Horror or Not: Daphne du Maurier and Rebecca
Women in Horror Month is over now, and after some consideration, I’ve decided to write a bit about a book I didn’t discuss during the month proper, and why it was I didn’t write about it. Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is often mentioned as a classic horror novel and an important part of the Gothic tradition. I certainly can see it as a Gothic. But I wouldn’t describe it as horror, not exactly. I’d like to try to consider it here, and see if I can figure out just what it is.
To start with, I can say that Rebecca, published in 1938, was du Maurier’s fifth novel. It became a massive popular success, though critical reception was more mixed. Du Maurier adapted the book for the stage two years later, the same year Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation — Hitchcock’s first movie for an American studio — reached screens. Du Maurier herself was thoroughly part of the English literary world; parodied by P.G. Wodehouse, daughter of a famous actor, cousin to the boys who inspired Peter Pan.
The book itself is told in retrospective, as a recollection of the unnamed first-person narrator, who as a young woman in her early twenties falls in love with an older man, Maxim de Winter, marries him, and becomes mistress of his great house called Manderley. But the new Mrs. de Winter finds herself competing against the memories of her husband’s first wife, the eponymous Rebecca. Manderley’s housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, idolised the dead woman. As the book moves along, we come to find out more about Rebecca and slowly come to understand not only the truth of her relationship with Maxim, but who Rebecca de Winter really was.
The story ends up mixing romance and detective-story conventions, with here and there a touch of horror. There are no supernatural elements, and while there is a careful attention to atmosphere, there didn’t seem to me to be any kind of truly horrific or eerie moments. It felt to me like a kind of genre inversion of the original eighteenth-century Gothics; instead of a horror-suspense story with romance used to heighten the fear, here it’s the romance that seems more central. Fundamentally, this seems to me to be the story of the relationship between the narrator and de Winter. But then, to say that is to make an assertion about the nature of the book. It’s difficult to find a conventional protagonist in this tale.
The narrator on the whole is remarkably passive. She watches the world around her, occasionally assenting to some choice someone else puts to her. Her most active moment is when, about two-thirds of the way through the book, she attends a ball wearing exactly the wrong kind of costume — itself the outcome of a plot by a minor character. After that, as the book moves to the anti-climax of its ending, she simply observes Maxim’s actions and responses to events surrounding them both. The most significant action she takes story-wise during this time is to faint at a marginally significant point.
But that said, it’s also difficult to view the book as Maxim’s story in any meaningful way. He’s too distant in the early going, too unknowable. The focus of interest is, as I read it, too squarely on the narrator and her attraction to him; and on the mysteries of his past. So the only way I can find to make sense of the book is to view it as their joint story, the story of their relationship. And yet even that isn’t easy to find dramatically satisfying, as the narrator’s love for her husband is too settled — bordering on the obsessive, in fact, but without the usual sense of literary obsession that some passionate tragedy is just around the corner.
So the book ignores typical ideas about the importance of character to story. It’s still involving, if slow. Part of that surely comes from the style. Du Maurier’s writing is atmospheric and carefully-measured, creating an oddly languid feel. Here are the opening two paragraphs:
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
No smoke came from the chimney, and the little lattice windows gaped forlorn. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me. The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done, but as I advanced I was aware that a change had come upon it; it was narrow and unkept, not the drive that we had known. At first I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realized what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers. The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church. And there were other trees as well, trees that I did not recognize, squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered.
The first paragraph establishes a precise rhythm, in its length of sentences and avoidance of contractions and repetition of the word ‘gate.’ It seems almost like a remembrance of Eden, an exile from some idyllic place; certainly it is a remembrance, setting up a motif or theme of the book, the importance of memory. The second paragraph reads like horror, with the mentioning of supernatural powers and nature personalised as an “encroaching” and grasping thing. The “tortured” elms also emphasise that sense, and the “quiet earth” recalls perhaps the closing line of Wuthering Heights with its “unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth” — a foreshadowing of the book’s emotional terrain, a reference to a text the book in some ways undermines, and an image implying the trees are seeming to burst from the grave. Which in turn suggests, perhaps, that the soil of Manderley may give up its dead; that a dead wife may not be wholly passed away. The adjective “monster” seems well-earned.
But this type of imagery is surprisingly rare through the rest of the book. It does turn up, noticeably in a drive through the woods at about the one-third mark of the book. But mostly I found the calmness of the style seemed to dictate the imagery, which was close and quiet; underplayed, arguably, but then also subtle and unexpected. Simply not horrific, although occasionally dreamlike. These kinds of passages are a spice, then, used to help give a texture to the story, a complication of its tone.
In terms of the actual narrative, one could argue that much of the book recapitulates the action of these paragraphs: the narrator caught up in a dreamlike atmosphere, unable to do much besides observe. The rest of the chapter sees her move through the grounds to the house of Manderley itself, perhaps as the rest of the book sees her move toward Manderley’s core and the secrets around a surprising act of violence.
As the book moves along, the detective-story aspect begins to emerge, particularly as that violent act becomes more prominent. It’s an interesting inversion of the standard detective story, though, as we find ourselves hoping that the careful piecing-together of evidence will be thwarted, that an error will be made, that the guilt we know is true will be hidden (or, at least, this is what the narrator hopes for). The resolution has a twist, as the best mysteries do at their conclusion; but the twist tends to undermine the climax rather than heighten it, I think deliberately. The book is filled with a curious moving-away from conflict and climactic moments. It’s a distinctive narrative strategy, born out of and also reflecting the narrator’s isolation in Manderley.
Throughout the book, the narrator is constantly opposed by other women. She begins the story as the paid companion of a tyrannical older woman; moves from there to Manderley, where she finds herself oddly oppressed by Mrs. Danvers the housekeeper; and ends metaphorically struggling against the memory of the dead Rebecca. Other female figures in the novel, like Maxim’s sister Beatrice, at first seem threatening before turning out to be benevolent or unimportant.
Males are generally helpful, even gallant, right from the start. Frank Crawley, the overseer of the estate, is effectively the narrator’s ally throughout the book. Maxim de Winter himself is a typical brooding male romantic lead (and “Max de Winter” is perhaps the most stereotypical romance-hero name I’ve ever found), but despite the occasional mention of a rare violent temper, he never actually seems to do anything shadowy. He’s abrupt, but the whole movement of the book is toward the perfection of his relationship with the narrator.
It is certainly tempting to read the book in a way opposite to the surface, to see de Winter as genuinely cold and the narrator’s obsession with him as a kind of mental illness upon which he preys. But I didn’t find enough matter in the book to make that reading particularly persuasive. Still, the relationship frequently reads as unhealthy; the difference in age and class is constantly highlighted. At one point, he tells her that she seemed to have “not the right sort of knowledge in her eyes,” and when she asks him to explain, refuses. Had her father never forbade her to read certain books? Yes, she says, at which point de Winter tells her “A husband is not so very different from a father after all. There is a certain type of knowledge I prefer you not to have. It’s better kept under lock and key. So that’s that. And now eat up your peaches, and don’t ask me any more questions, or I shall put you in the corner.”
You can say that it furthers the forbidden-knowledge theme implied by the Edenic echoes of the opening dream; and you can say that the way the book plays out, much could have been avoided if he’d been open with her at this point. The passage still reads strangely, especially when the narrator complains about being treated as a child and asks to be treated as other men treat their wives. “Knock you about, you mean?” he asks; she’s sure he’s joking, and it is true that the reader’s meant to be less sure, building our sense of de Winter’s sinister side. But it seems to me to also suggest a certain unhealthiness underlying the whole relationship.
That’s not just a power imbalance in the relationship itself, but also a sense that the narrator is literally not mentally healthy. She’s always fearful of losing de Winter; it doesn’t seem that he’s consciously fostering this fear, but she does conjure up pages-long imaginary scenes — complete with characters and dialogue — dwelling on her (presumed) inferiorities. I found it read as though she had Social Anxiety Disorder, imagining herself to be incapable at whatever she does, expecting to be humiliated by other people.
Notably, many of the narrator’s fears revolve around class insecurities, the invisible social network. In marrying de Winter, she’s marrying “up,” as opposed to the first Mrs. de Winter, who was “born and bred” to her role. That phrase, or variants, is used a number of times in the book, as though ruling an estate was a genetic predisposition Rebecca de Winter had inherited while the narrator did not. I don’t think the book’s particularly anti-aristocracy as such, though; it is the book’s main villain who describes himself as “a bit of a socialist, in my way.” There’s no condemnation of class difference. Only an exaggerated sense of a woman facing social difficulties from changing class.
All these things put together can result in some peculiar moments. There’s one passage, a bit more than a third of the way into the book, when the narrator’s trying to establish herself as the new lady of Manderley, and describes an extended anecdote in which she notices her maid is surprised to find that she’d mended her underwear herself: “I often wondered whether Alice told the others, and if my underclothes became a topic of conversation in the servants’ hall, something rather dreadful, to be discussed in low tones when the men were nowhere about.” The narrator’s not worried about male servants making dirty jokes about her underthings; she’s worried about the female servants looking down on her. Class anxieties combine with the obsessive focus on humiliation to create this moment of fear.
That kind of terror is what drives the book: the fear of a social crisis, the fear that some inherent and unarticulable inadequacy will emerge, the fear of losing the love of the male figure in whom all importance is vested. It’s well-done, as far as it goes. Du Maurier’s got a fine knack for enhancing the horror invested in a moment by having other characters, oblivious of what’s going on inside the narrator’s head, making irrelevant observations and banal conversational asides. It draws out the moment of horror with all the sense of fingernails shrieking across a chalkboard.
But I still can’t call the book ‘horror’ as a whole because the horror doesn’t seem to me to drive the story in any meaningful way. The narrator doesn’t do what she does because of any specific fear. Maxim de Winter doesn’t seem driven by fear at all, even when things look grimmest for him. I suppose you could argue that the book’s driven by the repression of fear, and the overcoming of horror. Still, to me as a reader it seemed not to be the main emotional driver of events in the book. I felt it was primarily a story about the relationship of the two main characters, and secondarily a story about memory and the past and the coming to terms with things gone.
I can see how the book could be described as horror fiction by some readers. There are those moments of external description that match the internal fears of the narrator. Moments like those I quoted tend to give a tincture of the horrific to the whole story. But I think that’s not the main tone the story plays with. And I think the horror is narratively not at the core of the book’s story. It’s not a bad book by any means. Its peculiar languid pace is weirdly involving. I just can’t describe it as horror in any meaningful sense. It’s a Gothic story, but a Gothic that lives not in horror or suspense, but in the genre we now call ‘romance.’
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.
Rebecca is a novel that I can’t remember ever *not* having read. I identified with the main character’s passivity, but hated it at the same time – she makes me want to scream with her do-nothing-ness.
I think her non-passive moments move her relationship forward with Maxim, namely going out on drives with him in the first place, stopping by his room before Mrs. Van Hopper leaves, and dressing up like Caroline for the ball. Otherwise, she’s just drifting through the story, being acted upon by people and events. She needs a good shake.
I definitely wouldn’t call it a horror story; I think it’s more of a thriller. I guess a person might find the suffocating situations the narrator is stuck in horrible, and call it a horror story…
[…] about horror and dark fantasy on this blog, from Matthew David Surridge’s investigation of Rebecca to my Saturday piece on Adam Nevill’s Last Days – has gotten me to thinking about the […]