Alexandra Harris

From 'Dreaming of Manderly'

Daphne du Maurier described in  Rebecca the doomed attempts of an innocent young woman to make herself at home in an old English house. Manderley is like one of Bowen’s  unheimlich homes, full of accusing furniture and macabre secrets. Its new occupant the second Mrs de Winter (who, like so many of Bowen’s young women, has no family of her own) feels she is continually trespassing. Every room, every ornament, every menu for supper is haunted by her predecessor. Bowen might have made the house itself reject her; du Maurier invents the malign  genius loci Mrs Danvers to do the job. At any rate, she is a tenant barely tolerated by a house not hers. This ancient seat of a nobility now diseased and dying is not available to the ingénue who might want to claim it. This is a fable in which the country house would rather burn to death than fall into new hands.

Maxim de Winter has let himself be exploited by Rebecca because she has kept up the country house charade. With her hollow demonic energy she has furnished and run the house better than any other in the county, all as a cover for sexual exploits too dark for du Maurier to name. The glories of Manderley, from the azaleas to the tea tray, are a sham. The novel pretends to teach us a lesson: do not care too much for houses. Maxim delivers the sermon to himself: ‘I put Manderley first, before anything else, and it does not prosper, that sort of love. They don’t preach about it in the churches. Christ said nothing about stones, bricks, and walls.’ His young wife is not listening, being consumed instead with the realisation that Maxim never loved Rebecca. All that matters now is that they have each other – or so a good romance should end. But it does not work like that because Manderley haunts their dreams. All the pent, displaced eroticism of the novel is transferred to the building, which becomes itself the temptress. The good middle-class girl carries on wanting the no-good house. The reader carries on feeling its allure, not hers.

Why should du Maurier write such a story? Partly it grew out of her fascination with the large empty house hidden deep in the woods near Fowey, a house entailed to the Rashleigh family for eight hundred years, once a Royalist stronghold, once a family home, but now deserted, ‘grey, still, silent’. She had set out with her sister one day to find it, but darkness fell and the owls were calling before they found what was at the end of the twisting drive. Later she recalled how she set out again, at dawn, and pressed on through the undergrowth to the rhododendrons, the lawn and at last the house itself. ‘There would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys,’ she thought, sad and fascinated, ‘The shutters would not be thrown back.’