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!

Shoes and ships and sealing wax

treehouse6I meant to post a link to the personal website I have been using while the shop is closed, and I forgot.  In case anyone is interested, you can find it here! You can even see videos of me in my pyjamas with lockdown hair (I cut it all off short one day near the start of lockdown). I can’t remember what I talk about, but it all seemed important at the time. I am in the process of making the most important one yet!

You’ll find details of Kenilworth Reads there, my attempt to get people in the town to read the same book, but I have failed to get my act together – there is still time!

I am waiting to see what the Human Haystack (aka our esteemed Prime Minister) says at the next lockdown review, in terms of reopening the bookshop.  If I do open in June, it will be on Saturdays only, as I work out how to do it as safely as possible, and the proceeds from those days will go to my fundraiser to help musicians, who have lost everything and seemingly for some time to come.

Anyway, just checking in – thank you to those who have missed us!  I hope everyone is OK and managing lockdown and hope to see some of you before too much longer.  I was really struggling with the physical side of the shop before we closed, but I now have a mobility scooter, so life is and will be a bit easier!  You may see/have seen me zooming around town on it.

Stay safe, stay well, keep reading.

Furlough

The bookshop, as you know, closed a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I would be able to carry on with some online things (including our Cicero Boxes), but we are now ceasing trading all together during the current crisis.  The Tree House is a limited company, and I am employed as its director; for the last 12 months I have been able to join up to PAYE and pay myself a small monthly wage.  My accountant has suggested that I should be furloughed, and so henceforth I am indeed on furlough, which means the company has ceased trading completely.  So no more Cicero boxes, and no more web posts for now.  We are also eligible, as a small retail business, for a government grant, and so I hope that in due course we will open again, along with all our high street neighbours in Kenilworth.  But I am not allowed to post on social media or here, as that implies the company is still operating.  I will be setting up a personal website, where I can post bits of art history and blog about books and music, and I will post a link here when I have done that.

I leave you with the song that Bob Dylan recently gifted to us – a song he wrote and recorded a number of years ago but has never released until now. It is partly about the assassination of JFK, but really it’s a hymn to 20th century American culture and the need for music in dark times and, written well before Trump came to power, it strikes me as a powerfully anti-Trump statement too.  It’s 17 minutes long and utterly glorious.  Listen to it several times, listen to the lyrics, and it will soon have you under its spell.  There’s no one like Bob.

Let’s try again…

nick reading 1Well that went well, didn’t it!  I did think restrictions on movement were coming, but went ahead anyway.  In light of the government edict, we won’t be able to do our book deliveries and mail order parcels.  However, I think we can still do our Cicero Boxes, and this is the perfect time of year to order one.  This is our monthly subscription scheme: two second-hand novels, a few flower seeds from Higgledy Garden, a bookmark and some sort of treat in the post each month.  £10pcm inc P&P.  Bargain!  And April is prime time for sowing flower seeds.

Why can I do this but not the other?  Well, I can go and retrieve a stock of books from the bookshop and at just two books per person, it will be easier to manage.  I can print off postage labels here and go to a post box as my daily exercise or food shop without having to go into a post office, as the boxes I use fit through a letterbox.

Normally I charge extra for a one-off box, but I won’t be doing that during this strange period.  So if you would like a box, let me know – contact form below.  Easiest just to do that in the first instance, and then we can discuss further details in email (you can still give me ideas about the sort of books you like/don’t like).  Also makes a lovely gift for a friend or relative you might not be seeing for a while.  The seeds can be grown in pots and windowboxes if you don’t have a garden.

A word about Higgledy Garden.  This is a wonderful little company – really just Benjamin Ranyard and his Viszla hound Flash, who live on a narrowboat.  They have a bit of help now from one or two others, as the business has grown.  Ben sells British flower seeds, and gives guidance on growing them, to create lovely cut flowers in your garden – though you don’t have to cut them of course!  Do have a look at the website, it’s lovely.

And why do I call them Cicero Boxes?  Well, Cicero, the great Roman orator, said that if you have a garden and a library, you have all that you need.  I think he forgot the single malt, but maybe that was assumed.  According to a Classicist friend, he actually said ‘a garden IN a library’, which sounds amazing, but no one quite knows what it means.  Maybe he had a very big library.  Anyway!  That’s why.

Get in touch below for any further info – or look at the Cicero Boxes tab, and ignore the bit about the different price for a single box.

Stay safe people!  For me, three weeks of enforced staying at home is a gift, but I am very lucky, as someone who lives alone, has a garden and is a natural introvert.  I know others are not so lucky in many ways.  But reading books and growing flowers are lovely things to do during a crisis.

 

Children’s books buy one, get one free for half-term

treehouse6I know it’s Thursday already, but there are still two days of our offer on children’s books!  Our books are cheap anyway – children’s fiction is mostly 60p-90p – but even better when you can get twice as much.  Bring the kids in to browse and stock up on a bit of reading; or they can sit in the treehouse and read for a bit while you browse for your own books – a good half-term activity in itself, and excellent value for the children’s pocket money.  We have lots of books in at the moment, and a few more boxes of children’s books to unpack today, so do come and have a look.  It’s windy – the market is cancelled – but we’ll be wind-free, and you may even be lucky enough to catch Nick Cave playing on the CD player.

nick hs2

Advent book calendars

Because we were asked to supply a lot of children’s books to a school in Kurdistan, I haven’t been promoting our Advent books this year, worried that we wouldn’t have enough children’s books to make them.  We are low, but if anyone would like a bundle of 24 books, individually wrapped, one to open each day in Advent, we will do our best!  Time is short now, it’s only a week until the end of November, and this is for local people only.  We can do them for adults too, of course!

Prices are £15 for children, £25 for adults – if you have teenagers, it’s up to you whether you would like YA books (we don’t get that many…) or general fiction (which would be classed as a £25 calendar).  We can have them ready for next Saturday, or for the lights switch-on on Sunday 1 December (we’ll be open from 1pm).

This year I might even do one for myself!  So much better value than a normal Advent calendar, with the added bonus of enough reading material to get you through the dark days of winter still to come.  And great for Jolabokaflod, which I think we really should adopt in the UK!

So if you would like one, get in touch asap – orders later than Wednesday will be trickier!

advent books

Radio Abbey

Did you know that I am a DJ as well as a bookseller and Kenilworth’s most famous art historian?  (The latter title bestowed by Neil and Gayle, my great friends and fellow DJs, hosts of the wonderful Brunch with the Bradleys.)  I do two shows on local internet station Radio Abbey, one about books and folk music, one a celebration of nostalgic tunes from my youth – meant to get everyone dancing!  Here is this week’s episode of both.  BookFolk is on a Monday from 1-2pm, Old School Disco! is on Tuesdays from 6-7pm.  You can also Listen Again later.

Daytime art history at the Tree House Bookshop

monday art lecturesWe have had art lectures at the bookshop pretty much as long as the bookshop has been open (which, as an aside, is an amazing six and a half years!).  Mostly these have been evening lectures, but we are often asked about the possibility of daytime talks.  So this autumn there are art history talks on Monday mornings at 11.

The lecturer is me!  I am an art historian as well as a bookseller, with a PhD from Bristol University and 20 years of lecturing experience.  I still do a bit of professional teaching, but online (for Oxford University), which means I can do it from home in my pyjamas…perfect!  But now that we have the new projection equipment, lectures are even easier at the bookshop.  And even though it means I have to get dressed, it is all good fun.

Sometimes people say they feel daunted, and don’t come because they think it will be too highbrow or because they haven’t looked at paintings before.  But my lectures are informal, friendly, inclusive – suitable for all levels of knowledge, which sounds a tall order, but it isn’t really.

My specialisation is in the art of Northern Europe in the Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries), but I do a few other things as well, including tracing what I call the Northern Tradition through the Dutch 17th century, German Romanticism in the early 19th century, and into the 20th century, and of course I look at Italian Renaissance and late medieval art too.  This all sounds very grand, but the key is simply taking a painting and looking at it, and that’s what a lecture is for: you can read about art in books and on the internet, you can go to galleries, but a lecture gives you the opportunity to explore and discuss and ask questions and spend time looking closely with a guide and some fellow-explorers.  Paintings – and the labels that go with them – become much less daunting when you do this.

I have mentioned paintings, but my PhD subject was sculpture, which in Germany is an incredible thing in the Renaissance, and prints, which grew out of the development of printed books in the 15th century.  It’s all marvellous!

So if you’re free on a Monday morning, do come along at 11 o’clock – or if you prefer an evening talk, I still do those on Tuesday evenings once or twice a month.  Lectures are £8 on the door, including coffee/tea, and last about an hour plus time for questions.

This coming Monday, 28 October, I’ll be talking about the greatest European painter of the 15th century: Rogier van der Weyden.  A bold claim, but a genuine one!  Why have you heard of Botticelli, who is not as good nor as important/influential, but not of Rogier van der Weyden?  I can tell you that too if you come along.

Victoria (aka Dr Vic, or Doc Tors as some Bristol friends used to call me!)

Film club launch, Friday 25 October – free screening!

There is a lot going on at the bookshop this autumn…to be kept up to date, it’s a good idea to join our mailing list!  I am not the world’s most efficient promoter (ahem…) but the more avenues you follow to find out what’s going on, the less likely you are to miss something!  So if you’re on Facebook or Twitter, do follow the Tree House Bookshop there too, and I will be working extra hard to keep all the different media up to date.

This Friday we are launching our new film club with a free screening of The Philadelphia Story.  We’d love a few more to sign up to the club to pay for the licence!  Our new equipment is working very well, it’s a joy to use – thank you to Mustard Presentations of Coventry for an excellent job! – and the films and lectures we have had so far have elicited very positive responses from the audiences.  So do join us on Friday if you can!  Film starts at 7.30pm.

More soon about other things that will be happening!

Tree House Bookshop Film Club