Archive for April, 2013

Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, 1938



“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” So begins Daphne DuMaurier’s now classic 1938 novel Rebecca in the voice of the inscrutable, miserable, victimised, pathetic and above all frustrating and frustrated female narrator. I have written before on this blog about my fascination with this nameless, curious figure, known to us only as the second Mrs DeWinter, but also called “little fool” and “little idiot” by Maxim her husband (see In re-reading the novel again for teaching next week, however I realised that in this very first sentence, DuMaurier offers a vital clue towards the solving mystery of how best to understand this character: the second Mrs DeWinter is a dreamer, trapped within a series of romantic and gothic fantasies of her own making which prove to be worse than fatal to her.  Like Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland in Northhanger Abbey, whose obsession by trashy romantic thrillers with titles like “Mysterious Warnings” “Orphan of the Rhine” and “The Italian,” leads her to misread the real dangers to her happiness, DuMaurier’s narrator spends so much time obsessing over the dead Rebecca that she never realises that the real threat to her happiness is the patriarchal “Cinderella” fantasy which she bought into when marrying her brutal husband.


DuMaurierDaphne DuMaurier








The second Mrs DeWinter is unable to read Maxim as he really is: a supercilious, condescending, cruel man who has murdered his first wife when he thought she was pregnant with another man’s child, is interested only in cricket, his friend Crawley and his ancestral home-and instead sees him as a mysterious medieval knight, timelessly handsome and powerful, a figure in an old master painting – a romantic widower hero. Her dreams also lead her to entirely misinterpret Rebecca as an ideal and idealised first wife, whose powerful beauty, wit, and intelligence leave the narrator in the shade.  It is not, she thinks, Maxim’s fault he does not love his new wife, it is her fault for not being as attractive as Rebecca. So rather than this seemingly rags to riches fantasy marriage bringing about a happy ending, DuMaurier points to the trap in which modern women may find themselves if they buy into the traditional daydream of romantic fantasy: what begins as a Cinderella story with a drab young woman enslaved as a companion to a supercilious old woman, ends up with Cinderella enslaved as a companion to a supercilious old man – former Prince Charming Maxim DeWinter, now sexless, grumpy and needing constant nursemaiding.  At least Rebecca’s death was quick!

So far then from being a romance, DuMaurier’s novel warns of the dangers of romantic fantasy for young, vulnerable women, but equally shockingly, of the dangers to strong, powerful women like Rebecca who attempt to challenge the patriarchal status quo: the silencing of female desire is the final destination for both Mrs DeWinters, and the price to be paid, perhaps, for indulging in romantic fantasy and having anything to do with posh bastards like Maxim DeWinter.

Fifty Shades of Romance


Reading the Romance

In 1991 the feminist scholar Janice Radway published a book that changed many perceptions about the role that reading romantic fiction played in the lives of its overwhelming female fans.  As Radway argued, in her intensive period of interviewing a large group of women readers who self-identified as compulsive consumers of Mills and Boon-style romance novels, she discovered that for these women, the pleasure these texts was not linked by and large to specific elements of plot or narrative, but rather, the act of romance reading itself – generally characterised by the readers with the single word “escape.”  Indeed several of the interviewees explained to Radway that “romance novels provide escape just as Darvon and alcohol do for other women” but while the romance readers believed that abusing such substances would be harmful to them and to their families, compulsive reading of romance was, they believed “innocuous.” Nevertheless, many of these women described their reading habits as “an addiction.”


In next week’s session of Writing Women, “50 Shades of Romance” we will be discussing Romantic fiction: its codes, conventions, pleasures, limitations and role in the lives of women writers and readers.   As the title suggests we will also be looking at an extract from Fifty Shades of Grey and thinking about the relationship between women’s growing cultural power as bestselling authors and the simultaneous normalisation of explicit and fantasy depictions of male brutality towards women (as in EL James’s repeated depiction of the “hero” Grey’s pleasure in hurting women and the publishing phenomenon of the success of such a tale). Romantic fiction has always operated within a strict set of plot boundaries, which often included the woman needing to help the man overcome some dark history that forces him to behave badly towards her until her love heals him (think of Mr Darcy’s secret shame about his sister’s attempted elopement and how that makes him nasty and suspicious until Elizabeth’s “fine eyes” bewitch him into chivalry).


But when did those codes begin to allow spanking and bondage to be part of the “hero”’s repertoire?  Moreover, why in a world in which women are killed every hour of the day by violent partners, would women buy, read or write books in which women get beaten and then forgive and/or marry the perpetrator of that beating? Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright once said, there is a special place in hell for women who fail to help other women.  Are writers like EL James creating a space for themselves there? Or is her success simply evidence of the acceptance of women as active participants in the creation and consumption of forms of sexual fantasy?    

Have a read of some of the reviews of the Mills and Boon book we will be reading this week (The Sinful Art of Revenge by Maya Blake) and see what the consumers think.