What the Dickens does Bleak House have to do with Black Lives Matter or Brexit?

In another of her occasional thought-provoking literary articles, Stella Backhouse turns her thoughts to Charles Dickens’ masterpiece Bleak House, with some surprisingly modern results. Do let us know what you think!

[Editor’s note: if you haven’t read Bleak House, it is for my money one of the finest novels in the English language. Give it a go.]

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Bleak House is a novel about a fast-changing society and its relationship with the past. If that sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because many of the debates that shaped Britain in the second decade of the twenty-first century have centred on our own relationship with the past: how does it inform our attitudes to the present?; who owns it?; and why does reclaiming it matter so much? Questions like these underpin both the Brexit saga and the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged in 2020. But what’s so striking about Bleak House is that while we in our day continue to agonise about the presence of the past in the here-and-now, Dickens in 1853 had a solution that was startlingly different and very simple: forget the past. Consign it to history. Move on. The present and the future are all that matter now.

If modern readers know anything about Bleak House, they know that it’s the novel in which Dickens’ impatience with the workings, machinery and practice of the law achieved its fullest expression. The Court of Chancery, where the interminable disputed-will case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce has ground on for decades, is reviled as nothing more than a dead-weight of self-serving bureaucracy that that might be ripe for lampooning, were it not for the fact that entire lives are swallowed up by it, and slowly digested into blighted prospects, madness and untimely death. But it’s not the only example. What Dickens is portraying more broadly is a society that has outgrown its institutions. The law, religion, politics and what we would now call welfare provision: in their current state, all of them are unfit for purpose – all of them belong as firmly in the past as the megalosaurus that so arrestingly waddles up Holborn Hill on the opening page. This is a society crying out for renewal.            

The past and its institutions are a cage. The characters in Bleak House who do well are the ones who escape it and make their bid for freedom; the characters who do badly are the ones who stay locked within its grip. So while John Jarndyce does well because he has always steered clear of the law suit that bears his name (and also renounces his long-held plan of marrying Esther), Richard Carstone does badly (and eventually dies) because he cannot overcome his obsession with it. And while Lady Dedlock dies because she fears that exposure of her past will dishonour her husband’s family, Esther – her illegitimate daughter – is unashamed of her origins and never lets them hold her back. Her strength of character eventually overcomes her prospective mother-in-law’s insistence on lineage, and paves the way for her marriage to Allan Woodcourt.

But it’s even more than this, because what Dickens is envisioning is nothing less than a new type society – one based not on ancestral right and privilege, but on usefulness and ability to contribute. The contrast here is between the activity of the present and the inactivity of the past. Sir Leicester Dedlock’s very name is suggestive of stasis and standstill. Significantly, he appears to have no children; but he does have a cousin who is so exhausted, after long days of lounging around doing nothing, that he hasn’t even the energy to clearly articulate the English language. This, says Dickens, is the past.

The future belongs to people who are active. People like Esther. People like the detective Mr Bucket, with his finger pointing resolutely forward. People like Allan Woodcourt, a doctor but also the hero of a shipwreck. And even people like the semi-comic young lawyer Mr Guppy. Unlike the distinctly sinister older lawyer Tulkinghorn (who also ends up dead), the presciently yuppie-ish Guppy is motivated not by the desire to preserve at all costs the position of vested interests (and thereby have them in his power), but by a refreshingly independent mixture of professional curiosity, shrewd opportunism and the desire to impress a lady.

Although he doesn’t succeed in his ambition of marrying Esther, I’ve always felt that Guppy’s proactivity and “enquiring mind when it comes to evidence” will see him right in the end. He has shown himself to be active, and in this new world, that’s what counts. Indeed, one of Dickens’ biggest frustrations with the Court of Chancery is that those who become embroiled in it are prevented from leading useful lives. Richard tries and fails to make a go of three different careers before the suit completely absorbs him; rather than going off his head in London, Mr Gridley’s time would be far more productively employed in farming his Shropshire acres.

Dickens also appeals to readers’ own memories to support this new vision. There has been debate about the period when Bleak House is set. Published in parts from 1852 to 1853, the action has been assumed to take place some fifteen or so years earlier, just before the so-called ‘Railway Mania’ of the 1840s. This is because no one in Bleak House travels by train – even though by the early 1850s, the railway network was becoming well-established across Great Britain. Instead, the characters make numerous coach journeys – most of them slow, uncomfortable, very hard on the horses and made yet more unbearable by the appalling state of the roads. ‘Remember this?’ Dickens is asking. ‘Do you really want to go back there?’

And merging with the theme of activity versus inactivity, the same question hovers around the entirely ornamental Mr Turveydrop. Modelling himself on the late Prince Regent, his sole contribution to the life of society is his daily exhibition of himself around town, allowing his fellow citizens to marvel at his deportment. Vain, selfish, unproductive and completely reliant for his financial support on the his son and daughter-in-law exhausting themselves by giving dancing lessons – is he what readers want to go back to?

Dickens’ answer is a resounding ‘no’ – he ends the book with ‘beginning the world’, a new Bleak House and re-birth: Ada and Esther both have young children. The future, he assures us, can and will be better, if only we can put the past behind us and keep moving forwards. To us now, reading Dickens at the other end of the Industrial Revolution, fearfully conscious that the most lasting and intractable legacies bequeathed to us by the processes it set in motion are likely to be global heating, environmental ruin and the jeopardising of the planet itself, this self-regarding burst of Victorian confidence, optimism and belief in the power of progress seems almost as alien as the outdated stage coach journeys endured by Esther might have seemed to railway-addicted readers of 1853. But is there also something deeper at work? Something we in our time would perhaps find more relatable?

The reunion of George Rouncewell with his industrialist brother Robert is strongly reminiscent of the return of the Prodigal Son, as related in the Gospel of Luke. The sins of the past are cancelled and forgotten. All that matters is the joy of the present. It’s a parable that seems uniquely-calculated to soothe the possible preoccupations of the early Victorian mind. After decades of struggle, the abolition of slavery in the British colonies had finally been achieved in 1833, with the Slave Compensation Act signed into law in 1837, just fifteen years before the serialisation of Bleak House began. This was a subject that was still fresh and a guilt – perhaps – that was still raw.

I have often thought that the role of Victorian literature in suppressing memory and silencing debate around Britain’s slaving history is a subject that would bear examination. It was a silence that would last the best part of two hundred years. In popular debate, it began to be unstopped only in this century, when historians like David Olusoga, novelists like Andrea Levy and movements like Black Lives Matter began to turn their attention to it. This is highly speculative, but perhaps what we see in Bleak House, whether consciously on Dickens’ part or not, is one of the places where that silence began. Because Dickens is telling his readers to forget the past. He’s telling them to do it by keeping busy – the same advice that’s often offered to bereaved or traumatised people to this day. He’s telling them to turn the page and make a new beginning. He’s telling them to concentrate, unlike the well-meaning but misguided Mrs Jellyby and her ill-fated African coffee plantation, on problems closer to home, of which, God knows, there were plenty. Dickens was quite right about that.

So while it may be almost a hundred-and-seventy years old, its concern with what to do about the past means that Bleak House strikes a surprisingly modern note. We look at things very differently today, but the terms of our debate are still framed by choices made by the Victorians, choices that Dickens, one of the biggest celebrities of his day, may well have a hand in making. And the choice was to duck the issue. We today have no choice but to confront the past, because the Victorians didn’t want to. Dickens is still with us.

A Casual Relationship?

In our second guest review from Stella Backhouse, she explores the relationship between JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and a George Eliot’s classic – and not the one that it is usually compared with. There are SPOILERS but both books are now long enough in publication to allow for that, I am sure! Over to Stella.

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Surveying the wreckage that is the climax of her 2012 novel The Casual Vacancy – three year-old Robbie Weedon drowned in the river, his guilt-racked teenage sister Krystal dead from a lethal overdose – JK Rowling dryly observes that her unlikely heroine “had achieved her only ambition: she had joined her brother where nobody could part them”. It was at that point that I realised that The Casual Vacancy is not, as most critics seem to have surmised, an attempted update of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Full marks for spotting Eliot as the inspiration – but the true source is a completely different novel: the one whose epitaph for a brother and sister washed away in the floods is “in their death they were not divided”. I’m talking, of course, about The Mill on the Floss.

I don’t know why this has apparently gone unnoticed – Google ‘Casual Vacancy Mill Floss’ and you’ll turn up virtually nothing. It may be that the panoramic portrayal of small-town life that characterises both Middlemarch and The Casual Vacancy is just too hard to ignore; it may be that while Middlemarch is, according to one reviewer, “worshipped by many literary liberals”, The Mill on the Floss, with its story of bright, fierce Maggie Tulliver’s sacrifice of her own happiness to the demands of her implacably controlling brother Tom seems out-of-step with modern womanhood. But is it really? Beyond the siblings’ immediate histories, the book’s wider theme, termed by Eliot “the shifting relation between passion and duty”, is still, in these days of global pandemic, burgeoning inequality and looming man-made climate catastrophe, urgently current. It’s exactly the question addressed by Rowling in The Casual Vacancy.

OK: the hundred-and-fifty-two years that separate the two novels inevitably mean shifts of focus. But from Maggie Tulliver’s struggle with her brother’s insistence that she do nothing to jeopardise his conception of family honour, to the middle-class inhabitants of Rowling’s pretty town of Pagford who agonise over the fate of The Fields, the run-down, crime-ridden sink estate on their doorstep, the questions are the same. How do we balance the selfish lures of lust, cravings, covetousness, scratching itches, self-preservation, animal instincts and the need to be loved with our responsibilities to civil society? How do we decide our priorities?

Rowling’s answers take a number of forms. One is acknowledgement of the past. Repenting of their elopement, Eliot’s Maggie asks Stephen Guest “If the past is not to bind us, where does duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment”. Unfortunately, as becomes clear in The Casual Vacancy, the past is open to interpretation. Pagford stalwarts Howard and Shirley Mollison and Barry Fairbrother all spring from unpromising backgrounds. But while Barry uses his past to help Krystal Weedon overcome similar disadvantages, Howard and Shirley prefer to deny theirs or – if they must face it – to claim it as a reason for casting off undeserving individuals who didn’t work as hard as they did. Howard would surely applaud Maggie’s Aunt Glegg’s horror of squandering money on “them as have had the same chance as me, only they’ve been wicked and wasteful”. 

Rowling counters the Mollisons by arguing that the past is so hopelessly jumbled that it makes us all one. Contemplating his two very different offspring, Eliot’s Jeremy Tulliver laments “as the lad should take after his mother’s side istead o’ the little wench. That’s the worst on’t wi’ the crossing o’ the breeds: you can never justly calkilate what’ll come on’t”. The Casual Vacancy brings the results of this speculation to fruition five or six generations later, by which time the Mollisons (Latin for ‘mill’: molendini) are Pagford’s First Family, the Tullys (quite possibly the Mollisons’ not-too-distant relations) are a byword for criminality, and the lines of inheritance from Eliot’s characters are so blurred and so tangled that everyone is now part of everyone else.

For instance: despite having a mini-me son and a (to his mind) problematic daughter, self-satisfied Howard Mollison is too much of an establishment figure to represent the aggrieved outsider Jeremy Tulliver. Instead, it’s chippy printer Simon Price, with his noisy workplace, isolated homestead and violent outbursts who most resembles Eliot’s litigious miller. Simon’s son Andrew, secretly in love with beautiful Gaia Bawden (Lucy), decides to get a job and stays loyal to his father despite being painfully aware of Simon’s failings – all of which augur kinship to Jeremy’s son Tom; but on the other hand, Andrew’s gentlemanliness, peanut allergy and chronic acne all add a dash of disabled artist Philip Wakem – whose ghost is also visible in Barry Fairbrother’s attempts to help Krystal achieve her potential. Elsewhere, trying to nick his mate’s girl frames Stuart Wall* as a Stephen Guest figure; but commitment-phobic lawyer Gavin Hughes is also Stephen Guest because he ends up losing both of the women he gets involved with.

All these points are amplified by the importance in The Casual Vacancy of twins and mirror-images, with characters from the town having opposite numbers on the council estate. Unhappy, unfeminine doctor’s daughter Sukhvinder Jawanda and desperate, ballsy Krystal Weedon, her life-chances cruelly circumscribed by factors beyond her control, are twinned because in different ways, their lives re-enact Maggie Tulliver’s. And – painful though it is for me to say this of one of Eliot’s most lovable creations – the entrepreneurial spirit of Bob Jakin lives on in both businessman Howard Mollison and scumbag drug dealer Obbo (who other ways too, are far more alike than they know). Those Pagfordians who want to cut off The Fields are precisely the ones who do not wish to hold up a mirror to themselves.

And it’s not just the characters who reflect each other; it’s also their habits. Even as the middle-classes shake their heads over the cost to taxpayers of drug dependency in The Fields, they unfailingly find ways to excuse their own damaging relationships with food: “Given that she spent nearly all her time trying to help other people” for example, it was hard for flabby diabetic Tessa Wall “to see muffins as so very naughty”. This double-think is brought screechingly into the open at a Parish Council meeting when GP Parminder Jawanda confronts the mountainously – and unrepentantly – obese Howard Mollison, angrily demanding if he knows “how many thousands of pounds you…have cost the health service, because of your total inability to stop gorging yourself?”

More unexpected perhaps, is the extent to which Rowling flags religion as a template for life. It has been noted elsewhere that Robbie Weedon’s last hours recall those of the abducted and murdered toddler James Bulger. This is certainly a conscious reference on Rowling’s part: earlier, Howard Mollison puts off dinner with son Miles “because we’re playing bridge with the Bulgens”. But it recalls too the parable of the Good Samaritan, mentioned near the end of The Mill on the Floss, and recounted, according to the Gospel of Luke, in response to the question “who is my neighbour?”. Though he is Howard’s rival, Miles and Samantha Mollison go to the aid of respectably middle-class bank manager Barry Fairbrother when he collapses at the golf club (and are hailed ‘good Samaritans’ by Howard for their trouble) – but it turns out not to have been the real test. The real test was not to pass by on the other side as grubby, unattractive Robbie Weedon wandered lost and frightened from road to riverbank.

Organised Christianity ultimately abandons Maggie Tulliver when sympathetic vicar Doctor Kenn can no longer tolerate the malicious gossip that swirls around his entirely blameless attempts to rehabilitate her. The removal of Robbie’s case from Kenn’s modern-day equivalent, social worker Kay Bawden, is one of the factors that triggers Krystal’s high-risk plan to keep her brother with her. But as the Weedon children’s funeral progresses under the watchful eye of St Michael, vanquisher of the Tempter-in-Chief, it’s clear that the thing that finally unites Maggie, Sukhvinder and Krystal – indissolubly and for ever – is their instinctive impulse to save whoever needs saving, irrespective of cost, irrespective of who they are. True, two of them wind up dead (which is a pretty big cost) but the third is a spectacular winner. Rescued from the water, Sukhvinder emerges like the Sikh religious leader Guru Nanak to do what no one else can: use her re-birth to bring together Pagford and the Fields – one people in common humanity.

*The paternity of Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall is the unexploded bomb of The Casual Vacancy. Adopted at birth, he knows only that his mother was a fourteen year-old girl who refused to say who got her pregnant. But though he seems to be “pre-eminently and uniquely himself”, in reality he’s as much a part of the family as everyone else. The text provides ample clues to the identity of his father.

Stella Backhouse

Tier 4

Well, we were due to reopen tomorrow – Monday 4 January – after our Christmas break, but of course we are now in tier 4, so we have to remain closed until that changes. I have yet to decide if I will be furloughed or if I will try to run some sort of business online and via local deliveries, but furlough is the most likely – I will make that decision today. I don’t think we can really operate without being open.

Here’s hoping we won’t be closed for too long, but maybe hibernation will be good for all of us, and we can sit out the coldest weeks and avoid the virus as much as possible! Thank you so much to those who have bought books and attended art talks and brought donations between the lockdowns, and generally given lots of encouragement. Every message means a lot! Each lockdown is a bit tougher, but my thoughts are with those on the front line, those suffering and those separated from loved ones, especially those who have relatives in care homes and hospitals whom they can’t visit. I am luckier than many! As long as I can pay the bookshop rent we will be OK, though I do need some income too, but for now, and with some government financial support, both I and the bookshop are just about OK.

I did some little live videos on Facebook each day in Advent, with a book recommendation each day, so if you missed those and want to catch up, head over to our Facebook page and look for ‘videos’ – I don’t think you need to be on Facebook to watch them, they should be public. I may do a few more little videos if lockdown carries on, just to keep in touch! But we are not selling any books for now, and I may be even less prompt at answering bookshop emails if I am furloughed.

Meanwhile it’s Sunday, so I am off to make some lunch and watch Columbo. Happy reading everyone!

Victoria

Rebecca…as you may not have thought of her before.

In an occasional series of reviews by Stella Backhouse, here is an analysis of Daphne du Maurier’s book Rebecca, to coincide with the new filmed adaptation out this week.

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It was the shot heard round the literary world. In a doomed attempt to end the torment of their marriage, Cornish landowner Maxim de Winter kills his wife Rebecca with a single bullet, dumps her body out at sea, then pretends she’s drowned. When Alfred Hitchcock came to film Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 masterpiece in 1940, he subtly changed the plot to make the death accidental – romantic heroes are not supposed to be cold-bloodied wife-murderers. Hitchcock needn’t have worried: Maxim didn’t kill Rebecca. He couldn’t have, because Rebecca – at least, the flesh-and-blood Rebecca – was never alive in the first place.

To understand this, we need to approach the book as if we were its first intended audience: British readers of the late 1930s. “How strange” says the second Mrs de Winter (whom I shall henceforward call ‘the Narrator’) “that an article on wood pigeons could so recall the past and make me falter as I read aloud. It was the grey look on his face that made me stop abruptly.” In the 1920s and into the ’30s, that “grey look” was known and dreaded in households throughout the land: it was the look of a man who in the midst of a calm day, was suddenly back on the battlefields of World War One. Despite her legendary beauty, wide circle of friends and regular attendance at innumerable social functions, there are no photos of Rebecca. Even her loyal lieutenant, Mrs Danvers, never shows one. And that’s because Rebecca is not a person. Rebecca is the First World War.

Her welcome to Manderley, as Maxim and the Narrator arrive for the first time at his ancestral mansion, is the blooming rhododendrons: “monsters, rearing to the sky, massed like a batallion”, “their crimson faces…one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing…nothing but the slaughterous red”. ‘Slaughter’ is a word that even today, we still reach for when we want to convey the almost casual horror of World War One. This is not the blood of one woman. This is the blood of a generation.

It continues the next day, when the rhododendrons appear in the Morning/Mourning Room, tinting with red the walls around the desk where Rebecca wrote her letters – to the wives and sweethearts of the men who never came home. The room’s ornamental china Cupid, broken beyond repair some time later, is symbolic of love shattered – while the fact it was pushed to the floor by a falling book is a post-modern warning: Rebecca won’t be consigned to books. Rebecca has unfinished business.

Supporting her are war’s two eternal familiars: death and change. The housekeeper Mrs Danvers, “tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…set on a skeleton’s frame” is the slain of the Somme, nightmarishly re-animated. The cousin/lover Favell – vulgar, opportunistic, no respecter of tradition – is the new breed, circling the carcasses of country estates like Manderley as they declined economically after the war. Beyond the big house, poor damaged Ben, uselessly combing the beach for ‘shell’, lives in fear of Rebecca’s threat to send him to the asylum.

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Although it had long been recognised that exposure to trauma could have lasting psychological effects, the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were not formally described until 1980, forty-two years after Rebecca was published. One of du Maurier’s most astonishing achievements with the novel is how accurately she portrays a condition that, at the time she was writing, did not yet have an agreed set of diagnostic criteria.

According to the NHS website, PTSD is characterised by a number of different symptoms, including re-experiencing (flashbacks, nightmares); avoiding reminders of the traumatic event; emotional numbing; irritability and angry outbursts; drug and alcohol misuse. Maxim is a check-list of all of them. The discovery of Rebecca’s body, he tells the Narrator, was “the thing I’ve dreamt about, day after day, night after night”; he fills his mind with the minutiae of county cricket; he struggles to tell the Narrator he loves her; his sister says he “loses his temper once or twice in a year, and when he does – my God – he does lose it”; and though his drinking isn’t excessive, he practically chain-smokes. 

Additionally, the text is bristling with what we now call ‘triggers’ – some widely associated with World War One, some specific to Maxim’s personal hell. People hum tunes to steady their nerves, like the troops as they marched up the line. There are frequent mention of birdsong – so well-remembered by veterans that Sebastian Faulks used it as the title of his own First World War novel of 1993. There are sounds, scents, unease about waste; daydreams about other realities (where the war never happened); the constant obtrusion of the past on the present through the tolling phrase “I can see/hear her/him/them/it now”; and the whispering dread that “when the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress”.

“Rebecca, always Rebecca.” Every room at Manderley: re-decorated by Rebecca. The gardens of Manderley: re-designed by Rebecca. And this festering, claustrophobic conceit of PTSD – you can’t escape it, but you can’t talk about it either – is the heart of Rebecca’s power. It infects everyone. The Narrator can’t talk about it because she is “fearful that some heedless word…should bring that expression back to his eyes again. I began to dread any mention of the sea, for the sea might lead to boats, to accidents, to drowning…” Maxim can’t talk about it because he’s ashamed. The result is despair – an empty marriage where the participants are acting their parts unaccompanied by true feeling, and no end in sight. Echoing Laurence Binyon’s well-known war poem For The Fallen, the Narrator laments that “Rebecca would never grow old. Rebecca would always be the same.”             

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About two-thirds of the way through the book – literally overnight – the Narrator abruptly states that she feels more grown up (“I would never be a child again”); and this paves the way for an improvement in her relationship with Maxim. The catalyst is categorically not sex – du Maurier is careful to keep Maxim out of the bedroom the night before. Instead, it’s the at-first-glance unsuccessful fancy dress ball. Tricked by Mrs Danvers, the Narrator commits the appalling gaffe of appearing in an outfit identical to one worn by Rebecca a few years before. Maxim is majorly triggered, and the Narrator is forced to appear, like her husband, in ordinary evening dress.

Although imperfectly realised (the fireworks, representing the artillery barrage, are unavoidably at the end, rather than the start where they logically should be), the ball is symbolic of battle on the Western Front. “I was going to give orders that all cars should stand by for 5am” says Frank, the protective land agent whose own war-related PTSD – while seemingly less severe than Maxim’s – makes him the only person with whom Maxim can be…well…frank. The Narrator’s descent of the stairs (going over the top) is accompanied by drumming. And in the bleary light of morning “It was as though a blight had fallen on Manderley…One of the gardeners passed me with a barrow full of bits and paper, and litter, and the skins of fruit left on the lawns by the people last night.”

The boundary between Maxim and the Narrator is always fragile. It’s the Narrator who hums the tunes and hears the birdsong. It’s the Narrator who has the possibly recurring nightmare of returning to Manderley that forms the book’s unsettling opening chapter. But after her initiation at the ball/in battle, her identification with Maxim becomes more overt. In some ways it’s a comfort: her new-found empathy will help them face the future. “It would not be I,I,I any longer” she says. “It would be we, it would be us. We would be together.”

But it also opens the door to more troubling possibilities. The most important scene in this respect is the one that recalls the Temptation of Christ as well as foreshadowing the revelation Maxim will shortly make about how he almost killed Rebecca at the cliff near Monte Carlo. Whispering to the Narrator as they stand at the window of Rebecca’s bedroom, Mrs Danvers urges her to jump: “There’s not much for you to live for, is there? Why don’t you jump and have done with it? Then you won’t be unhappy any more.” As the protagonists’ experiences merge, we infer that what Maxim really contemplated at the cliff edge was killing himself.

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In reality, there are two ways of interpreting Maxim’s relationship to the Narrator – one hopeful, the other not so much. The more literal interpretation is that despite hints to the contrary, the Narrator and Maxim are separate people. As their lives move forward, his honesty about the past helps her to understand him better, which in turn enables her to support him through his continuing struggles with mental health. The insight that he was not altogether to blame for Rebecca’s death (read: what happened in the war) means that some degree of healing can occur.

The alternative is that the Narrator is a product of Maxim’s mind. Perhaps she’s based on a sympathetic nurse (on this reading, the quiet hotel where he’s residing in Chapter 2 is almost certainly a sanatorium) around whom he’s constructed a fantasy. His dream is of a wife who understands him. The mutual abandonment of fancy dress at the ball (followed up by telling the truth about Rebecca’s death) is symbolic of a longed-for abandonment of pretence.

If he can’t have this, he wants the war never to have happened.  Some of the book’s imagery – the lilac, the arching trees, the clocks, the afternoon tea – is suggestive of ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ by the celebrated war poet Rupert Brooke. Significantly, the poem was written in 1912, two years before war broke out. Maxim would happily suspend himself for ever in 1912. At Manderley, which he loves “before anything else”, this is what he tries to do. He tries to make it his safe place; the haven where he can shut out reality and pretend that all is well.

But the fact is, Manderley cannot keep the world at bay. It’s not safe from the past, but it’s not safe from the present either, and that’s what drives Maxim mad. In the dream sequence, sinister, rampant nature threatens to strangle the life out of the gentle ritual of afternoon tea. A tourist on the cliffs casually opines that “all these big estates will be chopped up in time and bungalows built.” The final straw comes when Rebecca tells him she is pregnant. The book was published in 1938. Another war is on the way.

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So: who is the real Mrs de Winter? If it’s not Rebecca and not the Narrator, there’s only one candidate left: the nameless, faceless woman Maxim identified as Drowned Rebecca, lying entombed like the Unknown Soldier in the family vault. And this is the heartbreaking truth: grief is Maxim’s only life partner. If you’ve stayed with me this far, perhaps you feel it’s a shame to have sucked the romance out of Rebecca – to have robbed it of, on the one hand, its uplifting narrative of ‘troubled-man-redeemed-by-love-of-good-woman’ and on the other, of its darkly exciting Freudian subtext of ‘troubled-man-can’t-cope-with-female-sexuality’. I disagree. Understood this way, Rebecca is an utterly devastating book. It’s also an urgently necessary book.

Twenty years after the Armistice was signed, it shone a light on the hidden suffering of those for whom the war was still a daily reality. Forty years before the doctors got there, it nailed the symptoms of PTSD and recognised it as an agony that endured for years. It acknowledged the toxic effects on families; it told them they were not alone. It made a plea for honesty and getting things into the open. And while some might argue that Maxim is unrepresentative because he’s cushioned by wealth, he could equally be seen as a de-stigmatising figure, affirming that this can happen to anyone. And these are messages that even today, we still need to hear.

Like all good literature, Rebecca can be read on many levels. If you want to enjoy it as Gothic yarn of love and jealousy – if you want to explore it as Freudian psycho-drama – you absolutely can. But alongside that, I think we owe it to Daphne du Maurier to put on record another of her achievements: classic study of PTSD.

[Stella Backhouse is better known locally for her Food Covolution website, highlighting independent food outlets in Coventry. She is a regular volunteer at the Tree House and a great and serious reader.]

The C word

One thing you have to embrace as a retailer is that Christmas starts in September. As someone who grew up in a home where the tree did not go up until Christmas Eve (something I still think is wonderful), this took a lot of embracing. But some things do have to be planned in advance, and it’s time to start thinking ahead!

I have launched our annual Advent calendar of books – quite time-consuming, so we have to start now! 24 individually-wrapped books, one to open each day in Advent. Great fun, and always popular. Head to the page to order one – we sometimes run out of books, so don’t leave it too long! We can post them too, but will need to work out a postage charge – usually not as much as you might think.

There will be no big event for the lights switch-on this year, sadly – another casualty of that other C word – but we will do our best to make the shop fun and magical during December. Not going to spoil any surprises on that yet.

We will also have lots of ideas for stocking fillers, and since we can’t have a craft fair, we will be selling things by local crafters in the shop too. More of that soon.

But if you’d like a bundle of wrapped books for Advent, get in touch – early orders are great as it gets a bit manic by mid-November!

Price rise…but still good value!

We have been in business now for 7 years, and have not put up our basic prices since we opened. The standard price of a paperback novel has been £2 right from the start; some are £1.50, especially crime and thrillers and chick lit, the kind of books people read once and bring back or pass on, and if books are in poor condition they are put at £1 or in our 50p boxes, depending on the book (and the condition!). Hardback non-fiction is individually priced, as are children’s books – we keep all children’s paperback fiction under £1, much of it is 50p-80p so that kids can spend their pocket money or buy more than one, and parents can buy several if they want to.

However, I’ve decided that it’s time to put our standard paperback price up to £2.50, for fiction in good condition. This is still less than the price of a coffee in most cafes, and still very good value, I think! Half the price of a magazine.

There will still of course be books at cheaper prices, as above. And I am not relabelling anything, so most fiction is still £2 for now – if it says £2 on the label, that’s what you pay! I will simply price new stuff that comes in at the new price.

We will also be hiding books around town – if you find one, its yours to keep! There is another little game tucked inside it, but that’s for you to discover.

We are open

I have been remiss in not posting on here that we have reopened! I did it quietly, as I wasn’t sure to start with what our opening hours would be and whether I was really ready to reopen. But we have been open since 21 July, and it’s been very busy, which is so wonderful. People buying lots of books! Maybe it’s post-lockdown frenzy, maybe it won’t last, but maybe it will! After five weeks we are still selling lots of books, so it’s all good for now. It’s great to see our customers again. We have basic covid precautions in place: there is hand sanitiser on the way in, and masks in case you have forgotten yours – including lovely reusable/washable ones that are made locally; we have a screen at the cash desk, and we ask people to be considerate about keeping a distance from other customers. So far we have not had to restrict the number of people in the shop, but of course it’s something to keep an eye on. We can’t have the jigsaw puzzle available, nor can we offer tea and coffee, and of course there are no evening events for the foreseeable future, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same as it was before!

We have some new merchandise: some Tree House pens and mugs – have a look at the Merchandise page. We also have some fabric bookmarks that a friend of the shop has made, and we still have our lovely handmade greetings cards. I will add photos to the Merch page. All of these can be posted out.

The shelves were very depleted when I took the photo of Lifesize Nick below, but they are much fuller now. And lots of new stock still to sort through, so do come and have a look.