater with Venice than Cairo because she felt more in control that way.'
Forster's book also dwelt on Du Maurier's difficult relationship with her father, the actor/manager Gerald du Maurier, who was candid about the fact that he wished she were a boy.
Christina Hardyment on a well-researched but grudging biography of Daphne du Maurier
CHRISTINA HARDYMENT Saturday 20 March 1993 00:02 GMT
The Independent Culture
THE OPENING lines of Margaret Forster's biography of the British queen of suspense, romance and place are certainly in keeping with their subject. 'Sheet-lightning split the sky over London on the evening of 12 May 1907 and thunder rumbled long into the night.' By the time Muriel du Maurier has given birth to a daughter at dawn we already know what shows were on in London that night, not least Brewster's Millions in which Daphne's father, matinee idol Gerald du Maurier, was acting as his wife toiled in labour.
Although the narrative reads like a breeze, this is the last of romantic 'weather' in the book, nor does that promising cultural backdrop persist. Inhibited, perhaps, by the slant of the many already published panegyrics on du Maurier, Forster shuns lavish evacuation of the Cornish countryside, and doesn't tell us much about her subject's mental bookshelves, her sure grasp of the craft of writing.
Instead she concentrates on lighting up the dark emotional shadows that lie at the core of all Daphne's best books. What interests her most, as we might expect from a novelist who has shown herself concerned above all else with the inter-negotiations of men and women, old and young, in the domestic sphere, is Daphne's place in the web of her family, her sexual relationships, and the influence of both these things on her work.
On this level the book is enthralling. Daphne emerges as a moody child, nervously conscious she wasn't the boy her father made no bones about wanting, but beautiful enough to make him more than a little in love with her. She evaded his affection skilfully enough by taking on a boyish role herself, but her first published story was a bitter tale of man the oppressor and woman the victim called And Now to God the Father.
She had, it seems, little comfort from her own mother, whom Forster sketches as jealous of her, already smarting from her husband's infidelities, and finding it easier to pet the older and younger sisters than this proudly, unconventional daughter who disappeared up a tree with a book whenever she possibly could.
After a crush on a French school mistress, a surrogate mother in effect, and a couple of defiant adolescent indiscretions (one old, one young), Daphne found a highly respectable Prince Charming in the shape of war hero Tommy Browning, who first entered her life when he motored across Fowey harbour in a white launch named Ygdrasil. Six months later they were married in a tiny Cornish church. The official canon has left it at that: a long and happy marriage divided between London and Menabilly, the romantic Cornish manor that Daphne confessed to loving as much as, if not more, than any person, three children and later grandchildren, worldwide fame and an impressive and varied list of novels, biographies and memoirs.
Forster digs deeper. Browning was nicknamed 'Boy', but he was 11 years older than his new wife, and from a background (Sandhurst, an Oxfordshire rectory and the Grenadier Guards) as different as could be from the Bohemian style of the Hampstead du Mauriers. Although he knew what he was in for - having come to Fowey in the first place curious to meet the feted young author of The Loving Spirit, he had no idea what kind of baggage-train of emotions his beautiful young bride was trailing behind her.
Nor did she grasp for some time that besides being tall, fair and handsome, an archangel of unimpeachable integrity who would exorcise her father's devil, 'Boy' was a stickler for discipline, immaculate dress and domestic order, and something of a nervous wreck after his traumatic experiences in the trenches. Pile on to that the discovery of a packet of love letters in her husband's desk from a former girlfriend who seemed far more confident of her sexuality than Daphne was at the time, and we begin to see where Rebecca came from.
Again and again in the course of this richly researched book, Forster adds an exciting new dimension to our reading of du Maurier's novels by revealing the degree to which Daphne's own experience, more or less heavily veiled, lay at the root of them. At times, though, she is unconvincing. She spends a good deal of time laying a trail of tomboyish tendencies towards her much-hyped theory that Daphne's preferred sexual identity was homosexual. But when the 'startling new evidence' we have all heard so much about emerges, the frank discussion of the respective pleasures of 'Venice' and 'Cairo', it is handled inconclusively.
The real interest of what seems to have been more experiment than fulfilment (two brief but intimate holidays with the actress Gertrude Lawrence in 1948, and a string of passionate letters to the woman who was in reality more of a mother figure than a lover, Ellen Doubleday) is surely not an indication of preference for mannishness, but the light it sheds on Daphne's capacity for empathising with both sexes, of her deep desire for passion and the sad fact that it was frustrated for so much of her life.
Both relationships are rather more satisfactorily set into Daphne's emotional landscape by the quite fascinating appendix, a long and brilliant analysis of the relationship between herself and her husband, complete with echoes from the past and re-echoes into the future, written by Daphne herself to a family friend in order to explain Tommy's breakdown in 1957. It shows that Daphne was well aware of the extent to which her romantic and macabre allegories were a means of working out her subconscious longings and terrors. She herself dismisses her 'obsessions - you can only call them that - for poor old Ellen D and Gertrude' as 'all part of a nervous breakdown going on inside myself', at a time of great strain, her appearance in court in New York to defend Rebecca against plagiarism. What quite evidently matters most to her is her relationship with Tommy, by then always nicknamed 'Moper', and with her children.
The appendix does more than this. By allowing Daphne to speak for herself at length, it also draws attention to the extent to which Forster has controlled her subject's utterance by quoting du Maurier's own exhilarating prose in phrases rather than paragraphs. To get an instant taste of what I mean, open any page of Oriel Malet's edition of the letters she received from Daphne over 40 years of friendship (Letters to Menabilly, Weidenfeld, pounds 18.99). It is a marvellous lucky dip of advice on writing, urgent reading enthusiasms, gossip about family and friends, and sheer intellectual exuberance.
Yet it seems that the democrat in Forster doesn't quite approve of this unwifely lady, with her nannies and her neglect of domestic niceties and spelling. 'Tommy was always what he seemed, Daphne never,' she writes. 'If Daphne had been prepared to sacrifice Menabilly, she could have made a home in or near London for both of them, so that their marriage would have had a better chance of flourishing once more.' She is even confident enough to declare: 'That (the trusts she provided for her children) might not necessarily be good for any of them never troubled her, though it troubled Tommy.'
All in all, Forster has succceeded, for good or for bad, in changing the image of one of the most passionate writers of the late 20th century, living in one of the most romantic houses in Britain, into that of a frustrated wife in corduroys struggling with crumbling plaster and rats. It is the portrait of a cavalier painted by a puritan.