Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

'Rebecca': The Real Housewives Of Cornwall County

Oh, DAPHNE. Daphne. "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." THAT'S how you open a novel, guys! Right there. Make it count. What's Manderley? Why aren't you there now? Why are you telling me about it? We have so many questions, and we've barely used our old-timey paper knives to cut open the first few leaves. (Just kidding! This book is from the 1930s, the leaves were already cut for you. Which is good, really, because I don't even like to have to turn my Kindle on, and instead just leave it in sleep-mode all the time, you know?) No, the first chapter of the novel is not only completely perfect in every way, it must have inspired Our Girl Shirley Jackson when she came up with "The Haunting of Hill House" twenty years later. Remember? "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone." Bingo!

Sure, maybe it's just your generic "this old house is full of seeeeeecrets and andirons you could never find at Restoration Hardware" schtick, but, let's face it, everyone who wrote after du Maurier owes a debt to du Maurier. "The Birds"? That was her, too! So, obviously du Maurier is a genius, let's talk about Rebecca.

THAT BITCH. Or, was she? Twist! No, see, the thing is, we're never quite sure if she was really a monster or not, right? Du Maurier was influenced by Jane Eyre, and let's just say that we're still waiting for someone to Wide Sargasso Sea our friend, the first Mrs. Maxim de Winter. Maybe Maxim is the monster! Maybe they were both monsters, in that full-on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf-y way of the couple that enjoys embarrassing dinner guests with their performative fighting. Which brings me to my other contention: God, what Andy Cohen would have given to get his hot little hands on these people. Are they not made for reality TV? It wouldn't have been Mrs. Danvers putting a bug in our heroine's ear about replicating that damned outfit for the big party, that's for sure. "Hey… do you know what would be SO MUCH FUN?" Totally. No one would have been killed, either, it would have been three seasons of wine-throwing and shouting and make-up-sex and pointed interviews in Us Weekly, followed eventually by divorce and more interviews and a ghost-written (hee!) cookbook.

Let's think about how we would have conducted ourselves differently, were we the unnamed heroine (let's call her "Mallory," just to make it easier to talk about her). Hands up if you would have immediately packed off Mrs. Danvers! "Oh," Mallory says, wispily, "oh, Maxim would have been cross." Whatever, Mallory. You're the hot young thing, he's the cranky widower. Blow him, then say "I really must insist we let Danvers go. Let's shine some new light into the place!" Then, literally, rip out all the tapestries and curtains and let a team of closeted 1930s homosexuals go nuts with Maxim's line of credit until you're in a few magazines. Right? Alternatively, burn the place down, and go live in Monte Carlo. Or whatever country they play cards in in Casino Royale—Montenegro? Any place with a bunch of little cafes and a Chanel store. Cornwall is not for the young and beautiful, Mallory. And I bet Manderley is ruinously expensive to heat. You can feel the damp radiating off the walls from here. I don't know how the humidity suits YOUR hair…

Or, well, we could guess. Mallory does spend a LOT of time negging herself, doesn't she? "…straight, bobbed hair and youthful, unpowdered face, dressed in an ill-fitting coat and skirt and a jumper of my own creation." "…the raw ex-schoolgirl, red-elbowed and lanky-haired." "I was like a little scrubby schoolboy with a passion for a sixth-form prefect, and he kinder, and far more inaccessible." "…my dull, lanky hair." "…the sorry spectacle that I made, with troubled eyes and scarlet cheeks, lank hair flapping under broad felt hat." "…my sticky hands…" But that's all just window-dressing, because the big guns are saved for Mrs. Danvers. I mean, you simply cannot read du Maurier's description without wondering why the townspeople haven't already burned the evil hag at the stake: "Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull's face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton's frame." But, you know, Mallory has lank hair? (Shampoo, rinse, two squirts of Bumble and bumble's Prep spray and an ionic dryer, you've got yourself a stew going.)

This is the issue, of course, with the gloriousness of Rebecca, the canker in the heart of the rose. Rebecca was fun, Mallory is a bit of a drip, and she is in no position to enjoy being mistress of Manderley. I'm sorry, but it's true. The whole place is no good, it smells musty, the staff is either evil or has one foot in the grave, and Maxim is a bit surly; you need to sweep in there like a FREAKING QUEEN, and start ripping out drywall. Or peat, or whatever they were building dessicated mansions out of in Cornwall prior to the Conquest. But that's just not how it's going to go. It's going to be a lot of fumbling and apologizing to Mrs. Danvers for moving your dressing table and saying "Maxim, are you happy?" and then throwing one terrible party. But that part isn't even the good part, is it?

No, to the casual reader (and aren't we all, really), the emotional pay-off of Rebecca is not "I HATED HER," or "I KILLED HER" or "SHE WAS DYING ANYWAY," or "THROW YOURSELF AND YOUR LANKY PEASANT HAIR OUT THE WINDOW." No, it arrives in a blur less than a hundred pages in, when Mallory is supposed to leave Monte Carlo with the wretched Mrs. Van Hopper, like the fluffy, lanky little white-mouse-with-pink-eyes she is, and instead dashes into Maxim's room to reveal their untimely departure, and he's all "I, a MAN, shall set this to rights." And then he proposes, and says he wants to "make violent love to [her] behind a palm tree," and she's all "I'll take two tickets on THAT ride," and then Maxim tells Mrs. Van Hopper the truth, but we're not in the room to hear, and then Mrs. Van Hopper is a total buzz-killing wang about it to Mallory, but, suck it, Mrs. Van Hopper! No one cares what you think.

Whew, let's talk it out.


• Assuming your name isn't Daphne du Maurier, which would just be unfair, what pen name would you use to write glorious Gothic-y novels? Try pairing a virtue with a tree. Like, "Constance Birch," or "Faith Loosestrife." Did you know Daphne actually married a "Browning"? Like her name wasn't good enough already. Okay, she did become "Lady Browning," which I guess I would consider. Hm.

• There's no way you missed "Texts From Rebecca," right?

• Have any of you read her short story about the male sex doll?

• Have any of you read the Brazilian novel this whole thing may be a rip-off of?

• Have any of you read the authorized sequel?

• Have any of you read the authorized sort-of-sequel?

• What houses do you pretend you own? Knole? It's all about Knole, for me.

• Seriously, do you not think you could talk Maxim into sending Danvers off with a golden parachute of some kind? The woman is clearly psychologically unstable. Try harder, Mallory.

• Du Maurier was a little gay. How does that make you feel about Rebecca's paper-thin undies NOW? Same? Me too.

• What would the first sentence of the novel be if Jasper, the loyal spaniel, had written it?

Previously: The Mists Of Avalon

Nicole Cliffe is the books editor of The Hairpin and the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.

44 Comments / Post A Comment

C_Webb (#855)

My pen name? Ermengarde Greycastle.

O how I love this piece. And HUGE KISSES for mentioning Shirley Jackson! But Rebecca fans should also run right to the interweb and watch "The Uninvited," another beautiful-dead-scary-lady with pathologically-loyal-butch-worshipful-servant-type plot … AND ghostly hazes! (Did you link to this somewhere? Did I miss it? If so apologies for wildly enthusiastic redundancy.)

I like Daph's shorter stuff a lot: "Don't Look Now" is terrif, and the movie is even better — Becks is 150 pages too long at least.
Pen name is Cyril Cromulent, I pretend I own Oxford.

ladyshiv (#235,544)

@Reed Jackson@twitter Heck yes to "Don't Look Now". Also, that pen name is perfectly cromulent.

La Cieca (#1,110)

This novel features one of the most wonderfully subtle turning points, a quiet little moment set among big melodramatic scenes of boats running aground and flares and things. All through the book, "Mallory" has told herself over and over again that she is just incapable of being the mistress of a place like Manderely: she hasn't the background or the temperament or the organizational ability. Running Manderly was what Rebecca could do, so there's no way "Mallory" could possibly.

And yet, in the aftermath of that horrible costume ball, when the shipwreck suddenly happens and the whole place is overrun with coast guard and ambulances and everything, "Mallory" quietly, unconsiously, steps up to the plate. She gets the weekend guests sent home or else put up somewhere in the house where they won';t get in the way, and organizes meals and places to sleep and hot tea for the dozens of rescuers overrunning the place. She even puts Danvers in her place almost off-handedly when she tells the old bat that there is so much food wasted daily at Manderley there ought to be plenty to spare for the emergency workers, so just shut up and get to work and stop complaining.

It's a crisis, and "Mallory" is the only one who doesn't fall completely to pieces. She's strong — in fact, she's always been strong– but she's never had to access that part of herself before.

du Maurier could easily have fallen into the trap of writing an explicit epiphany here, but she leaves it for the reader to discover. It's a great, great example, of "show, don't tell."

melis (#1,854)


melis (#1,854)


@melis You are my muse…my flame.

areaderwrites (#592)

You had me at The Real Housewives of Cornwall…

Great post! Daphne du Maurier is awesome. Also Mary Stewart, who no one reads anymore.

carrie (#233,429)

@Deirdre McCluskey@twitter sharing the Mary Stewart love!

mmmcheese (#229,356)

@Deirdre McCluskey@twitter Mary Stewart classic trash?

@Deirdre McCluskey@twitter I love Mary Stewart too!

NoReally (#217,942)

#1 – Ivy Tree
#2 – Nine Coaches Waiting

Priscilla Peel (#237,511)

@Deirdre McCluskey@twitter Speaking of houses I pretend I own, the one in This Rough Magic with the incredible rose garden! And the view of the bay where you might swim with a dolphin!

I have read The Moonspinners, This Rough Magic, and Nine Coaches Waiting so many times I know them by heart.

And Priscilla Peel, the dolphin! The roses! The Shakespeare!

carrie (#233,429)

Are rhododendrons and Rebecca inextricably linked for anyone else?

chevyvan (#201,691)

@carrie Yes! Especially b/c it took me a number of tries before I actually read past the first chapter where it describes Manderlay and all the rhododendrons.

mmmcheese (#229,356)

I have so many positive feelings, but the only one I can verbalize is: I love The Haunting of Hill House and Shirley Jackson!

Nicole I like your writing and was really enjoying the piece until "let a team of closeted 1930s homosexuals go nuts with Maxim's line of credit until you're in a few magazine" it would seen that while you are trying to make "Rebecca" appealing to a modern audience you are perpetuating stereotypes and insulting all gay men who have lived fulfilling lives outside of interior design for the last 82 years. All for a quick laugh.
Surprising for a site like "The Awl"

Redacted (#2,882)

@Bradley Young@facebook I think she's making fun of Bravo's reliance on that trope to liven up your standard issue reality show…

wb (#2,214)

I saw the most overwrought musical adaptation of Rebecca in Vienna a few years back (in German, nonetheless). It played up all of the campiest bits of this awesome bit of art-trash, even moreso that Hitchcock did ("I keep her underwear in here . . ."). Apparently, it's coming to America soon.

Anna Jayne@twitter (#11,365)

@wb it is! It looks AMAZINGLY RIDICULOUS. Maybe more amazingly ridiculous than Ghost the Musical. I'm excited.

LondonLee (#922)

'Rebecca' isn't trash!

PS: You should do 'The Well of Loneliness' by Radclyffe Hall in this style.

dontannoyme (#24,319)

@LondonLee Oh I love The Well Of Loneliness. So lonely!

dontannoyme (#24,319)

@LondonLee And I agree that Rebecca isn't trash!

Annie K. (#3,563)

I got seriously side-tracked at Knole and haven't come back yet. Say your friend Vita invites you home for the weekend. Sure, you say.

I assume you've all seen the "Rebecca prequel" bit from That Mitchell and Webb Look, because seriously it continues to crack me up.

"Well, here we are at Manderley Hall!"
"Why Maxim, it's everything I hoped it would be! You know, we simply must hold the most wonderful party!"
"Why Maxim, whatever is it? Are you unhappy?"
"No, Rebecca, I was just wondering what my second wife is going to be like. I bet she'll want to … hold a party, too."

Bittersweet (#765)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose And don't miss "Consuela" by French and Saunders on Comic Strip Presents, because it's also freaking brilliant.

Little Book of Calm (#157,178)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose Squee!!!

carrie (#233,429)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose also Sarah Rees Brennan's parody:

HEROINE: Max, you mysterious man of mystery, quit talking in code! By ‘killed’ do you mean ‘really, really super loved, definitely more than you love me?’

Equestrienne (#201,975)

I read somewhere once (I believe it was on the internet, so grain of salt) that du Maurier based the character of Rebecca on her husband's former lover, a woman who committed suicide by throwing herself in front of a train or bus? This must be looked into!

I enjoy the moment when Danny gives Mallory a glass of water drawn straight from the tap, without letting it run a little bit first to cool it.

bluebears (#5,902)

My favorite scene was when Mrs Danvers like fucking lays it all out for The Second about how awesome Rebecca was and how Danny just fucking hates The Second.

I definitely come down in the Rebecca was an asshole camp but she'd probably be fun to party with occasionally. Or to party with and then shit talk her behind her back after. Sorry.

NoReally (#217,942)

Rebecca Sargasso treatment is a thing. I read about it. But not it.

And, the sequel, or a sequel. I told my mother I'd read a sequel to Rebecca by some romance hack. She said, "Was the title Mrs. Dewinter? What else could it be?" Yes it was.

I read Rebecca at 12 or 13 and spent many hours telling Maxim how things were going to be, and packing Danny off with a flea in her ear. Also, in the Celluloid Closet, the bit about the (awesome) movie is first rate. Danny loved R. Reeeeally.

3penny (#233,941)

If there is a more perfect vacation novel out there, I have yet to find it. Campy enough to thrill! Old enough to seem kind of classy! Dense enough for a long trip! Cheap enough to discard like one of Rebecca's boytoys! If someone could hybridize Du Marier and Wilkie Collins, trans-Pacific flights would be much easier on the soul.

SuperMargie (#1,263)

I had watched "Rebecca" for the first time and not even a week later, I watched the doc "Celluloid Closet". They had a huge piece on Mrs. Danvers and her lust for Rebecca, and how groundbreaking it was in film that it wasn't "straightened out".

J. L. A.@twitter (#233,995)

Oh Daphne, I love her. Though I tried to read her first novel The Loving Spirit recently. Not very good.

And my name would be Cordelia Chestnut.

Delighted By User (#237,535)

"I awoke with a start, my legs still twitching, as though I was bounding over fields and stone walls after rabbits as I had in my youth, though my youth was far behind me. Last night, again, I dreamed I went to Manderly."
My pen name would be Amanda Crest, after Mandacrest, the manor in Irma Vep.

bellaspruce (#237,546)

I've read Rebecca's Tale and it does a fantastic job of telling Rebecca's side of the story. A Sargasso-type treatment. As a longtime fan of Rebecca, I highly recommend it.

tanglecat (#237,550)

OK, people, how did we get this far in the comments with no one saying Jamaica Inn? Actual "getting ravished by pirates" action, way before Johnny Depp made it mainstream. DuMaurier's second best novel, and another truly excellent vacation read. Much less pathetic heroine, too.

irieagogo (#209,640)

It's a million years since I've read "Rebecca" but I remember liking it a lot, and the movie too. I read a lotta gothic-y weird governess novels after "Jane Eyre" when I was a young teen. There was one by a woman named Anya Seton called "Dragonwyck" that I have been thinking about recently. Has anyone ever read it? It has a tempestuous Lord O' the manor type guy and it's not clear if it's a good thing or not that the heroine, Miranda, has ended up marrying him after his first wife dies. Is he a good egg, but just grumpy like Mr. Rochester, or more evil than that? The characters also visit Edgar Allen Poe in his hovel while he and his wife cough up consumptive blood specks into hankies!

ETA: Holy crap! There's a movie of Dragonwyck! I am going to check it out when I can.

Also, I could only remember the character name "Celestine Nansellock" from a book I read around the same time, and hell if two entries don't pop right up on the google. That book was called "The Mistress of Mellyn" by Victoria Holt and was another governess/romance story with a murder mystery to solve. It takes place in Cornwall and probably stole other bits & pieces from "Rebecca," which definitely set the pace.

Can anyone recommend a good biography of Daphne Du Maurier? I simply MUST know more about this "kind of gay" revelation!
Also, please tell me Paullina Simons' "The Bronze Horseman" will someday make it to Classic Trash! I mean, you've covered almost every "trashy" novel that made my reading life from ages 11-18 amazing, books that have made almost every book in the following nine years pale in comparison, please tell me that me that the book that made my 17 year-old heart pound will one day make it on this fantastic column!

johsn (#245,069)

Also, please tell me Paullina Simons' "The Bronze Horseman" will someday make it to Classic Trash! I mean, you've covered almost every "trashy" novel that made my reading life from ages 11-18 amazing, books that have made almost every book
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