Daphne Du Maurier's Desk
Photo taken at the Museum at Jamica Inn in Cornwall
Article First Published in Writing Magazine - October 1994
Copyright Carol Townend
This article has been scanned in and lightly revised. I have made another of those resolutions to try and get one on the blog every couple of months...
Themes and obsessions in Daphne Du Maurier’s work
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
This, the opening line of Rebecca is both haunting and elegiac, it sets the mood and tone for the whole novel. The dream-like, unreal quality does not let up until the last page, when the story turns back on itself and the reader is brought full circle by another dream in which the unnamed narrator sees the road to Manderley under a crimson sky.
The Oxford Companion to English Literature devotes just six and a half lines to Dame Daphne Du Maurier (1906-1989) stating that many of her ‘popular novels and period romances, including her most famous Rebecca, are set in the West Country.’
This is a small entry for an author whose work has given pleasure to millions, and yet an entry which sums up precisely the difficulties Du Maurier felt she faced in gaining acceptance in the literary world.
In her biography of Daphne Du Maurier, Margaret Forster points out that Du Maurier’s phenomenal success as a bestselling novelist earned her the tag ‘popular’, and the fact that many of her stories are romantic in the Wuthering Heights sense earned her the label ‘romantic’ with a capital R. Ironically, once Du Maurier had earned these tags, her credibility as a writer who had something serious to say was undermined, and literary recognition was slow in coming.
Du Maurier’s narrative style is descriptive and fluent - easy to read but capable of conveying a powerful sense of atmosphere and menace. Among her works are Don’t Look Now which was made into an eerie film starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, and The Birds - a short story that became a famous Hitchcock horror.
The best known of her novels - Jamaica Inn; Rebecca; Frenchman’s Creek; The King’s General; The Scapegoat; The House on the Strand - are all atmospheric, and bristling with tension.
Of her books, Rebecca has been the most successful, and an examination of its themes helps to understand why it has such a strong resonance for so many people. The themes are unusual, and not all of them are immediately accessible.
The Rebecca Notebook published by Victor Gollancz, gives a chapter by chapter breakdown of Du Maurier’s workings on the plot of the novel, and in this Du Maurier explains that she wrote Rebecca partly to explore the emotion of jealousy. She was much affected by thoughts of a woman to whom her husband had once been engaged. Would she have been jealous if he had been married before?
In Rebecca a gauche, inexperienced Cinderella of a girl meets an attractive widower, Maxim de Winter, and marries him, but there is much more to the novel than that. A brief exposition of the plot is needed here:
The girl (the unnamed narrator from whose viewpoint the book is written, and who at the start of the book is a rich woman’s companion) has been told that de Winter is still grieving over the tragic death of his vivacious and beautiful first wife.
When the narrator falls in love with de Winter, her self-image is so low that she thinks there is no hope for her, but to her astonishment de Winter proposes. They marry.
The couple return to his famous ancestral home, Manderley, and there the ‘second Mrs de Winter’ finds herself haunted (not literally, but psychologically) by the ghostly presence of Maxim’s dead wife, Rebecca, and the sinister real presence of the grim housekeeper, Mrs Danvers.
Superficially, Rebecca has all the ingredients of a gothic romance, of which Jane Eyre is a classic example. There is a dark, moody hero. There is a brooding old house crammed full of secrets on the edge of the rugged Cornish countryside and overlooking the sea. There are also mysterious undercurrents.
The reader senses that nothing is as it seems, and that the shy, insecure narrator will be unable to cope with the drama and passion that her obsession with the first, dead, Mrs de Winter is sure to stir up.
As the plot unfolds (and it is beautifully crafted with a couple of stunning twists towards the end) the innocent narrator grows in maturity and self- understanding as she begins to resolve the mystery surrounding Rebecca and her tragic death.
Initially the narrator’s grasp of her own personality is tenuous. She tells us she is handicapped by a rather desperate gaucherie and filled with an intense desire to please. Her character is largely unformed. She is introverted and extremely susceptible to the will of others.
Rebecca, by contrast, had been everything the narrator is not. Rebecca, the narrator tells herself, was beautiful. Rebecca was confident. Rebecca was clever; good at organising Manderley and a brilliant and witty hostess. Maxim adored her. The narrator’s inferiority complex runs wild, and she convinces herself that Rebecca must have been a saint.
Criticism has been levelled at this novel because of the apparent weakness of the main character. But the second Mrs de Winter’s insecurity lies at the heart of the novel. It is vital the narrator should have a shy, introspective nature, otherwise she would not be intimidated and awed by the dead Rebecca.
In classic gothic novels, the heroine’s life is often threatened physically, while in modern psychological novels, the danger often lurks within the character’s own psyche. Rebecca is a deft blend of the two. The threats to the second Mrs de Winter are real but by the end of the book she discovers that her own personality has been the cause of much of her torment.
Psychologically Rebecca is perfectly crafted, showing how people are fascinated by those who are their opposites. The second Mrs de Winter is a thinker rather than a doer. She has a passive, introverted personality, and becomes obsessed with the first Mrs de Winter, an extrovert who was everything she was not, and apparently possessed those qualities the narrator covets for herself. Obsession, therefore, is another theme running through the book.
Rebecca was published in 1938 - well after the great gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries - but the book prefigures later psychological thrillers. The success of Rebecca, and other Du Maurier works with similar themes, has undoubtedly influenced the development of the psychological thriller.
The idea of characters who become preoccupied with people who possess qualities that they themselves lack, ties in closely with another of Du Maurier’s favourite themes, and one which she tackles almost twenty years later in The Scapegoat. This time it is the need for a character to accept and reconcile opposing and paradoxical sides of his nature that lies at the core of the book.
Novelists have to be good psychologists, otherwise their characters are not convincing. If the psychology is wrong, then the characters will not sit well in the novel, and we have a jigsaw puzzle where none of the pieces fit. Du Maurier had an instinctive and acute understanding of psychology; so her characters’ motivations are convincing and her stories ring true.
When a novelist chooses to write about themes similar to those they have tackled before they do not have to restrict themselves to similar plots - take a look at The Scapegoat.
The main character in The Scapegoat is John, a responsible but rather lifeless individual who feels he has achieved nothing in life, he is depressed. He has no family, no ties, and feels cut off from his fellows. He meets the Comte Jean de Gué, a charming roué, who is his exact double, and is everything but responsible.
Jean drugs John, and walks off, effectively stealing John’s life and catapulting him into a new life as Comte Jean de Gué. The psychological profile of John echoes that of the second Mrs de Winter in that both feel insecure and inadequate.
Some biographies of Dame Daphne Du Maurier:
Margaret Forster: Daphne Du Maurier.
Flavia Leng: Daphne Du Maurier, A Daughter’s Memoir
Martyn Shalicross: The Private World of Daphne Du Maurier
Published in Writing Magazine October 1994
Copyright Carol Townend
View of Bodmin Moor from Jamaica Inn - November 2009