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Thursday, November 24, 2011


First sentences: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
A famous first sentence indeed; a famous first chapter, in which symbolism dominates over plot. Feminine nature overwhelms the corpse of the great Manderley estate, our dreaming narrator passes through, and anything that we learn of the events of the plot - a plot finished, by this first chapter, before it begins - can only be gathered in signs and hints.

The circularity of the narrative is the beginning of its ambiguity, its fraught relationship with Rebecca, our narrator's shadow, rival and other self. An interesting point to reflect upon is this: the events of the plot (which I shall proceed to spoil), are actually pretty sordid. A wealthy man marries a woman because of family pressure and finds he hates and despises her; they live together for the sake of appearances; he murders her and hides her body; a year later he marries a penniless, submissive and naive girl half his age without telling her anything, brings her home, lapses into moody defensiveness at her natural curiosity about the situation she's gotten herself into and refuses to listen when she complains that she doesn't feel capable of handling the role she's been given (note, for instance, that Maxim reflects at one point that he should have bought her 'a lot of clothes in London' but never actually does, presumably preferring her shabbiness to a Rebecca-like chic, with no consideration of how awkward this makes it for her, trying to be a good Lady of the Manor in clothes that immediately brand her an outsider during many visits which Maxim does not attend); finally the truth comes out, and he draws his new wife into a criminal conspiracy. Gothic heroes - and this is, among other things, a Gothic novel - are often men of doubtful character and shadowy past, but du Maurier plays an interesting trick on us: we see him through the eyes of his besotted second wife, and only symbolic hints in the narrative suggest that there may be any rebellion against Maxim de Winter's cold (note the surname) aristocracy.

To manage this delicate balance, we need a vivid sense of emotional resonance, and particularly of ambivalence. Maxim is both lover and murderer; Manderley is both paradise and prison. And it's interesting to note that it's Manderley, not Maxim, that occupies the narrator's dreams.

I forget (and will credit if reminded) who described Rebecca as a romance between a woman and a house, but Manderley is a vital presence in the book. The narrator loves Manderley before she ever loves Maxim, buying an expensive postcard of it as a child and describing it in passionate detail throughout, immersed in the vivid azaleas and elegant rooms that communicate for more than Maxim does. Manderley is, in fact, based on a real house, Menabilly in Cornwall, which du Maurier herself leased and lived in for more than twenty years, and the fictional house - floral heaven, cultural haven, working establishment and social centre - embodies tremendous contradictions. Living in Manderley is lovely when alone, but its servants intimidate the narrator and the job it brings as hostess to the county society is utterly beyond her. Being married to Maxim is fine on honeymoon and tolerable, if tense and dull, in middle-aged exile, but going to Manderley complicates it tremendously. It's to preserve Manderley that Maxim stays married to Rebecca; it's to prevent it from going to an illegitimate heir that he kills her. Disputed Manderley is the angel and demon of the story.

And one of the disputed issues is this: whose home is it? The neighbours of the region consider themselves entitled to demand a ball held there; visitors can pay for admission and get a tour of the public areas. The servants live and work there, moving through the rooms with far more authority than the narrator. Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, wages a constant psychological war against the narrator with Manderley as the prize. It's notable, for instance, that she refers to Rebecca as 'the real Mrs de Winter' even though she has little respect for Maxim as a husband: 'Mrs de Winter', to her, is the lady of Manderley rather than the wife of Mr de Winter. As it occupies our narrator's dreams, it takes on the air of a spiritual home - but a spiritual home from which she is debarred. The expectations of other claimants undermine her while she is there, and the final conflagration exiles her and her husband, leaving it Rebecca's ghostly domain.

Our heroine, in fact, lives in chronic exile: paid companion to a woman who drags her through cities she dislikes, seated in Manderley but unable to settle there, and finally away from England, studying her homeland through outdated newspapers. Only in dreams can she move freely - but even in dreams, she is an observer rather than a homecomer. She went to Manderley: one can go anywhere. The neutral verb makes her dream an act of travel rather than homecoming. She went again; however much she might wish otherwise, she was only ever visiting.

The sentence itself is dream-like in its cadence. Iambic hexameter, in fact, with an internal half-rhyme on 'went' and 'again' (with an optional extra rhyme on 'dreamt' if one pronounces it with a short E, something the spelling encourages us to do):

Last night I dreamt I went
To Manderley again.
The book lulls us like the sound of the ambiguous, threatening, concealing and revealing sea that murmurs in Manderley's background. Even the sound of the name: Manderley, Manderley, Manderley, like a heartbeat, echoes through the narrative. It's notable that 'Manderley' flows more softly than 'Menabilly' (while preserving, as Sally Beauman points out in her fine introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition, the masculine first syllable). The only remarkable word in an otherwise simple sentence, Manderley is beguiling and seductive.

An interesting side note to this issue of tone: the narrator's soft voice contrasts sharply with Rebecca's on the few occasions we hear it clearly. Rebecca is a relentless abbreviator: Maxim become 'Max', slippers become 'slips', Mrs Danvers becomes 'Danny'; even hallowed Manderley becomes 'Manders'. Irreverent and casual, Rebecca is as universally detached as is the narrator, but where the narrator's constant state is longing homelessness, Rebecca's is assertive carelessness. The narrator stands outside and wishes; Rebecca enters, takes what she wants and repurposes it to her own will.

Dreams, too, are important. So much of the story takes place in the narrator's imagination, from her initial fantasises and hopes in Monte Carlo to her increasingly desperate obsession with Rebecca in Manderley, combined with her miserable imaginings of how 'dull' people must be calling her behind her back - it's such images, for instance, that propel her down the stairs to the nightmarish ball after the disaster engineered by Mrs Danvers - our awkward girl, inarticulate and shy with others, ranges freely within the confines of her own mind. When she describes conversations, it's interesting to note that phrases like 'of course' and 'inevitable' frequently predominate, usually unhappily: her expectations of people's behaviour are bleak, and usually fulfilled. The reason for this is that she lives in a world dominated by convention, and convention dominates her. Eloquent in her own mind, she can perceive the roles everyone is supposed to play, but is unable to either navigate or step outside the roles imposed upon her, only able to comment to herself with a miserable, repetitive I-told-you-so. When people are so distressingly predictable, the ability to dream, however sadly, remains an escape - an escape not just from physical limitations, but from social expectations. Reality is an introvert's nightmare; in a dream alone can one act unobserved.

Rebecca is a book in which human expectation, convention and interaction clash sharply with inner selfhood. Rebecca, glimpsed through descriptions, rebels; the narrator, speaking only to us, burns with shame at her inability to conform and flees into her mind, into her silent dialogue with us. Unreliable she may well be - the idea that she's married to a wife-murderer never seems to trouble her - but her intimate, passionate, wracked voice is so persuasive that it can be easy to forget to question her. Rebecca may have been a mistress of deception, but our narrator is no mean performer either. She just has a different natural audience. Rebecca works on seducing the other characters; her successor works on seducing us. We begin inside her very dreams; from there, the web begins to weave around us, and we need Rebecca-like powers of escape to resist.

I think I've been reading too much 20th-century poetry: when I read the first line, before I read your fascinating commentary, I "heard" the line as a poem, but this way:

Last night I dreamt
I went to Manderley

And, presumably, again and again and again.

a romance between a woman and a house
That seems to have been not uncommon in English literature; I'm thinking for instance of Elizabeth Bennett, who's only half joking when she says she began to fall in love with Darcy "on seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley."

At least Pemberley escaped the conflagrations that destroyed Manderley and Thornfield.

Are there any examples of men falling in love with houses or their lands? Brideshead Revisited, I suppose, but that's if I remember correctly a fairly masculine affair. Are there any books where it's the woman who's identified with the house? If not, why not: isn't the house supposed to be the province of the woman?

Excuse me wittering on like this, I'm supposed to be doing something else entirely. I'll have think more to figure out what I think.
Are there any examples of men falling in love with houses or their lands?

It's a feature in The Secret History - the visit to Francis's place marks the beginning of Richard's friendship with the others, it's the site of the original crime, and so on, but you'd have to pair it with Hampden College. It is, at least, a story in which Richard's emotional relationship is as much with his surroundings as with people.

That book, of course, is written by a woman, so I don't know if it count.

Are there any books where it's the woman who's identified with the house?

All I can think of off-hand - and we're ranging across the genres here - is Molly in Red Dragon. Moving to the seaside, marrying Molly and settling in her 'good, ramshackle house' are all more or less of a piece in the hero's life, and they combine to form a sort of sanctuary. Separating her from her location is part of the trauma.

That's not so much woman/house as prize as it is woman/house as refuge, which says a lot about the relative distribution of property and power in society...
Oh, and credit for pointing out the iambic hexameter and rhyme must go to my dad. :-)
That line informs the way we understand every line in the book does it not? We know, from the first line, that the narrator is no longer at Manderly and that something has happened to bar them from returning to it. It makes the reader more vigilant for clues indicating what is to come than is the narrator -- without making the narrator seem oblivious only for plot purposes.

Would you say, Kit, that that sentence alone is almost enough to place the book into the Gothic genre?

And have you ever read The Haunting of Hill House by Jackson and if so what do you think of the first line that book? To me it is the second line which is the clincher but the apparent dissonance between the 1st and 2nd lays out contending themes in the book.

Back to Rebecca -- do you think an argument can be made that the house itself functions as unrealizable dream of the achievement of true gentry status by one who was on the margins of that life -- and the way in which modern society has destroyed that apparent castle of gentle and aristocratic life. At the same time, of course, making the argument that that life always had been corrupt and rotten at its core.
I have indeed read The Haunting of Hill House; I shall add it to the list, because wow, Shirley Jackson was a great writer.

I think you could make the gentry argument; Rebecca certainly seems a contemporary figure, involved in fashions and modern dissipations. I'd say, though, that in the case of this particular book it's not exactly a dream of status. Aristocracy, to this narrator, means freedom from having to endure the vulgar and the abrasive - or perhaps, freedom from having to care so much about it, as witness Maxim's grand indifference to the social pressures he foists on his poor wife. But what the narrator really seems to long for is beauty and nature: she dislikes Monte Carlo being 'artificial' and is more fascinated by Manderley's azaleas and hydrangeas and beaches than she is by its wealth. She likes its interiors too, but she only relaxes out of doors.

Du Maurier apparently wrote the book in Egypt, homesick for Cornwall, and to me it definitely feels like there's a passion for the landscape of Cornwall as much as for any human relationships.

So, well, I think you could make a case - the Marxist deconstruction practically writes itself - but to me, the tone of the book feels as if the dream is very much bound up with the actual Manderley as well as whatever it might symbolise. In a way, it feels as if the narrator would prefer to live at Manderley without having to be a gentrified lady.

Basically, I think that a wish to fit into a world from which one is exiled is certainly part of it, but I think the relationship with Manderley feels more primal, more sensual and lived, than that. Just my view. :-)

As to the first sentence qualifying it as Gothic ... really, I think I'd need to read a lot of Gothic books before I could confidently answer it!
Oh well, if we're going to cross genres and include schools, there's Harry Potter and Hogwarts, of course.

And come to think of it, although Hogwarts is his first love, he's also very fond of the Weasleys' house, and ends up marrying its daughter and presumably recreating a similar home. No wonder he never fell in love with Hermione! Her parents are very nice people from what we see of them, not at all like the Dursleys, but I'll bet their house is a lot more like number four, Privet Drive, than like the Burrow.
I don't know; Harry Potter's relationships with places seem to be much more about relating to a community than to a location. If you consider, say, Richard in The Secret History, his first love is the beautiful Hampden campus, and he falls in love with his clique largely because they seem to be equally picturesque. He never quite fits in*, but he feels more at home in some places than others and prefers people who seem even more at home there than he does. Harry Potter, on the other hand, falls in love with places where he does fit in because they're full of people like him. With him, places seem basically secondary: they can be great in themselves, but it's the community they represent that's his first love.

*At least in his own mind. He's an unreliable narrator, and he evidently fits into the group a lot better than he realises because their common element isn't really money or class; it's an unhappy childhood without secure parenting. The twins are orphans; Francis has no father and an unreliable mother; Bunny's parents are very strange indeed and send him penniless to expensive schools; Henry, from the glimpses we can see, seems to be the son of a magnate who doesn't much care for him and a young trophy wife, and spends much of his childhood injured besides. Richard, whose father physically abuses both him and his mother (though he never quite puts it to himself in those terms), is as badly off as any of them, and hence equally vulnerable to the same experience, which is seduction into a small cult. (He remarks early that he would probably have ended up in a cult if he stayed in California, but doesn't realise he ended up in one after he left. Self-analysis doesn't necessarily give him self-knowledge.)
I dearly love "Rebecca". (It seems not to be in the public domain? I can't get an ebook version anywhere; I eventually sent it to be ripped and scanned.) It's such a delightful psychological warfare novel in so many ways, and I actually felt a little sorry for Max in the end, in spite of myself. (Just a tiny bit, though! :))
I’ve been loving your deconstructions, Kit, and must thank you very much for making me think a lot more about opening lines! If you’re familiar with it, I’d like to know what you think of John Fowles’s The Magus – I was put in mind of it by your discussion of Rebecca, and in my mind I tend to associate the two books because of their rich symbolism and layers – although, of course, they cannot be more different in their approach to gender.
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