The Enduring Appeal of Rebecca and Cornwall
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.So begins one of the greatest novels of romantic suspense ever written. The first time I read those words in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, I wondered briefly what and where Manderley was, but I didn’t give it too much thought, for it obviously was a place, and I knew I would be introduced to it in due course. To be honest, I assumed initially that it was a favorite holiday destination because it sounded exotic and distant, but it soon became evident that the narrator is too familiar with it, almost too afraid of it, to be a place that holds good memories.But no matter. I nudged my questions to the back of my mind, preferring instead to delve into the tense and uncomfortable relationships unfolding among the characters.Before I continue, I should give a brief synopsis of Rebecca for those who are unfamiliar with it. It is the story of the timid young bride who narrates the novel; Max, her distant and haunted husband; and the real and imagined memories of Rebecca, Max’s former wife who died about a year before the story begins. Most of the novel takes place in Manderley, a mansion along the Cornish coast of England.As I read a little further in the story, it became clear that there is something special, something mysterious, about Manderley. After its tantalizing introduction in the first two chapters, part of which comes in a dream, du Maurier leaves the house behind temporarily to follow the Parisian existence of the narrator and her sponsor.
But du Maurier keeps referring to that house on the coast, and eventually I found myself wondering, What is so special about Manderley?
And once I met Max de Winter, I simply had to know. He could be dark and forbidding and Manderley was important to him, so I wanted to know its secrets—and his. As I was to learn, those secrets are inexorably linked.
I have always loved stories in which the setting is so important that it essentially becomes one of the characters, and I try to do that with my own books. However, this novel takes that idea to a whole new level: the house has a name but the narrator does not. With a name, the house is imbued with its own persona, making it equally as important as the central characters in the book. Manderley is always strong, always secretive, always impressive, whereas our anonymous narrator is weak and timid and given to dire imaginings. Max de Winter is anxious to introduce his new wife to his home, as if the home were the personification of something alive to him. And the house is just that. It is his respite and his refuge. To our narrator, on the other hand, it is something to be feared.
Try to imagine Manderley without a name. It’s difficult, isn’t it? Because it has a history, a personality. It isn’t just a house; it’s an essential character—it must have a name. It must be given the respect it deserves. The narrator, on the other hand, though she is essential, doesn’t need a name. She has only a short and fairly plain history, and she has very little strength upon which to lean. Her mousy ways do not earn the reader’s respect because her personality is not nearly as strong as that which Manderley exudes.
Next, try to imagine Manderley anywhere but along the Cornish coast. I’ve tried and found it impossible. Manderley has to be situated on the wild Cornish coast, in England, where characters exhibit that classic British reserve that can be so maddening when the narrator in Rebecca is searching for answers and a friend.
In addition to the mystique of Manderley, there is Rebecca, the woman whose life and death hang over the house like a dark shroud. Manderley is inanimate; Rebecca is dead; but the pasts of both are intertwined and haunt our narrator as she timidly watches each day drift into the next. Rebecca’s footfalls echo through the dank, dark halls of Manderley.
Rebecca and Manderley represent the same things to the narrator: strength and Max’s love. His new wife wrongly assumes that Max is still devoted to Rebecca, when in fact he is merely trying to escape from the memory of her life and death; that memory is where Rebecca’s strength lies. Our narrator rightly assumes that Max is as devoted to Manderley as he would be a to a wife or child.
As the narrator comes to realize that Rebecca’s hold on the present is tangible but conquerable, she also comes to realize—too late—that Manderley is not a place to fear, but a place to love and embrace. As the shackles that tie the young bride to Rebecca’s ghost slip away, so too do the shackles that have comprised her fear of Manderley. Alas, by the time she comes to appreciate her mansion home, Manderley is gone in a flurry of flames and ash.
It’s only fitting that the strong and formidable Manderley disappears and the nameless narrator remains, finally confident in herself. And that is the genius of du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Amy M. Reade is a debut author of romantic suspense. A native of upstate New York, she grew up in the Thousand Islands region and was inspired by the natural beauty of that area to write her first novel, Secrets of Hallstead House. She now lives in New Jersey with her husband, three children, a Bouvier des Flandres named Orly, and two rescued cats who refuse to answer to their names of Porthos and Athos. Upon graduation from Cornell University and Indiana University School of Law, Amy practiced law in New York City, but soon discovered that her dream job was writing. In addition to volunteering with school, church, and community groups, Amy is currently working on her second novel, set in the area around Charleston, South Carolina. Though Amy lives within sight of the Atlantic Ocean, she is partial to the blue waters of the Pacific and spends as much time as possible on the Big Island of Hawaii, which is the setting of her as-yet-unwritten third novel.