Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
– first line of Rebecca
by Daphne du Maurier
Slice of Cake:
She came from a family of actors, journalists, cartoonists, and painters.
She was a successful writer from an early age:
She was 24 when her first novel was published;
She was 31 when Rebecca, her most famous novel was published.
Rebecca was not only an instant best seller, but it has never gone out of print.
(More about Rebecca below!)
Happy 112th Birthday
** Daphne du Maurier **
– born May 13, 1907
in London, England
I’ve been thinking this week about the power of metaphor,
and its ability to help us make sense of the world.
If you’ve never yet read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
and you can’t quite remember the 1940 Hitchcock film—
nor have you seen either the 1997 or the 1979 versions of
Rebecca on public television—you will probably want to
go and treat yourself by indulging in one or more of these
before you read the spoiler-laden ramblings below.
(You can skip down to “Half Cup More”)
The Rest of the Tangerine is Sour:
a study of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Before writing Rebecca, let’s suppose
that Daphne du Maurier posed 3 questions to herself.
— How to let my narrator and main character be one-and-the-same,
and yet not be limited by all the many limitations that come with first person narration?
— How to allow this poor, nameless narrator to lead her shy, quiet life,
yet still infuse the pages with a disturbing and ever-increasing sense of foreboding?
— How to give my heroine a romantic love story with a man who is —
(to put it delicately) a patronizing, gaslighting, wife murderer?
From all I can gather from my reading of Rebecca,
here are three ways Daphne du Maurier went about
answering those three questions.
#1 Dodging the Traps
of First-Person Narrative:
For a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.
There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate…
Then, like all dreamers,
I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers
and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me.
– from the first two paragraphs of
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The limit of a first-person narrative is that we the readers see only what our narrator sees.
If she’s not in the room, we’re not in the room.
So we never get to hear how Max announces their engagement to Mrs Hopper,
while the bride-to-be demurely sits in the next room defacing borrowed property
and setting fire to her rival’s signature…
Later we get only the tail end of the coroner’s inquest.
In other words, we hear only what happens after she sneaks in and before she faints.
But, of course, du Maurier doesn’t want us to hear those things.
Luckily, our narrator has imagination enough—plus a propensity to talk to herself—
which together work to expand the limitations of our seeing only from her point of view,
and lets us see much more than the present moment.
Turns out, our lonely narrator spends a lot of time imagining elaborate scenarios,
which play like film clips in her mind.
She imagines the past—like when she pictures Max’s sister Beatrice as a little girl,
running down the stairs of Manderley.
She imagines the future—like in this passage, which comes right after Max he tells her that
he wants to show her Manderley:
My mind ran riot then.
Figures came before me and picture after picture—
and all the while he ate his tangerine, giving me
a piece now and then, and watching me.
We would be in a crowd of people, and he would say,
“I don’t think you have met my wife.”
Mrs de Winter. I would be Mrs. de Winter…
A woman comes in, smiling,
she is Maxim’s sister, and she is saying,
“It’s really wonderful how happy you have made him,
everyone is so pleased, you are such a success.”
Mrs de Winter. I would be Mrs de Winter.
“The rest of the tangerine is sour, I shouldn’t eat it,” he said,
and I stared at him,
the words going slowly to my head,
then looked down at the fruit on my plate.
He was right. The tangerine was very sour.
I had a sharp, bitter taste in my mouth,
and I had only just noticed it.
Even though she’s often alone, we see her thinking things over
and talking herself into things (and out of things), as if she were her own friend and advisor.
Here she is, thinking about Max’s abrupt, bare-bones proposal:
He had not said anything yet about being in love.
No time perhaps. It was all so hurried at the breakfast table.
Marmalade, and coffee, and that tangerine. No time.
The tangerine was very bitter.
No, he had not said anything about being in love.
Just that we would be married. Short and definite, very original.
Original proposals were much better.
More genuine. Not like other people. Not like younger men
who talked nonsense probably, not meaning half they said.
Not like younger men being very incoherent,
very passionate, swearing impossibilities.
Not like him the first time, asking Rebecca…
I must not think of that. Put it away.
#2 Foreboding: Things are Changing,
and Not in a Good Way
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 wood, always a menace even in the past, had
triumphed in the end.
– from the first two paragraphs of
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier’s handling of suspense is consummate.
The plot seems full of very ordinary things;
Really, until they find the boat—which is 2/3rds of the way through the book—
She meets a widower and marries him.
She worries she doesn’t compare well to his first wife.
She’s shy and feels intimidated by the staff.
The housekeeper is snooty to her.
That’s all pretty ordinary stuff. But it never feels ordinary.
Q: Why not?
A: Because we are constantly getting small, under-our-radar, hidden-in-plain-sight clues about change: Change is coming. Change is unexpected. Change is definitely not for the better.
Q: Where are these foreboding clues, this gothic melodrama, that we sense but don’t notice?
A: They are hidden in the weather, the landscape, the flowers, and fruit.
We’ve already seen the sour tangerine. Here are two more examples.
(These are from the chapter where she and Max are driving together to Manderley for the first time):
I became aware that this was
not the drive I had imagined would be Manderley’s,
this was not a broad and spacious thing of gravel,
flanked with neat turf at either side, kept smooth with rake and brush.
This drive twisted and turned as a serpent..
On either side of us
was a wall of colour, blood-red, reaching far above our heads.
We were amongst the rhododendrons.
There was something bewildering, even shocking,
about the suddenness of their discovery.
The woods had not prepared me for them.
They startled me with their crimson faces,
massed one upon the other in incredible profusion,
showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughterous red,
luscious and fantastic,
unlike any rhododendron plant I had seen before.
I glanced at Maxim. He was smiling. “Like them?” he said.
She hasn’t even reached the front door! And already things are
“not what she imagined” and she’s seeing blood and snakes.
#3 Patronizing, Gaslighting,
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.
– from the first two paragraphs of
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
He consistently calls her a child.
And from the beginning, the very first time they spend time together,
he talks down to her. He says to her:
“Stop biting your nails, they are ugly enough.”
She worries about how he treats her and she complains about it. To herself mostly:
I wished he would not always treat me as a child,
rather spoilt, rather irresponsible,
someone to be petted from time to time when the mood came upon him,
but more often forgotten…
Was it always going to be like this?
…Would we never be together, he a man and I a woman?
She compares his treatment of her to the dog:
It was over then. The episode was finished.
We must not speak of it again.
He smiled at me over his cup of tea, and then reached
for the newspaper on the arm of his chair.
The smile was my reward.
Like a pat on the head of Jasper. Good dog then,
lie down, don’t worry me any more. I was Jasper again.
I was back where I had been before.
He also gaslights her.
Max asks her if she got along with the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. She hesitates and then says:
> “It’s natural enough that she should
resent me a bit at first.”
> “Resent you, why resent you?
What the devil do you mean?”
I notice that whenever Max
invokes the devil, he also seems to embody one.
Later she (and we) find out something that Max knew all along—
that Mrs Danvers had taken care of Rebecca since Rebecca was a child.
(Of course Mrs Danvers resents Rebecca’s replacement. How could she not?)
Angrily berating someone to make them doubt their own reasoned opinion is gaslighting.
When she confesses she’s uncomfortable around the bishop’s wife.
His reply is essentially: Of course the bishop’s wife will judge you,
“if you wear that grubby skirt when you call on her.”
After another few minutes of arguing, they have this exchange:
“You are disappointed in me,” I said.
“I’m gauche and awkward, I dress badly….”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” he said.
“I’ve never said you dressed badly, or were gauche.
It’s your imagination.”
In other words,
he tells her, ‘You didn’t hear what you heard.’
‘You don’t know what you think you know.’
‘It’s your imagination.’
All this is, of course, before he tells her that he shot his first wife.
“When I killed her she was smiling still.
I fired at her heart. The bullet passed right through.”
According to biographer Margaret Forster, 1
Rebecca wasn’t written to be a romance.
Instead, Daphne du Maurier wrote it to be about a marriage
between a man who is powerful
and a woman who is not.
So, no, this novel is not a romance.
Instead, Rebecca is a novel
rich in metaphors, in suspense, in psychological depth,
and well worth another read.
“Half Cup More”
Metaphors are powerful.
I say this because metaphors so often help me focus on an idea
that, otherwise, may swim around aimlessly, no good to itself or the world.
Here are three metaphors I’ve used to
help focus and clarify ideas many times in my writing.
#1 The metaphor of a
magpie’s thievery, borrowed from a quote by poet Alison Luterman
We writers are like thieves,
magpies stealing bits of glitter and tinsel and straw from
unlikely places and weaving them
into a nest of words.
– Alison Luterman
The metaphor in this quote is, okay, technically a simile.
But it is also my favorite answer
to all sorts of questions:
‘Where do you get your ideas?’
‘Just how autobiographical is this play?’
and most especially:
‘I sure hope that awful character isn’t supposed to be me!’
#2 The metaphor of
a pond in late autumn,
borrowed from an Escher print.
This print shows my favorite metaphor for the concept
that every good story has layers.
The surface layer of leaves is the plot. The leaves are carefully arranged, so that a frog could hop from one leaf to the next on her adventure across the pond: Something happens on this leaf here, then a hop to the next leaf to see what happens there.
The reflected layer of bare trees above is history, backstory, what happened to our frog before our story began. (Let’s say she’s a tree frog and once lived in those branches.)
The fish skulking in the pond’s depths is the surprise, the twist in the story. Because every good story needs at least one surprise. (A danger to our frog? An unexpected friend?)
On some long writing afternoon, I’ll look up from my pages in deep frustration
because of my lackadaisical plot or my intractable characters…
Then I see Escher’s print and think:
– Are all the leaves of my plot arranged in the best order?
– How clear is the reflection of the trees branches, and how far do they reach into the plot?
– And that fish: what is it exactly? How many glimpses of it have I shown so far? What happens when it finally breaks the surface?
#3 The metaphor of juggling pins,
borrowed from an astoundingly good essay by novelist George Saunders.
The question of how to organize any piece of fiction—what to include, and in what order—
is a problem I find myself constantly revisiting throughout the writing process.
What makes Saunders’ metaphor of the juggling pins so useful is
that it helps clarify what to keep and what to cut and
why certain small details are so important.
The following excerpt is from
“What Writers Really Do When They Write”
by George Saunders.2
It is one of the best essays I’ve ever read on both the craft and the joy of writing:
A work of fiction can be understood
as a three-beat movement:
A juggler gathers bowling pins;
throws them in the air;
The first phase: the gathering of the pins [is really] conjuring up the pins…
a thing about which we’re curious;
a threat, a promise, a pattern, a vow we feel must soon be broken…
(Romeo loves Juliet; Akaky Akakievich needs a new overcoat…)
Then: up go the pins.
The reader knows they are up there and waits for them to come down and be caught.
If they don’t come down
(Romeo decides not to date Juliet after all, but to go to law school;
the weather in St Petersburg suddenly gets tropical and the overcoat will not be needed…)
the reader cries foul and…she throws down the book
and wanders away to get on to Facebook, or rob a store.
The writer, having tossed up some suitably interesting pins, knows they have to come down,
and, in my experience, the greatest pleasure in writing fiction is
when they come down in a surprising way that conveys more and
better meaning than you’d had any idea was possible.
– George Saunders 2
Just for some contrast—
and to maybe sparkle up the mood a bit—
Here’s another fictional woman talking about the real estate
she’s marrying into…
“My dearest sister, now be, be serious.
I want to talk very seriously…
Will you tell me how long you have loved him?”
“It has been coming on so gradually…
But I believe I must date it from my first seeing
his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”
– from chapter 59 of
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
by Jane Austen
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you. .
You Can Read More…
notes & footnotes
Daphne Du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller
by Margaret Forster (1993)
What Writers Really Do When They Write
by George Saunders
4 March 2017
I really can’t recommend this article highly enough.
It’s perhaps the best how-to-write essay I’ve ever read:
A true gift to writers and want-to-be writers.
Saunders divided the essay into sections.
The passage I quote here about the juggling pins is
in Section 7, the final section.
My other favorite passage comes in Section 2
about Bob and the barista: a fascinating illustration of
how precision leads to compassion.
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© Kelly J Hardesty 2022