”Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again".
This is one of the more famous lines in literature certainly it belongs in the same conversation as Call me Ishmael. Even to people who have never read the book or seen the excellent movie by Alfred Hitchcock might have a glimmer of recognition at the mention of a place called Manderley. Daphne du Maurier leased a place called Menabilly which became the basis for the fictional Manderley. Aren’t we glad she changed the name? Just say Manderley a few times and then say Menabilly a few times. If you are like me you linger over the vowels and consonants of Manderley and with Menabilly you just want it off your tongue as quickly as possible.
Daphne du Maurier on the staircase at Menabilly
The narrator, a young woman of 21, is never formally introduced to us. She is a companion for an odious American woman named Mrs. Van Hoppers. They are in Monte Carlo and when Mrs. Van Hoppers comes down with an illness inspired more by boredom than by a virus or bacteria our narrator finds herself free to spend time with the widower Maximilian de Winter. He is famous, but his house, Manderley is even more famous. Parties on a Gatsby scale, beautiful landscaping, and of course the architecture of a grand English estate have made Manderley a most coveted invitation.
Laurence Olivier as Maximilian de Winter
After a whirlwind romance, the dashing de Winter sweeps the impressionable young lady off her feet, pries her loose from the services of Mrs. Van Hoppers, and marries her. He is distant, moody, and yet charming more like a father, he is 42, than a husband, but our young heroine is enamored with the idea of being the mistress of Manderley. Now she has a name, Mrs. de Winter, and maybe to add a bit of obscurity to an already anemic personality du Maurier never shares her given name with us.
Daphne du Maurier and children at Menabilly the inspiration for Manderley
Daphne du Maurier comes from a famous family. Her grandfather was the famous writer and Punch cartoonist George du Maurier. Her father was a prominent stage manager named Sir Gerald du Maurier and her mother was the actress Muriel Beaumont. Daphne had ”breeding, brains, and beauty”which is used in reference to the character Rebecca as well, and luckily du Maurier chose to do more with this trilogy of assets than the character. Du Maurier married Lieutenant General Sir Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning whose exploits during Operation Market Garden were made into a film A Bridge too Far.
The newly minted Mrs. de Winter arrives at Manderley with nervous excitement. She is well aware of her shortcomings. She is too shy, too young, too trusting, and though she is pretty she can not compete with the legendary Rebecca de Winter and her haunting beauty.
”Rebecca, always Rebecca. Wherever I walked in Manderley, wherever I sat, even in my thought and in my dreams, I met Rebecca. I knew her figure now, the long slim legs, the small and narrow feet. Her shoulders broader than mine, the capable clever hands. Hands that could steer a boat, could hold a horse. Hands that arranged flowers, made the models of ships, and wrote ‘Max from Rebecca’ on the fly-leaf of a book. I knew her face too, small and oval, the clear white skin, the cloud of dark hair. I knew the scent she wore, I could guess her laughter and her smile. If I heard it, even among a thousand others, I should recognise her voice. Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca.”
Waiting for Mrs. de Winter is the number one fan and torchbearer of Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers. Despite the best efforts of our young lady, she is fighting a losing battle trying to win over Mrs. Danvers by being deferential. Mrs. Danvers is loyal to the ghostly presence of Rebecca even to the point of preserving her room and possessions as they were when she was alive. The more that the new Mrs. de Winter concedes the less respect she feels she has to show to the new mistress of the house.
Mrs. Danvers played by Judith Anderson and Mrs. de Winter played by Joan Fontaine in the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock movie
”We stood there by the door, staring at one another. I could not take my eyes away from hers. How dark and sombre they were in that white skull’s face of hers, how malevolent, how full of hatred.”
You will feel yourself wanting to cheer as our heroine begins to gain confidence and as she begins to grow into her role we see Mrs. Danvers start to diminish and with her the haunting presence of Rebecca. Of course just as things start to go right, things start to go very wrong.
I was really surprised to learn that an edition of Rebecca was used as the key to a code book by the Germans during World War Two. It is not believed that the book was ever used for passing information because a captured radio section made the Germans suspect that the book, as a code, had been compromised. Ken Follett used this idea in his book The Key to Rebecca. Other influences of possibly du Maurier’s most famous character creation, show up in Stephen King’s Bag of Bones when Mrs. Danvers is portrayed as the boogeyman. Jasper Ffordes clones an army of Mrs. Danvers in his Thursday Next series that sends a chill down the backs of the characters of those books.
There is much made of flowers and landscaping in this book. The English do love their rose gardens and when my backyard is in full bloom it is without reservation that I can share how much pleasure looking at and moving among that bounty of blooms gives me.
”No wild flowers came in the house at Manderley. He had special cultivated flowers, grown for the house alone, in the walled garden. A rose was one of the few flowers, he said, that looked better picked than growing. A bowl of roses in a drawing-room had a depth of colour and scent they had not possessed in the open. There was something rather blowsy about roses in full bloom, something shallow and raucous, like women with untidy hair. In the house they became mysterious and subtle.”
Daphne du Maurier
You will feel the building tension as du Maurier drops hints of something sinister surrounding the walls of Manderley. For me, the sign of a well written book is the fact that I was on the edge of my seat despite having watched the movie several times. I was ensnared by the plot, feeling the same anxiety for the characters that I would have if they had been living breathing creatures in my own sphere of the universe. The character studies explored in this book have turned out to be an important addition to the hall of fame of literary characters. You will not forget Mrs. Danver’s spiteful, insidious behavior or the tortured, Heathcliffesque Maximilian de Winter or the numerous supporting cast that adds color and substance to the shadows of the plot. If you like gothic romance with your cup of Earl Grey you will find this book an indispensable part of your library, kept ready to hand for those days when you want to be swept away from a dreary sky and a rain splattered window.
”The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.”