An Ode To Manderley: The True Protagonist Of A Modern Classic

An Ode To Manderley: The True Protagonist Of A Modern Classic

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

I’d first read Rebecca some seven years ago- the copy our school library had only barely held together as if it came to me straight from 1938. And for some reason, all these years, before I took it up for a reread as part of my Summer Reading List 2021, I had misremembered this opening line as: “Last night I dreamt of Manderley again.”

The action that animated Mrs. de Winter’s dream was blotted out from my memory, leaving behind the solidity of the object that haunted it- Manderley itself. I think this unconscious butchering bears significance on how this fictional country estate has captivated and haunted the readers in a way very different from Pemberley or Thornfield Hall (After all, aren’t there admissions in omissions?). An enduring legacy of both du Maurier’s craft and the de Winter family in the book, this majestic estate functions as a setting, character and plot device- mapping the novel’s progression alongside its climax, peripeteia and the snatched-away denouement. Whether we “went to” Manderley or not, it’ll come to us, unbidden, unforgiving- “inviolate, untouched.” 

It might not be an overstatement to say that Manderley is the true protagonist of the novel, if there is one. The setting transcends, rises from the ground and dusts itself of neglect under Rebecca’s keen attention, is the equivalent of a Page 3 regular in local gossip and glamorous social circles alike, refuses to succumb to its owner’s evasiveness, and dies a heroine’s death in an impassioned blaze that colors the sky in a blatant refusal of the new Mrs. de Winter’s resolve to tighten her grip on its affairs and punctures Maxim’s pride- the one thing that had driven his actions most. The book begins and ends with Manderley- the house dominates the narratorial imagination.

Menabilly House- Daphne du Maurier Rebecca
Source: Tatler

The house’s spectral presence was inspired by the Menabilly House– equally hidden into obscurity by the wild woods- that Daphne du Maurier went on to rent for twenty six years. It is remarkable how du Maurier lets known in the very first chapter that “Manderley was ours no longer. Manderley was no more”- perhaps the most poignant sentence in the book- and then begins to resurrect it by the sheer will of an unrelenting imagination, the narrative wound thick and tight as the “profusion” of the decadent rhododendrons.

The estate is Mrs. de Winter’s dreamscape, the vessel of her obsession and anxieties, the fountain of Maxim’s pride and popularity, the joy of the workforce that caters to it, the only piece of Rebecca Mrs. Danvers has left. But most vitally, it abounds in Rebecca’s horcruxes- the rooms sparkle with her aesthetic sensibilities, the lawns are flooded in a riot of colors as bold and brash as their mistress. 

The erotic excess of the flora shrouding the mansion serves to mirror Rebecca’s overt, fatalistic sexual excess, as supplied by Maxim’s accounts. The heady scents, burgeoning blossoms, sheltered arbors, shingled beach and the intruding, chilly waters of the sea all represent different facets of her personality. Azaleas littering the Happy Valley are her immortal scent- the very same that Maxim picks up and gives to his second wife and urges her to smell.

The “slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic” monstrosities of rhododendrons that pose an intimidating welcome to the unprepared second Mrs. de Winters, nearly smothering in their evocative description, bear Rebecca’s indelible mark. The morning-room, where Rebecca’s presence is strongest save for her bedroom, provides a clear view of these mighty blooms outside and is also inundated by their ornamentation, the resulting “glow and brilliance” of which contributes to Mrs. de Winter “feeling guilty… and deceitful,” an intruder in her own house. Their blood-red wall forms a backdrop for a statue of Satyr, the Dyonisian spirit also known to be a fertility god, taunting her in his dance.

blood red rhododendrons- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

In noting that “Theirs was a brief beauty. Not lasting very long,” Mrs de Winters both aptly, unknowingly summarises her predecessor’s fate and foretells her own short-lived happiness in her marriage. On the fog-veiled day that Rebecca’s boat is found, it is noted that the “rhododendrons were all over” for the year, gone just before the final farewell to their one true mistress. 

Thus evident, red and white, forever clashing, are the most prominent colors featured in the novel. Their contrast is as startling as that of Rebecca’s seraphic public front and her more private, intense violent desires. The outwardly lure of angelic, virginal white conceals the poisoned, hypnotizing red of lasciviousness, deceit and fury. The florid abundance, much of which is unruly and even possessive of what it guards, may just as well contribute to a kind of horror of excess- such as that seen in the 2019 film Midsommar.

In the 2020 Netflix remake, the manor is integral to Rebecca’s characterization, particularly her domain in the west wing that embodies perfectly what the production designer notes about her: “She’s like a knife through the heart of Manderley.” Rebecca bleeds, no matter that Maxim has scrubbed off the proof of his crime from the cottage. She drips like the “too powerful” rhododendrons that stand guard, like the trampled-on white azaleas whose fragrance wrestles with the stale odor of death in her room in the otherwise dust-sheeted west wing.

Rebeeca's bedroom in the 2020 remake
Source: The Monthly

Soon after Maxim’s proposal, the demure little would-be-bride burns the first page of the book of poems bearing Rebecca’s signature and watches the “tall sloping R” disintegrate, disappear. This seemingly purging fire magnifies into a wretched conflagration in the last page of the novel as it consumes Manderley itself- the sight of the now matured Mrs. de Winter’s ambition and her hope for a happy future together with her husband. Both these events may be seen as attempts to erase, eradicate Rebecca; the novel is filled with acts mimicking her death and birth.

“The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.”

But in the annihilation of the palazzo is also a roar to remain untamed- the narrative of Rebecca’s death (even life) may have been successfully molded by the couple but they will not have this last piece of her. After all, it is significant that our narrator never gets a name, is only ever identified first as Ms. Van Hopper’s companion and then as Mrs. Maxim de Winter- she might be relaying the tale, but it is very obviously Rebecca’s. And Manderley is as much the imperial hero in this tragedy: “A thing of grace and beauty, exquisite and faultless…”

“We can never go back again, that much is certain. The past is still too close to us.”

Manderley is a relic, going on to become an unspeakable thing for Maxim and a secret recourse to memories for his wife that she can never rid herself of, her nightmare that was her dream as a young bride, on which she had staked her happiness in her future with Maxim, her triumph over Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers.