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‘Adieu Sagesse’, or Troubled Identities in Du Maurier's Fiction

Undermining the Everyday: Daphne Du Maurier’s Gothic Horror

La déstabilisation du quotidien : l’horreur gothique de Daphne du Maurier
Gina Wisker

Résumés

L’horreur gothique de Daphne du Maurier déstabilise l’ordinaire et le quotidien familier pour montrer que les lieux et les rapports humains qui semblaient si sûrs sont en fait peu fiables, voire dangereux. Ce faisant, l’écrivaine met à mal les certitudes complaisantes qui sous-tendent notre vision familière du monde et les récits par lesquels nous appréhendons notre vie dans ses rapports à la famille, la sécurité, l’identité ou à l’ordre du monde. Dans Rebecca, « Ganymede », « East Wind » et « The Birds », du Maurier sape les certitudes, bouleverse les récits personnels trompeurs, inverse le familier et l’inconnu dans des lieux et des espaces liminaux – qu’il s’agisse d’une imposante demeure, d’un littoral exposé aux éléments ou d’une version touristique de Venise –, illustrant ainsi la théorie freudienne de l’inquiétante étrangeté et le questionnement existentialiste de la réalité. Les angoisses liées au quotidien se transforment en réalités destructrices alors que les êtres chers, les lieux et les animaux, familiers ou idéalisés, ne s’avèrent ni fiables ni dignes de confiance – et, de fait, ne l’ont jamais été. Alors que l’instabilité et l’inconnu perturbent les certitudes complaisantes de ces récits, du Maurier déconstruit le gothique romanesque de la fiction populaire, le remplaçant par l’horreur gothique.

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  • 1 Daphne Du Maurier, Letter of 4 July 1957 to Maureen Baker-Munton, in Margaret Forster, Daphne du M (...)

1Daphne Du Maurier warns us of ourselves and of the ordinary when she writes: “The evil in us comes to the surface. Unless we recognise it in time, accept it, understand it, we are all destroyed, just as the people in ‘The Birds’ were destroyed.”1 Her Gothic horror rarely resembles “shlock” horror, bloody, violent, although some of the most ordinary-seeming people, such as the would-be painter in “The Alibi” and the wealthy romantic lead Maxim de Winter in Rebecca, are capable of deadly violence. It frequently includes the supernatural, such as time travel in The House on the Strand, “Split Second”, “Monte Verità”, “The Birds”, “Not After Midnight”, “The Breakthrough” and the clairvoyant sisters in “Don’t Look Now”. Most often, however, the disturbance, or evil, arises from human behaviour.

  • 2 Alison Light, Forever England: Literature, Femininity and Conservatism between the Wars, London: Ro (...)
  • 3 Nina Auerbach, Daphne Du Maurier: Haunted Heiress, Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2000, 13.

2Alison Light’s work on Du Maurier brought her into view as more than a popular novelist, instead engaged with contemporary problems, historical moments and class. Yet, commenting on Du Maurier’s fidelity to history and “normal” life, Light sees her work always returning order, like a safe return journey: “Du Maurier’s writing may take a modern psychological view of human life as adrift on a sea of memories, but she always leaves the reader on terra firma.2 Rather, I find her work leaves readers with a lingering sense of unease, in which terra firma is as untrustworthy a construct as domestic harmony. Seeing her as a “haunted heiress”, Nina Auerbach alerts readers to Du Maurier’s mix of the realistic and the disturbing with a particular focus on the insecurities and dangers of couples and family life: “Her realism was, and is, compelling to me because it is inseparable from her alienated magic. I have found in no other writer’s work the same tough-minded anatomy of family life combined with so eerie a patina of domestic strangeness.”3

  • 4 Alison Light, op. cit., 191.

3Du Maurier’s Gothic horror is fundamental and springs from the ostensibly everyday which it undermines at the same time. Its key feature is that it destabilises the ordinary, the unquestioned, the securities of familiar behaviour, context and action while simultaneously disturbing our inner narratives used to overcome adversity, such as romance, order and strength. Its basis in realism misleads the trusting reader who finds the familiar relationships, people, places, trajectories of time and fixities of space insidiously dislodged, leaving them disorientated and unsettled. The comforts of recognisable locations – whether the streets of London, country lanes, small towns and beaches of Cornwall or the waterways of Venice – and of consistent behaviours, particularly homely, often complacent, married relationships, are all revealed as façades or dangerous delusions. Light notes that “Du Maurier, like Agatha Christie, made entertainment out of modern anxieties,”4 emphasising everyday anxieties of which the most existentially unstable is often that of being a woman. In Du Maurier’s work, instability and darkness seep through the layers of security we wad about us, and destabilise all our certainties.

  • 5 Fred Botting, “The Gothic Production of the Unconscious,” in Glennis Byron and David Punter (eds), (...)

4Building on these comments by Alison Light and Nina Auerbach, I will suggest that in Rebecca, “Ganymede”, “East Wind” and “The Birds”, the versions Du Maurier offers of reality, time, identity and relationships are fundamentally troubling. I choose these because they are emblematic of internal narratives of self-deception using liminal places where the familiar and the unfamiliar are inverted. Each is influenced by Gothic horror rather than the Gothic romance of popular fiction, and also by existentialism and its questioning of the relationship between words and things, self and the world. I will make a link between those four writings – in which what seemed normal or familiar is suddenly made strange, different, unpredictable, unhomely – and the unsettling of everyday worldviews identified in the work of the phenomenologists and in Freud’s theory of the uncanny, which is frequently recognised as a source for Gothic authors and critics. Fred Botting, among others, makes this link between the work of Freud, the intent and achievement of much Gothic work, and a questioning of shared “reality”.5 My main interest will be in the insidious undermining of the security of both the everyday normality of life, that which is labelled as real or trustworthy, and of the inner narratives by which we construct and interpret our worlds.

Destabilising ‘reality’: Gothic, Freud, existentialism and phenomenology

5Defamiliarisation, discomfort and disquiet disturb Du Maurier’s short stories and her novels, enacting Chris Baldick’s characterisation of traditional Gothic:

  • 6 Chris Baldick, “Introduction,” The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993, xii-xiv.

for the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a sense of a fearful inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an effect of sickening descent into disintegration.6

6Baldick links a sickening sense of the destabilisation of space and time, found in the Gothic, with a deep insecurity regarding the markers of the everyday, which reminds us of the philosophical questioning of shared “reality” developed by the phenomenologists of the early twentieth century, Husserl (Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology, 1913), Merleau-Ponty (Phenomenology of Perception, 1945) and existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (La Nausée, 1938). While their views differed in relating the role of the self, objects, events and interpretation, each focused on ways in which we receive and interpret sense impressions, how both the worldview based in the self and intentionality drive this interpretation. In these philosophically explained contexts, the self can be totally unable to make any sense, at sea in a wash of impressions; all links between words as labels and things are questionable and merely notional. Feeling disorientated and terrified, the self can force interpretations on the versions of the world it receives with a view to making sense of it and to constructing stories about the relationship between self and world, things, or words. Delusions can follow, such as are suffered by several of Du Maurier’s characters in the short stories and the novel considered here.

  • 7 Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” [“Das Unheimliche,” 1919], The Standard Edition of the Complete Psycho (...)
  • 8 E.T.A. Hoffmann, “The Sandman,” The Night Pieces, Berlin: Realschulbuchhandlung, 1816.

7In his 1919 essay entitled “Das Unheimliche”,7 Freud’s definitions of the uncanny emphasise the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar (the opposite of homely or heimlich), rather than simply mysterious. Freud’s psychology is unsettling and his use of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Sandman” extends this unsettling sense further into the dark imagination, through the story, the characteristics and strategies of Gothic horror.8 “The Sandman” introduces the issues of doubles and of objects which come to life or are seen as human. In Hoffmann’s story, young Nathaniel feels threatened by the folkloric Sandman who could blow sand in his eyes then feed those eyes to his birdlike babies. Another worrying figure, Olympia—the sleeping beauty ‘daughter’ of Professor Spalanzani – is both alluring and dangerously confusing, since part of her attraction is her stasis while her malleability enables her adorer to transfer all his emotions onto and into her. She turns out to be a doll and a similar fetishistic interaction is replayed in the sexually creepy ‘Julius’ in Du Maurier’s “The Doll”. “The Sandman” also directly influences Du Maurier’s “The Birds” emphasising the vulnerability and unreliability of one’s eyes, building on the Sandman’s threat of stealing eyes in sleep. Du Maurier’s tale establishes relationships between eyes and castration, the uncanny and taboo. When the Cornish coastal village is attacked by ordinary birds, from songbirds to crows and seagulls, Nat, the competent, physically active family man, is powerless to protect his family and so effectively emasculated. Other characters are actually blinded, their eyes pecked out and left to die.

8For Freud, the uncanny locates strangeness in the ordinary. The fundamental unease, the stripping away of the tight, safe relationship between what we believe we see, feel, can name, understand and trust is further opened up by phenomenology and existentialism. Whatever is taken for granted as normality – behaviour, relationships between people and the world, or between words and things – is undermined, revealed as a construct in which we invest at our peril. This aligns a sense of the uncanny with disorientation, with the variously constructed relationships between words and things, between labels and things/people, between self and world. This revelation opens up a gulf between words and things, between the construction of the normal and everyday, and the terrible eyeless world without human transformative comprehension. There is a lack of categories and “norms”; the stories by which we interpret the world, people, events, creatures, ourselves – all is constructed, transient, invested in, but not of itself, solidly real.

9The influence of phenomenologists, including Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, then of existentialism as developed by Sartre, peaks for me in Nausea (1938), published the same year as Rebecca. Each philosophical worldview variously makes claims for and disturbs the relationships between the world, the word and the self, between subject and object, between the names of things, our experience of them, and the narratives by which we make sense of them, casting us into a liminal space of insecurity and of existential doubt about self and the real. Their work aids our reading of Du Maurier’s Gothic strategies of unease, of destabilisation of comforting fixed realities or narrative trajectories of romance and domesticity embodied in popular fictional forms. We must therefore explore her engagement with characteristics of popular genres insofar as they structure the delusive securities of the comforting stories we tell ourselves. Unlike Light, I do not read Du Maurier’s work as ultimately closing down existential unease and returning the reader to their stability, since even when mysteries are explained, resolutions are no more than temporary. After all, in Rebecca, Max did murder his first wife, while in “Don’t Look Now” John is a clairvoyant who misinterprets supernatural signs of a disquieting kind. What is at stake in those stories is the insidious undermining of the security of both the everyday normality of life – that which we would label as real and trustworthy – and of the inner narratives by which we construct and interpret our worlds.

10Disturbing comfortable narrative trajectories, Du Maurier’s endings – and often her openings – are unsettled, troubling stability with existential angst. Rebecca opens with the second wife and Max bored, unsettled, trapped, moving between lodgings, locked in the shared complicity over a murder. It leaves us with unease, complicated by the collusive silence the couple maintain over their shared knowledge of Max’s guilt in murdering his wife. The family and probably the whole of civilisation at the end of “The Birds” await the last blinding and blind invasion along with the final obliteration of all life.

Destabilising fictions

  • 9 Nina Auerbach, op. cit., 11.

11As Nina Auerbach comments: “she’s a complex, powerful, unique writer, so unorthodox that no critical tradition, from formalism to feminism, can digest her.”9 Du Maurier works with popular fictional genres and our inner narratives alike to undermine comfortable resolutions, so it is not surprising that less discerning readers dismiss her only as a writer of paperback popular fiction. That dismissal is limiting, but less dangerously limiting than the complacencies of her characters, who seem to think they live in forms of slightly risqué or confirmatory romantic fiction (Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel), romanticised travel escapism (“Ganymede”), and tame domestic fiction of going about one’s business as teachers, scientists, writers, homemakers, fathers, or as fishermen and their wives (The House on the Strand, “The Birds”, and “East Wind”).

“Ganymede”: self-deception, destruction and death

  • 10 Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, Berlin: Fischer Verlag, 1912.
  • 11 Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan, Tourists with Typewriters, Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001, xi.
  • 12 Ian McEwan, The Comfort of Strangers, London: Vintage, 1981.

12Some of the destabilisation of time, space, and identity is accompanied by self-deception. The stories with which we make sense of our lives and events are revealed as also dangerous. “Ganymede” is ostensibly a tourist and holiday travel tale set in Venice, the location for Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.10 Travel writing is “a practiced art of dissimulation […] at once generically elusive and empirically disingenuous,”11 leading us to wonder not only to what extent we can trust travel accounts to present accurate representations of reality, since we often bring with us unrealistic fantasies of perfect escapes, and lingering issues with our own sense of identity and reality. Travel Gothic horror exposes the fantasy/fantasies as dangerous partly because they cloud vision, dull any sense of danger, and render the different enticing when sometimes it is dangerous, or even deadly. Du Maurier’s travel Gothic horror has also most probably influenced Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers,12 set in Venice. While in Mann’s tale the attraction of an older gay male for a young boy leads to death, in McEwan’s the misreading of friendship of an Italian couple also leads to death for Colin, a Londoner caught up with his partner Mary in the sadomasochistic relationship of Robert and his wife. In this novel, sexually suggestive actions and translation slippages are believed to be mere misunderstandings, just foreign, part of the local entertainment. While the defamiliarisation of the foreign new is sought, the deadly dangers which accompany it are often unreadable, though in plain view to those travellers for whom any incomprehensible code of behaviour, place and language is as enjoyable as the fascination of ‘the different’ sought in a foreign holiday. For the self-identified classical scholar in “Ganymede”, who comes to Venice as his sister cannot this year accommodate him for his summer vacation, his disingenuous vulnerability lies in misreading as possible friendship his unacknowledged homosexual fascination with the young waiter in the Piazza San Marco, who he names for the classical mythic figure Ganymede.

  • 13 Daphne Du Maurier, “Ganymede,” The Breaking Point, London: Gollancz, 1959, 85.

13Introducing himself as having been let go by his current employer with the words “unsavoury practices”,13 the insouciant classical scholar who only takes on holiday with him The Canterbury Tales is disingenuous in his intentions and interpretations, so his record of what happens is untrustworthy. His aesthetic delight in music, or in the sights and sounds of Venice, homes in on the beauty of the young waiter, his real object of desire. Comparing him to and calling him Ganymede emphasises the ways in which, although living in quite a mundane way back home, he has elevated this trip to Venice and the boy at the centre of it to the status of an art object, removed from normality, into a romantic frame, although beauty is not necessarily truth here. His self-deception means he cannot read what we can, that the white-coated, manipulative man in the trilby hat hanging about on the sidelines is the young man’s uncle, and also a pimp, setting him to catch a series of older gay men who seem unable to read the social signals. Such men (and we hear there have been several in Ganymede’s young life) like the protagonist cannot name their love openly, but instead are self-deluded and enchanted at the same time by this young waiter and the lifestyle set up by the pimp uncle. The protagonist apparently cannot see this arrangement for what it is: a hustle, which can only end in financial loss, embarrassment and death.

14Like many Du Maurier characters with only a tenuous hold on a shared reality, this first­-person fallible narrator has a manipulative way with words. The stories he tells of the encounter with Ganymede, his friendship and the string of actions following – changing, going to lunch with the extended family, etc. – hover in the air as insubstantial explanations. His interpretation of the actions is thin because he is in his own little predatory bubble. His version of events has gaps because he is withholding alternative readings. His relationship between the language used, his interpretation and what we see unfold is deliberately managed to leave him in the role of innocent, well-intentioned, reasonable protagonist of his own fantasy. He reminds us of Sartre’s existentialism in Nausea, in which there is only a tenuous, notional, slippery or asserted relationship between words and things, a randomness, an artifice born of the necessity of telling stories to make sense for one self or others. Du Maurier’s narrator has a

  • 14 Ibid., 87.

sense of abandon, of belonging – certainly not to the present, nor to the future, nor even to the past, but to a period in time that was changeless and was Venetian time, that was outside the rest of Europe and even the world, and existed, magically, for myself alone.14

15He sees himself as Zeus meeting Ganymede, and his role as flying up and taking the boy away from everything. The young waiter is aptly named since, in early modern Britain, Ganymede was a name for a male or female prostitute. But the older man’s removal from reality and soaring above himself is also an excuse, constructed from his own creative self myth-making into which he invites our collusion, since we presumably will understand and forgive everything when we know he is a scholar, trustworthy:

  • 15 Ibid., 94.

I told you I was a classical scholar. Therefore you will understand—you should understand—that what happened in that second was transformation. . . . I could sense the man at my table raise his hand and summon the lad in the white coat carrying a tray, but I myself was above him, did not exist in his time; and this self who was non-existent knew with every nerve fibre, every brain-cell, every blood corpuscle that he was indeed Zeus, the giver of life and death, the immortal one, the lover; and that the boy who came towards him was his own beloved, his cup-bearer, his slave, his Ganymede. I was poised, not in the body, not in the world, and I summoned him. He knew me, and he came.15

16He smooths over his actual motive and the dangers which play out in confusion, death for the boy, and a shameful reputation for himself to take back home. He cannot even think of coming to terms with what happened because he refuses to see it in another way than his own, and so the move into the next predatory scenario in London’s Little Venice is logical. The story recalls another tale, by Ian McEwan, set in the United Kingdom, not Venice: in “Butterflies”, a paedophile disingenuously tells of following a young girl into a tunnel under a bridge and murdering her – but lacks any sense of reality or guilt. Perhaps only psychoanalysts know what is in the mind of paedophiles and murderers. Yet a narrative filled with misplaced relations between people, places, objects, and behaviours, or with the protagonist’s delusional ideas about his own intentions, actions and innocence, suggests that what could be there is a deliberate dissociation, or a wilful misreading and misrepresentation in their interior monologue or narrative, constructed to explain and absolve themselves. They invest in what they might even sometimes recognise as a lie. This is a form of terrifyingly banal horror.

  • 16 A.D. Cousins, “Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Ganymede,’” The Explicator, vol. 71, no. 3, 2013, 218-20, 218.

17Cousins sees him as a “high camp” narrator fashioned with “unrelenting hostility”, a “self-deluded poseur”16 whose scholarly perspective has led to the actions he refuses to properly recognise and name, which are actually self-absolved carelessness leading to the death of the boy, and his own avoidance of any culpability or shame. But the special Ganymede with his uncle in the white mac and trilby has also served two prior probably predatory homosexual tourists, Mr Johnson and Bertie Poole, and the constant repetition of the word ‘recognition’, while given a classical mythological value, is just an unacknowledged recognition of the trade between the men in which the boy is object and ultimately victim. The narrator trusts in the fantasy enabled by defamiliarisation, by the complex geographies and architectures of Venice, cut through by water, and the unfamiliar foreign ways of behaving. He is out of his depth, enabled to stay in an elegant place and infatuated by the promise of idyllic moments with the boy. That this is a fantasy is clear to the reader—who reads his delusions as just that, constructions brought into being based on the defamiliarised context and interactions, the foreignness of place and people, the eternal lure of the holiday and of paradise. But the strange behaviours are also excessive and then suddenly destructive. Caught up in the dream of an unnameable desire for the boy, he agrees to a day in a speedboat, which, though initially fun, turns into excess of sound, movement, and discomfort for the protagonist as well as the extended family of the boy and his seedy pimp uncle. On the way back, exhausted, overwhelmed, dismayed, there is a fatal accident—the boy, water-skiing, is caught in the boat’s propellers. The action, or lack of it, is life-destroying; Ganymede dies, the death is terrible. This is put down to the man’s own lack of understanding of the working of the boat, and his inability to manage the ropes and the moment. For both men, the only unsolved problem is economic. When the classical scholar agrees to pay for everything there is no more problem.

18His self-delusional world is part of a tourist dream into which he deliberately enters when taking his holiday in Venice. Tourist travel tales might be delightful records of exciting activities and lovely places visited because they encourage, enable and reward the investment in deliberate fantasy and enchantment. Yet their Gothic horror versions, as produced by Du Maurier, Mann and McEwan, show the attraction of difference and the delusional cocoon which this foreign difference wraps around guilt or danger. This holiday fantasy shifts from illicit romance to tragedy. The protagonist’s version of the normal has been utterly fractured, but he ends the story by repeating his delusion through following the next young man. The stories he tells are cover-ups for fatally self-indulgent behaviour. Predatory, un-self-aware, dangerous in himself, he is telling us a story in a tone which suggests that events are normal, mundane even, and that he is guiltless. However, this seemingly ‘everyday’ story actually ends up in destruction. He fools only himself.

Rebecca: the emptying out of romance

19Self-delusion is also central to the reverse romance of Rebecca. After a whirlwind fairytale courtship, the second Mrs. de Winter makes for herself a romantic fiction of dependency, a wifely role. In the shadow of her own version of the first wife, Rebecca, she tries to be whatever it is she feels her dashing husband would like a wife to be. She ends up stuck in the anti-romantic coupledom of insecure, second-rate lodgings, tied by her romantic fantasy of married love and by her complicity, after the event, with the murder of her predecessor.

  • 17 Nina Auerbach, op. cit., 1.

20Rebecca was commonly misread as a romantic fiction, but it is actually a rich example of Gothic horror, part of the lineage revealed by Gilbert and Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic, a lineage which includes Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, in which romance and marriage often lead not to “happy ever after” but rather to entrapment, deception, death. Nina Auerbach defines Du Maurier’s novel as a grim anatomy of wifehood”.17 It also features secret trysts, lies, murder, and the ghostless haunting of the unnamed second wife by the wilful first wife.

  • 18 Gina Wisker, “Dangerous Borders: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: Shaking the Foundations of the Roman (...)

21Du Maurier undermines grand narratives, defamiliarising the trajectory and the beliefs in which we invest. With Rebecca the novel begins at the end – and the narrative of romance, marriage to a wealthy owner of a fabulous old house, with grounds and servants, and of course secrets, is undermined. The reader begins to discern another narrative, one of deceit and decayed values, a nightmare of loss in defiance of the trajectory of fantasy, seduction and reward of the romantic fiction genre in which we wrongly expect it to belong. In Rebecca, the romance is not built up towards a marriage, rather to the prison of boredom and lies of a displaced couple tied to each other by the murderous secrets they share. It starts in Monaco with the mousy unnamed second wife’s rescue from the role of companion to the horrendous Mrs. Van Hopper, whirled off by Max de Winter, whose name suits romantic fiction but whose figure resembles the medieval, potentially deadly as well as attractive. As I noted earlier,18 the second wife sees Maxim as chivalric but the text reveals him as a Gothic figure, deceptive and violent:

  • 19 Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca, London: Gollancz, 1938, 18.

He belonged to a walled city of the 15th century, a city of narrow, cobbled streets, and thin spires, where the inhabitants wore pointed shoes and worsted hose. His face was arresting, sensitive, mediaeval in some strange inexplicable way […] Could one but rob him of his English tweeds, and put him in black, with lace at his throat and wrists, he would stare down at us in our new world from a long distant past—a past where men walked cloaked at night, and stood in the shadow of old doorways, a past of narrow stairways and dim dungeons, a past of whispers in the dark, of shimmering rapier blades, of silent, exquisite courtesy.19

22The second Mrs. de Winter is always only a shadow, confused by the demands she imagines come with wifehood and the house. She spends her time trying to find out what the role is which she is meant to step into, what to do with the management of finances and meals, the writing of letters, relationships. The unfamiliar place and the new set of expectations are worrying, and her sense of reality is constantly brought up short and contradicted by people’s behaviour and events. She is overwhelmed, frequently called a child, or referring to herself as one. Once, after Max has discovered she found the beach hut with its books and its secrets, which only he knows was a trysting place of Rebecca’s, she refers to herself as a second dog, sharing a biscuit with the faithful Jasper, offered a little of Max’s attention:

  • 20 Ibid., 131.

I’m being like Jasper now, leaning against him. He pats me now and again, when he remembers, and I’m pleased, I get closer to him for a moment. He likes me in the way I like Jasper.20

23She is unaware of the sources of the mystery she senses, the hidden secrets and the never erased haunting presence of Rebecca herself, who she feels Max idolises, as Mrs. Danvers certainly does. The second wife misreads everything. Her everyday, like her surroundings, is defamiliarised, and the stories she tries to fit into jar with her experience. She is trapped in a marriage, in a house and in an outdated romantic fiction. While she fails in emulating a constructed ideal, the real Rebecca was actually non-conformist, and their shared husband Max, controlling, a murderer who has punished Rebecca’s independence and wayward female energies.

  • 21 Ibid., 5.
  • 22 Ibid., 5.
  • 23 Ibid., 6.
  • 24 Ibid., 6.

24“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.”21 The famous start of the novel not only introduces a ruined house, it also emphasises the deadly embrace of deceptive romance through profusion, confusion, and the nightmarish entanglement of fifty-feet-high rhododendrons, such an overgrowth establishing both the dream version of the drive into Manderley and the delusional dream of a romantic union and a happy marriage. The second wife cannot enter the lovely, largely imagined past. This nightmare is revealed as a Gothic horror parody of romance—a deadly entanglement in which the “squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches”22 give way to “low branches”, and roots “like skeletons”. The “lost garden”23 is their innocence, or rather hers, in this romance of sorts, actually a sordid, entwined, fatal, “inviolate”, “bastard”, “alien” marriage: “a lilac had mated with a copper beech, and to bind them yet more closely to one another the malevolent ivy, always an enemy to grace, had thrown her tendrils about the pair and made them prisoners.”24 A choked wilderness is described, a labyrinth, an eyeless and terrible landscape of madness where what is clearly lost, insidious, disgusting, enveloping and life-negating in its own sick fertility reminds her of the twining of her life with Max’s—a twining with the deadliness of an artificial domesticity in the form of trauma.

  • 25 Ibid., 166.

25The presence of the dead wife is overwhelming, casting the second wife into the shadows, emphasising her sense of incompetence. She cannot begin to inhabit the space Rebecca has left, not least because the presence of the energetic, sexually decisive and wayward first wife is still inhabiting that space through Mrs. Danvers’ reminders and her passive-aggressive responses to the new wife, as she keeps Rebecca’s memory alive in sections of the house, and in everyday references. When her cousin and lover, Jack Favell, arrives, “flashy” and “hefty”,25 sunburnt, obviously a drinker, the seedier side of Rebecca’s behaviour is hinted at, while in the house the dustsheets over Rebecca’s furniture, the clock stuck at a particular hour and the thought that she lies in the crypt haunt the young woman. Max’s deadly secret is that Rebecca is not in the family crypt but in a sunken boat, murdered by Max following their confrontation over her various infidelities.

  • 26 Ibid., 223.
  • 27 Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, London: Bathoe and Lownds, 1764.

26When the second wife descends the stairs dressed for the grand party as the lovely ancestor Caroline de Winter, whose portrait hangs over the stairs, she is trapped in the little spiteful game Mrs. Danvers has set up. She tries to fit in, appearing as an ancestor, but she wears the same dress Rebecca wore, and although no ghost walks this mansion’s many corridors and climbs its staircases, to Max one is descending in front of his eyes. “What the hell do you think you are doing”26 is an admonition shouted at a child, but since Rebecca is lying beneath the sea just down beyond the great house, it is a call to the powers of hell. A terrible storm follows, accompanied by party fireworks, but it seems hell is indeed let loose when the sea disgorges the boat and Rebecca’s corpse. Wife murder, empty ancestral crypts, an ancient house filled with historical secrets; this is the silenced, destructive past regurgitated in front of them all, an extreme comeuppance of proportions suited to the most melodramatic Gothic tale, not unlike Manfred’s massive helmet falling on the heir in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.27 The maintained lie is shattered and, like Cinderella at the ball, the glitzy clothing falls away simultaneously with the idyllic life. Rather than the next phase of a romantic dream into which the second wife had been invited, all has been a fabrication, and is now, abruptly and violently, revealed as a sham. The enchantment falls away into the cold light of day. However, instead of reacting with shock and leaving Max to his fate when the body is discovered, the second wife invests in the fantasies attached to love and marriage, colluding with Max.

  • 28 Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca, op. cit., 396.
  • 29 Ibid., 396.
  • 30 Ibid., 397.

27The novel ends with a dream sequence in which the narrator sees Rebecca’s handwriting, and then, in a mirror, not herself but Rebecca, “ghostlike; very pale, very lovely”.28 She is laughing and Max, brushing Rebecca’s hair, “wound it slowly into a thick rope. It twisted like a snake, and he took hold of it with both hands and smiled at Rebecca and put it round his neck.”29 Max is tying his own noose, their noose, they are intertwined in this mirroring of Rebecca’s eternal existence through death, trauma, guilt. Manderley burns up, and the brilliance of the fire is bloodlike. The sky is “shot with crimson, like a splash of blood” and “the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.”30 In this Gothic horror of a warped romance their intertwined relationship is that of death and ashes, sharp, choking. Du Maurier has brilliantly twisted the romantic novel of love and marriage into one of lies, murder, bullying, defeat, bitterness – and worst of all, boredom and guilt.

28It is a grim anatomy of wifehood, of the invested life of wedded domestic bliss, that often unwritten sequel to romantic love’s narrative trajectory. Mrs. Danvers has undermined and misled her, dominated by the memory of her real mistress, Rebecca. Max has tried to bury the secret utterly by replacing the feisty first wife with a docile nameless second, quietened, trying quite hard and failing to even rise to the enormity, to her, of writing letters and managing the house. She cannot step into Rebecca’s huge 19th-century romantic fiction novel shoes, nor her sensation novel shoes. She is not Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, with her own place in the romance, nor Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley, with her secrets and power. The entire romantic dream of domestic fiction is revealed as first nightmare, conflagration, death, and guilt, then as dust and ashes.

Undermining domestic safety

29Both “East Wind” (1926, first published 2011) and “The Birds” (1952) relate natural devastations with the destabilisation of internal narratives, and each uses the turbulence and liminality of the coast and sea to do so.

30Although born in London and following her husband in his various postings to Alexandria and elsewhere, Du Maurier’s landscape and seascape are those of Cornwall, her home from 1926, and the setting for Rebecca and Manderley (inspired in part by Du Maurier’s future house, Menabilly), My Cousin Rachel, Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn and The House on the Strand among others. In both “East Wind” and “The Birds” she mirrors the sudden devastating disruption of the weather, the sea, birds, and that which breaks out in people who, wadded with communities, solidly built houses, and the routine maintenance of trustworthy civilised behaviour, ignore the dark and wild side of both nature and humans. An eco-Gothic horror transfers the unmanageability of the wind and the waves into the same blind untamed wildness and destruction in humans with devastating local effect in “East Wind”. In “The Birds”, the non-human calculated force of the birds themselves denies all human attempts at comprehension and control. Indicting a globally apocalyptic future, each tale channels the coastal or island setting into one of vulnerability and destruction; in each, tranquillity and complacency are dangerously delusional.

“East Wind”: deception and destruction

31Coastlines and islands can be seen as unstable, potentially uncanny, seemingly safe, bounded by their location, on an edge, secure land against the unpredictable sea, but actually that safety is always a construction, deceptive, since what is beyond the coasts of all large or small islands is wild and unknowable. What goes on in the restrained, managed behaviours of individual people is also manageable only temporarily, and what seems calm, predictable and familiar in terms of worldview or actions is possibly unimaginably wild, unmanageably vulnerable.

32In “East Wind”, the island is not idyllic but almost childlike in its tranquillity and order, the boats passing by like figments of a dream, their uninterrupted calm underlined in its simplicity:

  • 31 Daphne Du Maurier, “East Wind,” The Doll: Short Stories, London: Virago, 2011, 3.

It was almost as if there were no such place, as if the island were a dream, a phantom creation of a sailor’s brain, something rising out of the sea at midnight as a challenge to reality, then vanishing in surf and mist to be forgotten, to be half-consciously remembered years later, flickering for a bewildered second in a dusty brain as a dead thought. Yet to the people of St Hilda’s the island was reality.31

  • 32 Ibid., 3.
  • 33 Ibid., 5.
  • 34 Ibid., 6.

33It is a place of solid work and apparently calm relationships but the underlying vulnerability of this is ignorance, as emphasised in: “Here Guthrie dwelt with his wife Jane, living as children, content in each other, unmindful of desire, ignorant of distress.”32 Though controlled and repressed, potential disruptions and passions shift beneath calm surfaces, as Jane’s occasional fretful actions suggest, since she is occasionally “possessed by something which would envelop her like a dark cloak and prevent her from straying.”33 Their love is more of a coffin than a comfort: “Thus they slept together in each other’s arms, yet separately; like dead things in a grave, their souls.”34

  • 35 Ibid., 7.
  • 36 Ibid., 10.
  • 37 Ibid., 12.

34So when a brig appears with its dark, foreign, smiling wild sailors who see the island as a “poor, barren place, without interest”,35 their disruptive energies take the local inhabitants by surprise, drawing from their slumbering complacency an unexpected wildness and laziness—a lack of moral control which upsets the kind of balance which protected them daily and into the future. They neglect their fishing because the weather is too wild to set out to fish, but they also neglect their plants, their homes and their relationships, and turn to alcohol and intense bouts of drunkenness, to wild gaiety and abandon. Jane’s abandon takes the form of an ill-judged longing for one of the sailors, whose name we never know, but who seems to call to her. One dark, windswept night, while everyone else is cavorting and drinking, restlessly like the wind, she wordlessly calls him out and waits for him. “She knew that if she waited he would come to her from the chapel.”36 But it is a small community and everyone has sensed this, except her husband who, waiting for her return from a single night of passion, uncharacteristically seizes an axe and buries it in her head. In the morning he has a dead wife, the wind has subsided, the brig has left. The wildness of the destructive weather and the parallel disruption of foreign men and behaviours have destroyed all calm. The tale leaves them there. “Chaos, wanton madness, deception, disorder and death”37 have come with the wind and the sailors. Then they are gone.

“The Birds”: puncturing the complacency of everyday normality

35Another terrifying interruption of the everyday occurs in “The Birds” with the changed behaviour of the birds themselves, an invading force that shatters the calm of a small coastal British town as the animals gradually line themselves up. This tale is set just after the Second World War and in the defamiliarisation of normal life and the threat of the invading birds is embedded a threat for an island nation of invasion from the continent, from anywhere else. The narrative norm of strong men sorting out problems, popular in the war, is also shattered, as is the calm everyday, since Nat is not able to make his family safe, cannot board up once for all to keep out the birds who besiege his home. Domestic safety and familiar behaviour are both undercut.

36For the bird phobic, Du Maurier’s “The Birds” must be the ultimate abject horror. The threat and then the reality of the thrashing of wings and feathers, in confined spaces, the bodily invasion of humans by little songbirds as well as crows and seagulls are replete with horror. Their build-up of numbers, lurking, their changed habits of surrounding people and attacking them before invading their homes are a fundamental undermining of the sacrosanct nature of the home, the walls and shutters we put between us and the outside world to retain safety inside. Home invasion is mirrored in bodily invasion, the birds pecking out eyes, draining blood from every exposed part. We return with this story to Freud’s use of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman”. Experiences and locations are uncanny, recognisable but utterly deranged, and the birds, in seeking to peck out eyes before they mutilate bodies and wreck human constructions and civilisation, undermine not only the fragility and the tenuousness of those constructions, but also the rules, hierarchies and relationships between words and the world, between man and nature. This is not only bodily invasion but also an overturning of the hierarchy we have imposed on nature in which humans are intellectually superior and more able to defend themselves. The bird invasion challenges the Anthropocene with its denial of that human superiority, its undercutting of the terms on which we build our lives and investment in solidity, security, and continuity of civilisation.

37In the acclaimed Hitchcock version, the build-up of threat from the natural world and the blind ignorance of people who expect only the stable and normal, is emphasised visually. Tippi Hedren, the self-absorbed visitor to the secluded costal village, wears the same fashionable outfit for three days, and checks her makeup outside the local school while the schoolchildren sing a counting song. Threat builds up using sight and sound, emphasising the danger only hinted at in the story. The counting song is ordinary but relentless; equally relentlessly, the crows on a children’s climbing frame grow in number. The juxtaposition of the menacing of civilised order (Hedren’s makeup and hairdo, the children counting) and the totally invasive undercutting of that order (the gathering of intrusive birds biding their time) is at the heart of the story as well as the film. There is no ‘love interest’ in the short story, rather a solid family setting for both Nat and the farmer down the road, who is destroyed along with his family while trying to ward off the birds. The human characters’ actions are (mistakenly) bolstered up by their sense of the normal, the stable, and their belief in a natural superiority over birds, while the formidable mass attack of birds on an industrial, warlike scale, undermines such complacency, even as the birds begin to wipe out all the people. This is partly an eco-Gothic horror tale, since it is nature which undermines man’s security, stability and existence through attack and negation. It is also an example of body horror, with the invasion of the flesh or the pecking out of eyes, and it is an end-of-the-world tale. Despite their waiting beside the radio, which they trust to pass on comforting civil information, the characters in the short story are doomed – the radio dissolves into static and silence. No one is coming to save them. There is no message, and the handful of warplanes launched to get rid of the birds were probably the silliest example of technology used against nature, since planes have histories of bird strikes. The planes are downed, silence falls. This is no human enemy with merely human intelligence: unknowable by people, the intelligence of the birds is more terrifying.

Conclusion

  • 38 Allan Lloyd-Smith, “The Phantoms of Drood and Rebecca: The Uncanny Reencountered through Abraham an (...)

38As Allan Lloyd-Smith argues in discussing Rebecca, the writing process is uncanny in itself.38 Du Maurier’s Gothic horror builds on and destabilises established narratives, domestic harmony, everyday normality and the stability of named things, presences, time, place. It is Freudian and existential at its core: names and naming offer no control, narrative ways of pinning down and sense-making float away in the unknowable nature of events and places, in the gap between words and objects. This falling away is often mirrored in the trajectories of Du Maurier’s narratives of guilty unromantic dullness without closure, or of invasion without rescue.

  • 39 Alison Light, op. cit., 158.

39Du Maurier’s characters live in liminal spaces where relationships, norms and everyday experiences between individuals, the world, creatures, events and time are all tentative, transient and untrustworthy, about to dissolve. Each of her works discussed here deals with displacement, with the undermining of comfortable narratives, complacencies, relationships, and of certainties about self, reality, time, place, or the safety of marriage and families. Alison Light notes that “Daphne Du Maurier’s writing is not powerful because it successfully conveys a conservative vision but because of the pleasure it takes in undermining its own beliefs. Du Maurier’s writing suggests that conservatism has its own divisions, its own buried desires, and that it has its own unconscious, its craving which cannot be satisfied and its conflicts which cannot be resolved.”39 In her deliberate instability, time, space, identity, romance, marriage, domesticity, the relationship between humans and animals—everything is questioned. She constantly undermines romance, consistent identity, time and place, safety, civilised behaviour, the expected, the securities of family. There is always a dialectic between the safe or explicable, and the wayward or inexplicable.

40Her creation of these ontological instabilities is accompanied by and enacted through Gothic horror, which destabilises any hold on reality and therefore any investment in the safety of identities, human relationships, or relationships with objects and with nature. The destabilisation is also enabled through her misleading readers into the comforts of genre fiction, then through experimentation with the fictional norms associated with time travel, eco-Gothic, tourist travel tales and above all the tales of romance and domestic bliss.

41Quietly, domestically, Daphne Du Maurier’s apocalyptic and Gothic horrors undercut the familiar structures of popular fictional genres as they confront the ostensible fixities of everyday relations. They might sometimes use mansions, inheritances and endangered maidens, but in doing so are very likely to undermine the familiar contexts, characters and narrative trajectories of established Gothic horror, as one of the genres she plays with. By disturbing complacencies and stripping back the paraphernalia of people and places, they also excavate and enact the fundamentals of Gothic horror. In her Gothic horror the stabilities of the everyday, of identity, marriage, families, time, space are dissolved. Du Maurier therefore uses the strategies of popular fictional genres and the stories we tell ourselves—about friendship, time, identity, love, the familiar everyday—to leave her characters and her readers stranded, like Nat and his family at the end of “The Birds”, only certain that fixities are unstable and can be torn away.

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Bibliographie

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BALDICK Chris, “Introduction,” The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993, xii-xiv.

BOTTING Fred, “The Gothic Production of the Unconscious,” in Glennis Byron and David Punter (eds), Spectral Readings Towards a Gothic Geography, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999, 11-36.

BRADDON Mary Elizabeth, Lady Audley’s Secret, London: William Tinsley, 1862.

BRONTE Charlotte, Jane Eyre [1847], Harmondsworth: Penguin Popular Classics, 2003.

BRONTE Emily, Wuthering Heights, London: Thomas Cautley Newby, 1847.

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WISKER Gina, “Starting Your Journey in the Past, Speculating on Time and Place: Daphne Du Maurier’s The House on the Strand, ‘Split Second,’ and the Engaged Fiction of Time Travel,” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 24, no. 3, 2013, 467-82.

Filmography

The Birds, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, performances by Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright, Universal Pictures, 1963.

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Notes

1 Daphne Du Maurier, Letter of 4 July 1957 to Maureen Baker-Munton, in Margaret Forster, Daphne du Maurier, London: Chatto and Windus, 1993, 424.

2 Alison Light, Forever England: Literature, Femininity and Conservatism between the Wars, London: Routledge, 1991, 191.

3 Nina Auerbach, Daphne Du Maurier: Haunted Heiress, Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2000, 13.

4 Alison Light, op. cit., 191.

5 Fred Botting, “The Gothic Production of the Unconscious,” in Glennis Byron and David Punter (eds), Spectral Readings Towards a Gothic Geography, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999, 11-36.

6 Chris Baldick, “Introduction,” The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993, xii-xiv.

7 Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny” [“Das Unheimliche,” 1919], The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XVII, ed. and trans. James Strachey, London: Hogarth, 1953.

8 E.T.A. Hoffmann, “The Sandman,” The Night Pieces, Berlin: Realschulbuchhandlung, 1816.

9 Nina Auerbach, op. cit., 11.

10 Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, Berlin: Fischer Verlag, 1912.

11 Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan, Tourists with Typewriters, Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001, xi.

12 Ian McEwan, The Comfort of Strangers, London: Vintage, 1981.

13 Daphne Du Maurier, “Ganymede,” The Breaking Point, London: Gollancz, 1959, 85.

14 Ibid., 87.

15 Ibid., 94.

16 A.D. Cousins, “Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Ganymede,’” The Explicator, vol. 71, no. 3, 2013, 218-20, 218.

17 Nina Auerbach, op. cit., 1.

18 Gina Wisker, “Dangerous Borders: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: Shaking the Foundations of the Romance of Privilege, Partying and Place,” Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, 2003, 83-97, 89.

19 Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca, London: Gollancz, 1938, 18.

20 Ibid., 131.

21 Ibid., 5.

22 Ibid., 5.

23 Ibid., 6.

24 Ibid., 6.

25 Ibid., 166.

26 Ibid., 223.

27 Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, London: Bathoe and Lownds, 1764.

28 Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca, op. cit., 396.

29 Ibid., 396.

30 Ibid., 397.

31 Daphne Du Maurier, “East Wind,” The Doll: Short Stories, London: Virago, 2011, 3.

32 Ibid., 3.

33 Ibid., 5.

34 Ibid., 6.

35 Ibid., 7.

36 Ibid., 10.

37 Ibid., 12.

38 Allan Lloyd-Smith, “The Phantoms of Drood and Rebecca: The Uncanny Reencountered through Abraham and Torok’s ‘Cryptonomy,’” Poetics Today, vol. 13, no. 2, 1992, 285-308.

39 Alison Light, op. cit., 158.

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Gina Wisker, « Undermining the Everyday: Daphne Du Maurier’s Gothic Horror »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 19-n°52 | 2021, mis en ligne le 22 novembre 2021, consulté le 06 décembre 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/13590 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.13590

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Auteur

Gina Wisker

Gina Wisker is an Associate Professor at the University of Bath, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Brighton. She has published more than 140 articles and numerous books, among which: Key Concepts in Postcolonial Literature (2007); Horror Fiction: An Introduction (2005); Margaret Atwood, an Introduction to Critical Views of Her Fiction (2012); Contemporary Women’s Gothic Fiction (2016); The Postgraduate Research Handbook (2nd ed., 2007); The Good Supervisor (2005, 2012); Getting Published (2015); The Undergraduate Research Handbook (2nd ed., 2018). She is a National Teaching Fellow, Principal fellow of the HEA, SFEDA, FRSA, FEA. She was also chair of the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association and is on the editorial board Palgrave’s Contemporary Women’s Writing series, Palgrave’s Gothic series, and Anthem’s Gothic series. She co-edits online dark fantasy journal Dissections (since 2006) and Spokes poetry magazine (since the 1990s). She is currently completing a book on Contemporary Women’s Ghost Stories for Palgrave.

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