Reading and Re-Reading Daphne du Maurier: how books change us by Serena Trowbridge
Serena Trowbridge spoke at the Fowey Festival of Arts and Literature on two occasions in May this year. On the first occasion, she discussed the poems of the Pre-Raphaelite model, poet and artist Elizabeth Siddall and the next day, she returned to present her talk Reading and Re-Reading Daphne du Maurier: how book change us. We are happy to say that Serena has sent us her talk about reading Daphne du Maurier, which we share with you here.
Dr. Serena Trowbridge
When I was at school, I read everything. All that I was interested in could be found in books, and as we didn’t have a television at home, or siblings or pets or any other distractions, and I didn’t sleep much either, I got through a lot of books. The local library was my favourite place to be; occasionally my parents lost me (both thinking I was with the other) and I was always found in the library. I can still remember the order of the shelves and where my favourite sections were, and distinctly recall some of the books I repeatedly borrowed – Just William was a favourite, and Moondial, and The Children of the New Forest – which I don’t remember that well now, but my son read it recently and adored it to the extent that he wouldn’t participate in any family activities until he had finished it. Then one evening he stormed into our bedroom at ten o’clock, furious, and threw the book across the room and demanded I contact the author immediately to complain about the ending.
My childhood also featured a lot of second-hand bookshops, where I was banned from buying more than one Enid Blyton book a week. My favourite bookshops – in the days when our town had many of them – were the one in the old Embassy cinema, a spectacular art deco building (now sadly demolished) where my father took me to see Superman and Star Wars at the age of two and a half, and another in an old house with many rooms on the edge of town, with library ladders and a proper musty bookish smell.
I distinctly remember the first proper book I read: The Ordinary Princess by M. M. Kaye, about a princess who firmly refused to conform to the storybook rules of princesses. I loved it, and was inordinately proud of having read it all by myself, at the age of five. And I know this sounds like the sort of thing one adds in retrospect, but I remember sitting there on a beanbag in the primary school library, chewing my plaits and looking around me at the books and thinking, I can read anything now. There are so many books in the world and they are all open to me.
I’ve carried that feeling with me ever since. At middle school I wasn’t allowed to participate in the reading challenges because I read too much and it wasn’t fair on the other children. The teachers tried taking points off for every ‘Choose your own adventure’ book I read, but because I read literally everything in the school library I still won every week until they barred me. My final years of middle school were marked by an obsession with Jennings, Just William, and The Scarlet Pimpernel. My friends had watched this on TV; we didn’t have a TV so I borrowed Baroness Orczy’s books from the town library and read them with delight; then I wrote a play based on them, which we performed aged 11.
I didn’t just read, though; I reread. I knew books practically by heart, and felt as though I had all the time in the world to read, so it was always good to reread, and I see my son doing this now. I used to go to bed with enormous piles of books, luxuriating in a chapter of Paddington, a bit of history (I always loved history books, especially the 1950s ones by R. J. Unstead and the earlier ones by Eileen and Rhoda Power), enjoying them and taking something new from them every time despite their familiarity, or perhaps because of it. Lucy Mangan writes in Bookworm that:
Adults tend to forget what a vital part of the process rereading is for children. As adults, rereading seems like backtracking at best, self-indulgence at worst. Free time is such a scarce resource that we feel we should use it on new things.
But for children, rereading is absolutely necessary. The act of reading is itself still new. A lot of energy is still going into (not so) simple decoding of words and the assimilation of meaning. Only then do you get to enjoy the plot – to begin to get lost in the story. The beauty of a book is that it remains the same for as long as you need it. You can’t wear out a book’s patience.
Of course one of the arguments I want to make is that books don’t exactly stay the same, because we change – but I’ll come to that later. And rereading isn’t only necessary for children. By rereading the book becomes part of us, and we become part of it, too. Reading was never enough for me; I had to be the book, live it, join in with the characters and their world, and to do that you need to know the book inside out, so you can work out the characters’ motivations, likes and dislikes, and settings, enough to be able to work them into your own life and scenarios – a bit like living fan-fiction. I wrote long letters to Little Grey Rabbit and Mrs Tiggywinkle, and received fantastic letters back, which of course I now realise were written by my parents (Mrs Tiggywinkle’s were typed because apparently her prickles made it difficult to hold a pen). Living as if you are in a book can present problems, of course: William Brown is probably not the role model most parents want for their children, as general chaos follows him around; and after reading too much Secret Seven, our new next-door neighbours when I was 9 probably wondered why I was following them around and was suspicious about what might be hidden in the base of their new bird bath. But that is what rereading does for you.
I look back on my favourite books as a child – not the ones I liked but the ones I really loved, the ones that took me entirely into their world and never quite let go of me – and I can trace a line from them to the books I loved later on. This is quite a random assortment, but they each held a special and different place for me. Perhaps the outliers here are the Sadlers’ Wells books – the thing I mainly did apart from read was ballet, and indeed I still dance and also still reread these books when I need a break from the world. Katherine Rundell points out in her lovely essay Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, that we shouldn’t see reading as a one-way train. We can read (and reread) any books at any time, and odd combinations of favourites are a positive blessing, in fact. She adds,
The difficulties with the rule of readerly progression are many; one is that, if one followed the same pattern into adulthood, turning always to books of obvious increasingly complexity, you’d be left ultimately with nothing but Finnegan’s Wake and the complete works of the French deconstructionist theorist Jacques Derrida to cheer your deathbed.
Favourite books included A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley, The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, The Midnight Folk by John Masefield, Just William (Richmal Crompton) and Jennings (Anthony Buckeridge); Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper, A Dream of Sadler’s Wells by Lorna Hill, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Tales of King Arthur.
I have reread all of the books on this list – some, rediscovering them by reading them with my son, who is also a wide and enthusiastic reader, and reading them with someone for whom every event and emotion is new, fresh and unexpected is a pleasure I hadn’t even thought of before he came along. Many of these books share a thread of magic, of the unknown and of something which is beyond the real and everyday world – but it is always on the fringes of it. I’ve never been one for full-on fantasy, though I see a growing enthusiasm for it in undergraduate students, and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series is probably the closest to it I’ve ever got. But the magic available in the everyday – the unexpected discovery that we are living side by side with people from history, for example, as we see in A Traveller in Time, or that there is actual, proper magic in living, growing things, in The Secret Garden, is what really appeals to me, and in that respect I still absolutely believe in magic as I did when I was a child. I suppose there is a thread of something dark alongside the silvers and golds in my reading life; my PhD looks at Gothic in poetry, and although I’m quite a cheerful person I rather enjoy a bit of gloomth, as Horace Walpole describes it – that nostalgia for a past which is both frightening and comforting, usually with beautiful architecture thrown in. I suspect I get my taste for this from my mother, who used to recite me Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ (in which a woman is strangled with her own hair) and Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’ (in her sepulchre down by the sea) when I was very young. Gothic also tends to have clearcut heroes and villains, which often become less distinct the more we read them – much like children’s books, perhaps.
Recently I found a notebook from 1994, the final year of my A-levels, which indicates the really random reading I did. I particularly like the combination of Jackie Collins and Mary Wollstonecraft (I think some of this might have been from pre-university reading lists). But it was while I was at school that this pattern of reading was set. My parents had a lot of books – which is an understatement; they had thousands, and didn’t pay much attention to what I read, which is how I read, with deep confusion, Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles at the age of eleven.
The girls’ grammar school I went to encouraged us to use the library not just for homework but for wider reading, though I’m not sure many other girls did, but I remember going in there on my first day and marvelling that I was able to go and borrow whatever I wanted any day of the week, and I did. I started Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov at twelve, but perhaps unsurprisingly abandoned it, although I did return to the tatty school copy and finish it when I was 17. But it was the wide selection of proper grown-up novels that really got me excited. I read through all of M. M. Kaye’s adult novels first, but it didn’t take me long to discover Daphne du Maurier. By the age of 13 I had spent many holidays in Cornwall, and I always had a strong sense of attachment to the place, as I still do now, so a Cornish novelist held a particular appeal for me, and it’s unsurprising that I started my du Maurier journey with Jamaica Inn.
Alison Light, in Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the wars writes that:
| || with the atmospheric opening of Jamaica Inn, ‘a granite sky’ and a
‘lashing pitiless rain’, we know straightaway that we are in the place
of pathetic fallacy, and the land of longing, and that Mary Yellan,
travelling alone across the deserted country into the dark night, is
journeying into a storm teeming with narrative excitement, whose
emotional elements will be as fierce as those which pound on the door or
her coach. Making our way, like her, into the story, we expect to
weather tempests of feeling as frequently as those of gale and rain.|| |
There are two scenes which particularly remain in my mind from this novel, and the first is of Mary’s journey to Jamaica Inn. I persuaded my parents, when we were on holiday near Newquay one year, to take me to visit Jamaica Inn (having been thrilled to discover it was a real place). They don’t drive, so we went by coach. I was notoriously bad at coach journeys, but at least on this one I wasn’t sick. However, I decided, as an experiment which I later regretted, to see if I could think myself into being Mary Yellan; I suppose this was about the concept that just reading a novel wasn’t enough, so I wanted to see if I could make myself believe it completely. Well, I succeeded. I wore my oldest, dullest dress; I sat by myself on the coach, and because I knew the book so well by then, I reflected on Mary’s feelings – absorbed by the death of her mother, the unknown life before her, and the countryside through which she travelled. Unfortunately – or perhaps not - that day (in October half term) it was pouring with rain, and very windy, and the journey over land which was then very unfamiliar to me seemed as terrifying as it was for Mary. In the book, as Mary leaves Bodmin,
She was alone now with the wind and the rain, and twelve long miles of barren moor between her and her destination. She wondered if this was how a ship felt when the security of harbour was left behind. No vessel could feel more desolate than she did, not even if the wind thundered in the rigging and the sea licked her decks.
Of course, as a reader and not a character, I also knew what lay ahead of Mary when she reached her destination. In my mind, Joss Merlyn and poor Aunt Patience would be waiting for me when we arrived. I am clearly not as brave as Mary Yellan; by the time we arrived, I was sobbing, and it took a lot of calming talk for me to be persuaded to enter Jamaica Inn. I don’t remember anything at all of the visit, except that I bought the book in the bookshop, and just to round off the adventure, on the trip back home, by which time darkness had fallen, I was sick.
I still think that Mary Yellan is one of du Maurier’s most appealing heroines, independent, determined, brave, and resisting attempts to shape her into a woman she didn’t want to be. Her support for Aunt Patience, her determination for a better life, makes her an appealing figure, especially for a teenage reader. Mary gives little away, I think, remaining self-contained so that the reader sometimes needs to guess at her emotions, but allowing us enough to empathise and to actually like her. I noticed in recent rereadings what I hadn’t noticed before: that Mary comments that she should have been a boy; that she wants to work on a farm like a man, and that she is congratulated for her nearly masculine bravery by Joss and Jem and others. This is characteristic of so many of du Maurier’s women: they reject the conventional femininity of those around them, and survive because they can adapt to a man’s world. When despairing in the vicar’s coach after her visit to Launceston, Mary says, ‘I don’t want to live like a woman, or love like a woman’; ‘I want a man’s life’. She has seen the lives of her mother and aunt, and is holding out for more than that; this in itself makes her a role model for a (quietly) rebellious teenager.
When I read Jamaica Inn at 12, mostly sitting in the school library, I was absolutely thrilled and couldn’t read fast enough, perhaps because I was still close enough to my Just William-reading stage to enjoy the adventure of smugglers and secrets, and listening to an awful audio book of it in the last couple of weeks I suspect I somehow managed to ignore the graphic images of Joss Merlyn’s haunted mind, with the drowned women from the ships he wrecked. It is a much darker novel than I remembered; for example, the multiple sexual threats against Mary had also been forgotten. But I admire, now, how Mary is able to distinguish character: she knows somehow that Jem Merlyn is safer than his brother, that he makes her laugh and, despite his horse-stealing, is essentially a good man. On the other hand, her shock, shared by the reader, when she discovers the true nature of the Vicar of Altarnun, Francis Davey, suggests she – and we - cannot always recognise the depths of wickedness.
Du Maurier’s novels are, now I come to think of it, full of characters who are frightening, or bad, or weak, and those who are truly good are very few, which is one of the things which makes her such an interesting writer. One of the things that did strike me as a teenager and again recently is how Joss and Jem Merlyn are almost doubles, their appearances echoing each other, and yet with ultimately very different behaviour and personalities. The line between desire and repulsion is one I think du Maurier often negotiates with her characters, and this is a particularly strong example of it. The other scene that stood out for me is when they visited Launceston on Christmas Eve (and I’m sorry to say that as a result when I first visited Launceston I was quite disappointed; I’m not sure what I expected but somehow I wanted some trace of the time that Mary and Jem visited to be apparent to me). That mostly happy day, when it becomes clear that Jem is a rogue rather than a villain, and that Mary both has feelings for him and is also prepared to put those feelings aside in order to better her life, seemed complex to me as a teenager who wanted to read romantic stories, but even then I think I liked the idea that romance wasn’t everything, and that there are adventures to be had which were more important. Anyway, the description of the festive bustle of Launceston, of the comic negotiations over the sale of the stolen horse, and the visit to the fortune teller, drew me in to a warm spot in the novel, realising, as Mary did, that there are happy moments even in the bleakest tales.
Frenchman’s Creek is probably my favourite du Maurier novel. I found in it something of The Ordinary Princess, perhaps – a woman who didn’t want to live the life mapped out for her, although when I first read it I wouldn’t have thought of it like that. I liked the adventure, the sense of place. The opening line is one that gives me tingles, because I know what’s coming: ‘When the east wind blows up the Helford River the shining waters become troubled and disturbed and the little waves beat angrily upon the sandy shore.’ Similarly, the closing line moves from the river to the sea: ‘Then out of the sea, like a ball of fire, the sun came hard and red.’ The book moves us, then, from the river with its angry little waves to the vast expanse of the sea, lit by an unforgiving sun. I like to compare opening and closing sentences, and this suggests to me that a process of maturing has taken place during the narrative, one that isn’t easy and arriving in a place which will have a different beauty and different comforts.
At 13, I suppose the idea that one’s life would be so imperfect in that idealised adult world that one might want to run away from it was completely alien to me (given I wasn’t a particularly enthusiastic observer of the adults around me). But it was one of the first ‘romantic’ novels I’d ever read, though I should say that I have spent my adult life defending it from those who say it’s ‘just a romance’. It makes me furious that the Curtis Brown website, like many others, describes it as ‘a pirate romance’. I have recommended it to many friends who have dismissed it, and I have enjoyed their subsequent messages telling me that actually, I was right, and they loved it. But the impossibility of Dona’s situation, and the way in which her life changes so profoundly when she is by the sea at Navron, has set a course for me: I find traditional happy endings unsatisfactory and often trite (it’s that streak of melancholy or gloomth again), and am always rooting for the impossible. So I found this novel exciting, adventurous, and full of romantic possibilities which are blighted yet remain incipient in the end, when I first read it. I have lost count of the number of times I have reread it, and it always offers me that deeply satisfactory feeling, because even though I know, now, that the Frenchman will return to his ship alone, and that Dona will have to find a way to accept her life with her unappealing husband for the sake of her children, somehow that gives an additional savour to the wild night in which the Frenchman steals Godolphin’s wig. And in fact, Dona knows it too: she thinks of another Dona, lying miserably in her London bed, and a third Dona, of the future, ‘to whom all this will be a thing to cherish, a thing to remember.’ It has always struck me that in her own life and letters as well as in her novels, du Maurier knew what it was to feel divided; so many of her characters are torn between what they want and what they know they must do, and also between different modes of being, much of which is, I think, about concerns around the restrictions of womanhood and oppressive gender roles. Du Maurier’s life and letters also indicate that these concerns have a basis in her own experience.
I reread Frenchman’s Creek as an antidote to A-level study, when I was feeling frustrated by having to revise rather than read what I wanted, but in fact it did me a favour: in my S-level English paper there were two essay questions for the 3 hour exam: the first was whether literature should be didactic, which I enjoyed because my study of Paradise Lost and Greek theatre helped me; but the other was about the nature of freedom in literature. I wrote at random, whatever came into my head (much as I am doing while writing this), and compared Peter Shaffer’s Equus, a play I didn’t particularly enjoy but found fascinating anyway, with Frenchman’s Creek, which is probably the first time that’s ever been done (and as an academic I’d probably raise my eyebrows at a student suggesting it, but trust me, it worked). I wrote furiously about the human need to escape from the routine and ordinary, about what freedom meant in terms of pursuing the unlikely, unexpected or socially unacceptable, about how the norms which control society are restrictive and controlling. It was standard teenage stuff in many ways, but it fired me up for making odd connections in literary study, and for thinking about what in ourselves we find reflected in the books we love, and managed to work myself up so much while writing in the exam hall that I actually cried. This wasn’t unexpected for my teachers, I assume, since I had also wept over my analysis of Renaissance poetry in my unseen English exam.
I last read it a few years ago on a rainy November holiday in Marazion. We had friends staying with us, but all I really wanted to do was lie in bed all day and reread Frenchman’s Creek. This time, I felt it differently, in some ways. The old longing for the metaphorical freedom of the sea and countryside is as strong as ever, but this time, with more things complicating my life than ever before (husband, child, job, elderly parents) it rang very true to me – not that I don’t love all of those things and people, just that they restrict my choices and mean that I can’t just run away whenever I want to. I think of Virginia Woolf writing that “I went for a walk in Regents Park yesterday morning, and it suddenly struck me how absurd it was to stay in London, with Cornwall going on all the time”. She impulsively purchased a train ticket and arrived at Lelant station, near St. Ives, at 10:30 p.m., without “spectacles, cheque book, looking glass, or coat.” And I ask myself, Why can’t I do that? Well, there are a million good reasons why not, I’m afraid (not least the currently prohibitive cost of train tickets) but mostly the ways in which our freedom to act as we please – especially, dare I say it, as a woman – are limited. Dona St Columb can run away to Navron, but it is only a temporary respite, and one she knows cannot last; rereading the novel it’s easy to see that we are playing at freedom alongside her, tasting its pleasure whilst knowing it cannot last. Was she ever going to run away and be a cabin boy forever? Well, of course not. The suspension of reality that we as readers participate in means that we can be swept away by the romance just as Dona is, but ultimately, as Du Maurier knew, women are more tied than men: romance is nothing compared with one’s children and a home one loves, and ultimately we are all tied to reality.
In fact I am usually something of a pragmatist; I bet a roving piratical life would be less fun at 65 (or even 45, come to that) – the sea dampness would get into one’s bones, and the reckless poetry-reading pirate might seem less appealing when you had to wash his socks and found out he snores. So the novel’s conclusion leaves the romantic dream intact: Dona suffers nothing more serious than a broken heart for her running away, but we as readers are left with the dream and the hope of something more.
My Cousin Rachel slightly mystified me; I remember feeling uncertain as to whether the mysterious Rachel was, in fact, a murderess when I first read it. This is another du Maurier novel sometimes described as a romance which is anything but romantic. Adult reading leaves me feeling deeply irritated by Philip Ashley. But my overwhelming sense now is that this is a novel about women’s power, and how hard they have to fight for it. Rachel is a woman who knows about the power of attraction and how to wield it, and, like Rebecca, she dies for that (although of course these are very different women). The character Joanna Champernoun in The House on the Strand is, in some ways, a parallel to other women in du Maurier’s novels who are depicted as sexually predatory; there is a touch of Rebecca in her, and even more of Carla Raspa, and Rachel.
Philip and Ambrose Ashley are part of a male coterie that describes themselves as woman-haters; consequently, when they fall in love it is all about the glamour and fireworks; the obsession both men feel is encouraged by the widowed Rachel – and why not? Her life, du Maurier suggests, has been hard, and what other way is there for her to live her life? But it’s a clever novel; it begins, and ends, with the idea of paying the penalty for a crime:
They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though. Now, when a murderer pays the penalty for his crime, he does so up at Bodmin, after fair trial at the Assizes.
The same concept appears at the beginning and end, but the reader has changed in the course of the novel. Giving us the murderous context makes us suspicious, it sets us up to look for a crime, and along comes Rachel, on the make, unscrupulous, and it seems clearcut. But the ambiguous ending, followed by that final line, ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more’, tells us that sometimes suspected murderers meet their comeuppance in other ways, and that sometimes they do not get a fair trial, either. I always felt a sneaky sympathy for Rachel: so what if she wanted fine things, and to be admired? Didn’t she deserve that after all that had happened to her? Now, I have no doubt that she was innocent; it’s just that we are too ready to believe an imperfect woman to be guilty.
Rereading The Flight of the Falcon a few weeks ago, it strikes me how little I must have understood it when I first read it at 14. In fact, though, I think I enjoyed it more then than I do now – I remember hiding under the coat stands by the heater when I was meant to be in double biology in order to finish it. I didn’t remember it that well in the intervening thirty years, though, and it’s one I hadn’t reread, so I felt the building tension in the novel strongly and wanted again to race to the end to find out what happens, but this time round I find the characters queasily unpleasant and unlikeable, feeling not an ounce of pity for Aldo and Armino, particularly for the way they treat women. In fact my main recollection of the book before I reread was not the dramatic and violent action, or the vividly described city, but Carla Raspa, who I felt was the height of sophistication, with her smooth black hair, mole on her upper lip, and low-cut white top and stiff black skirt. In my teenage mind she resembled Isabella Rossellini and was the epitome of cool. Of course now I see the barely disguised contempt the brothers had for her, with her desperation to be wanted, her loneliness exposed by Aldo in one of the late scenes of the novel, and her desire for information and gossip in order to be at the heart of the action. Perhaps this pitiful figure of Carla is a representation of women that du Maurier herself pitied; one of the things that strikes me when I look over the broad sweep of du Maurier’s novels is the ways in which she inhabits characters of men and women with apparently equal ease, which perhaps is not surprising given her views on gender – and the ways in which she exposes the flaws in these characters with deft psychological touches. Five of her novels have a male narrator, I’ll Never Be Young Again, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat, The Flight of the Falcon and The House on the Strand; and they tend to treat women badly and to see them as lesser people, somehow, even while they may be fascinated with them. I have often wondered how much du Maurier actually liked some, or even most, of her characters.
Another thing that strikes me about this novel is the setting: Ruffano, an imagined city based on Urbino. One of the truisms of writing about du Maurier is to talk about her affinity with place and her depiction of landscape; it’s certainly true that she creates the most compelling and believable places, with descriptions that you can almost touch, but it seems to me that her emotional power is reserved for Cornwall. The love of a place, the evocation of the spirit of a landscape, is apparent most strongly in the Cornish novels, but scenes set abroad often indicate something powerful but sterile, because its emotion is absent. Ruffano is compelling and believable, hot, dusty, angry, violent, both ancient and modern – but it doesn’t call to the reader in the way that the Helford River does. We see this elsewhere: in Rebecca it always strikes me that the narrator dislikes ‘abroad’; the scenes in foreign places where holidays and relaxation are meant to happen are in fact devoid of any interest in the way they are described. In the early landscapes of Rebecca the second Mrs de Winter reminisces about Manderley and the English countryside, while the landscapes of the foreign places they escaped to after the fire are anti-sublime, hard, glittering, bright, as unEnglish as possible, evoking little emotion, possibly in an attempt to repress memory.
Rebecca is the novel that seems to be at the heart of du Maurier’s work, but on first reading it at about 15 I found it strangely unsatisfactory. I struggled to place it in terms of genre, for one thing: is it a romance, a gothic romance, a crime novel, or a subversive feminist criticism of patriarchy? And I never warmed to either Maxim de Winter or to the second Mrs de Winter, while Rebecca and Mrs Danvers were shadowy, frightening figures. I suppose I didn’t know what to do with it: I thought I ought to be rooting for the unnamed narrator, and happy that she was able eventually to defeat the ghost of the first wife, but I never found it a comfortable novel, though I loved Manderley deeply (something which is true outside of novel reading: I find places more lovable than people, quite often). But place and landscape are also powerful and problematic in this novel; Monte Carlo is beautiful but evokes bad memories for Maxim, while descriptions of Manderley and its surroundings are full of love and nostalgia but with fear at the heart of it. Even when that fear has supposedly been laid to rest, the ghosts continue to haunt the narrator.
So I suppose I read Rebecca as a kind of unsatisfactory Gothic romance, a bit like the ‘my husband is trying to kill me’ Gothic of Dorothy Eden and Victoria Holt which I consumed at great speed despite finding them the literary equivalent of junk food. This doesn’t say much for my skills of literary discernment in my teens, but it meant that I avoided Rebecca for a number of years, rereading other du Maurier novels but not this one. Then about 10 years ago I had the opportunity to create a module on Gothic literature for final-year undergraduates. I decided to make it chronological, starting with Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and concluding with Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. After Jane Eyre, I wanted something early twentieth century, so I thought of Rebecca. One of my central arguments about Gothic is that it is a genre entirely dependent on place: it needs a castle, or something like it, for the enclosed space in which Gothic happens, and Manderley fits that well. There is also a direct line of influence from Jane Eyre to Rebecca to The Little Stranger. So I reread Rebecca, and found it a completely different novel. When I reread it, I was going through a period when several of my close friends were getting divorced, and as a new mother myself I was thinking about women’s roles in society. I found myself reading Rebecca from a very different perspective. What if the new Mrs de Winter is not in love, but enacting self-preservation? Is this second wife acting in her own best interests, marrying a man who can give her wealth and security? Who can blame a woman for that, in such a society?
| || || |
What if Rebecca, for all her bad behaviour, does not deserve to die? The discomfort I had felt before about Mrs de Winter protecting her husband because she was simply so relieved she no longer had to be jealous of his previous wife began to make more sense. We see, with the second Mrs de Winter, that she is often happier when Maxim is away from home; that she is uncomfortable with her role as wife, and indeed she seems to indicate a relationship which is asexual, describing herself as a boy: ‘I was like a little scrubby schoolboy with a passion for a sixth-form prefect, and he kinder, and far more inaccessible.’ Again du Maurier’s anxieties about womanhood and gender roles emerge here, contrasted with the womanly and sophisticated former wife.
But then, what of Rebecca? One of the interesting things about this novel is how it depicts life after marriage – twice. When I’m teaching novels I always ask students, ‘Is marriage a happy ending for women? Do we believe this relationship will be successful?’ – and almost always, there are clues in the text to suggest that even the authors didn’t really believe that marriage was a happy ending, and after all, characters who marry in their twenties can expect to spend the majority of their life married, so it isn’t an ending at all, really, but a beginning. Du Maurier shows that very clearly here: the apparently brilliant marriage of Maxim and Rebecca is exposed as a sham, and personally I don’t have much hope for the second marriage either.
Rebecca behaved badly, wanting freedom in a way unlikely to be acceptable to most readers, and taunting Max even while she knew she was terminally ill. Yet she, too, had to perform the role of the womanly, perfect wife; though we discover that she not only had affairs and lived her own life, she also could not have children. And, in the patriarchal society du Maurier depicts, what use is a woman who cannot give the owner of an estate such as Manderley an heir? That is, of course, what wives are for. So Rebecca has to die: she’s no use to her husband, and may well damage his reputation, too. I read the novel now as a warning: badly-behaved, non-conforming women will be disposed of, because they do not support the society in which they exist. Du Maurier would have seen this very clearly, and I suspect this is the source of her concerns with gender roles – that freedom to be oneself is hard to support in the restrictive, upper-middle-class society of the time. In fact, it seems to me that the happiest relationship in the novel is that of Beatrice and Giles – and Beatrice is depicted as rather masculine, while Giles admits he likes to dress in women’s clothing. Acceptance of breaking the mould is, perhaps, the secret to happiness.
Alison Light critiqued the novel in an article in the Feminist Review, which gets to the heart of the issue for both Rebecca and her successor:
| ||Becoming a good bourgeois woman is shown in Rebecca to be a perilous process, one which can never be either fictionally or socially completed.|| |
The novel is ultimately unsatisfactory for young readers looking for romance, such as I was, then: it’s exciting, and dramatic, and has much appeal, but for me, at least, it’s only with maturity that I began to read it as a critique of patriarchy, and for that, I love it.
I Capture the Castle is a book I came to later than many readers – I think I first read it in the longest summer holiday, the one between school and university. I spent most of that summer sitting in the garden reading Milton and trying to get to grips with Old English grammar, in those times when reading lists were issued and work had to be done before you went up to university; but I also discovered this book, and read it at least three times, and many times since. I gave it to my best friend just before she got married, and it took me a while to get over the fact that she didn’t like it that much.
From the first, most famous line, ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’, I was hooked; I was also an avid diarist, and certainly longed to live in a castle. Instead, I usually wrote while sitting in the loft hatch with my feet hanging out, although I did try sitting in the sink, but was politely requested to move on. Every time I read this book, it takes me back to that summer, when I was absolutely free of any responsibility and instead was frivolously pursuing doomed relationships with various boys I’d met at school balls, wandering round with bare feet and flowers in my hair and a lot of blue eyeliner (it was 1994). It’s usually described as a coming of age story, and also that awful term ‘romance’ again, as though a woman’s life is defined by romantic relationships; this is something I think du Maurier pushed back against, and the same is true of I Capture the Castle. It is full of humour; one of my favourite passages features Topaz walking naked but for wellingtons at night, and being mistaken for a legless ghost. In fact, the older I get the more I appreciate Topaz; although Cassandra is surprised that she finds it romantic to be living in a drafty old castle married to a washed-up writer, these days I find myself admiring Topaz’s determination to ignore life’s difficulties and pursue her own eccentricities regardless of the views of the world.
The novel is written nostalgically, I think, as Dodie Smith recalled the difficult, heady life of a teenage girl, but it also inspires nostalgia in its readers – not only for their own youth but also for the first time they read it. It reminds us that being young isn’t easy; that things may work out for the best in the end but you may get your heart broken in the process – and that it is part of the process, because Cassandra’s life is so much richer than just how she feels about Simon. The opening line may make me smile, but the final lines make me want to cry:
A mist is rolling over the fields. Why is summer mist romantic and
autumn mist just sad? There was mist on Midsummer Eve, mist when we
drove into the dawn.
He said he would come back.
Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you.
Cassandra knows she is being melodramatic, and she revels in it. As the teenager who spent a lot of time pretending to be The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I completely understand this, and books like this give you licence to practice your emotions, I think; to sob for something that may never come to be (although who knows? The ending might be read as hopeful) and also to be able to recognise that this is just one, early chapter in life.
I have left myself little space to talk about Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, but I will just make a few comments here. I hadn’t encountered Woolf at all until I took a course on Modernism in my final year at university, which was taught by a brilliant, enthusiastic, feminist professor. I suddenly became interested in feminist thought and politics in a way I hadn’t before, and loved Woolf’s essays in particular. I read A Room of One’s Own repeatedly, and Three Guineas, which I enjoyed returning to a couple of years ago for International Women’s Day celebrations at the university, where I was asked to read a passage from Woolf with a loudhailer in the main foyer. I chose this:
| ||No guinea of earned money should go to rebuilding the college on the old plan just as certainly none could be spent upon building a college upon a new plan: therefore the guinea should be earmarked ‘Rags. Petrol. Matches.’ And this note should be attached to it. ‘Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry, ‘Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this education!’|| |
I was asked by the university authorities to preface this reading with a statement that this was metaphorical, and not an incitement to arson. But the wonderful drama and conviction of Woolf’s non-fiction swept me away. Unfortunately, the same is not true of Woolf’s fiction. We read several of Woolf’s novels, including To the Lighthouse, and I am ashamed to say that I found them rather dull and opaque, and despite the excellent teaching I didn’t really take to the stream of consciousness style. Consequently, for well over a decade if anyone mentioned Woolf I would say that her novels weren’t for me. Then, in the first year of my academic job, I was asked to teach To the Lighthouse. With some reluctance I dug out my undergraduate copy, and read it in one sitting, and it blew me away. By this time I was 36, married with a small son, and obviously my life was very different from how it had been at 20. Clearly, for me, it took maturity to ‘get’ Woolf; the simultaneous narrative threads, the sense of being inside of the heads of the characters, Mrs Ramsay’s thought processes as she goes about her day – these suddenly all made complete sense to me. Her errands, her organising of her family, her relationship with her children and husband, all of the things which, as Woolf knew, might be the enemy of creative work, are all present in her narrative, and the way in which Woolf writes of both minutiae and the great sweep of life in one short book is devastatingly truthful. Woolf wrote in her essay ‘Modern Fiction’ that she wanted to show how ‘an ordinary mind on an ordinary day’ receives and organises ‘a myriad impressions’, and her depiction of the state of simply being a woman – with its frustrations, expectations, limitations and also joys, is compelling. In a very different way, I think du Maurier’s works also do this.
On this rereading I also fell in love with the character of Lily Briscoe, uncompliant, focused on her work, with her complex relations with Mrs Ramsay, and given the final word in the book:
It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
Oh, that vision, and the elusive, haunting nature of Woolf’s women! It means something now, which I was too obtuse to see before, and it started me on an enthusiastic train of Woolf-reading, which happily I share with several friends. One, who I met at a post-natal yoga group, told me that she loved Woolf’s novels so much that she was reading them slowly across her life so she always had more of them to read for the first time, and after that we were firm friends. I also had a brilliant weekend in St Ives with friends a few years ago for the Woolf exhibition, when we spent much time sitting in pubs debating what the metaphorical lighthouse might represent.
I had hoped to also discuss John Fowles’ novels, particularly The Magus, because that was a novel I loved at 18 which I found tedious when reread as an adult, but there isn’t time to include this. I’d also love to talk about my experiences of reading and rereading Mary Webb’s novels, particularly reading them alongside Thomas Hardy’s – spoiler: Mary Webb is as good but more feminist; about how Cold Comfort Farm is the best uplift for miserable days: I read it on the train to my great-grandmother’s funeral, and the night before my PhD viva, because Flora Poste is the best antidote to troubled lives; about how Vera Brittain’s Testament series makes me cry every time I read it, as though somehow Roland might not die on each reading – but I don’t have time. I would also have liked to talk about du Maurier’s Rule Britannia and Brexit; about reading The Loving Spirit for the first time while staying at Pont and walking by the river and telling my son the story of the book. However, I hope I have given you some thoughts about responses to du Maurier’s works, because, although they are outside my academic specialism, they are an intrinsic part of my reading and writing life. In fact, I chose deliberately not to specialise in the period I most enjoy reading; the majority of my reading-for-fun is women’s writing from about 1920 to 1950. I wanted to keep this area for pleasure not work, but their significance for my work and my life isn’t diminished by this, and anyway, I have little division between work and pleasure anyway (which is sometimes a good thing and often isn’t). Most significantly, my life has been changed by these books, and these changes are most apparent when I reread them, teaching me something about my own life and the world around me.
I should conclude, here, that I am not sure how interesting my recollections of a reading life will be to you, but I hope that this will prompt some thoughts for you about the books you have loved, how they have changed you and how you have interacted with them over your life.
© Serena Trowbridge, May 2022.