By Ellie Jackson
Our guest blogger, Ellie Jackson, a student at Sheffield Hallam University, is looking at the novels of Daphne du Maurier for her final year project. Here are her thoughts about how du Maurier used the aesthetic of the Gothic to great effect in her novels.
The first recognised Gothic novel was written by Horace Walpole in 1764, The Castle of Otranto. The traditional Gothic novel has a number of recognisable key characteristics: death and decay, haunted castles and remote landscapes, intense emotion or fear in the reader. Since the 18th century, the idea of a new, modern Gothic has emerged, and the castle is no longer an essential element to the literature. The narratives of the modern Gothic focus on ‘the urban present, refracting contemporary concerns through the lens of a literature of terror’ (Dryden, 2003).
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is an exemplar model of the modern Gothic; it contains a large mansion, a murder, a great fire and a sinister servant. The pre-eminent Gothic trope is the setting: Manderley, the colossal mansion which the heroine, Mrs de Winter, comes to know after marrying Maxim de Winter. Even her first impressions of Manderley are negative, and leave an impact on her perceptions. The ‘gates crashing’, ‘serpent-like drive’ and the ‘roof of branches’ (du Maurier, 1938, 7) envision entrapment and a sense of a hidden evil. The emphasis on a picturesque landscape casts Manderley with a supernatural mystique, with du Maurier exploring her protagonist’s feelings of sublimity and her relationship with her natural surroundings. Mrs de Winter’s inquisitiveness reflects the twentieth century curiosity and thirst for the unknown. Du Maurier plays on this curiosity in the novel – for example, the murder mystery and the supernatural.
The use of the weather in Gothic literature is important, with storms seen as omens of evil, representing the inner self of the protagonist in externalising fears and conflict. The fog has a significant role in the novel, both literally and figuratively. For much of the novel, the fog completely blinds the narrator, Mrs de Winter, but once the truth of Rebecca is revealed, ‘The mist entered my nostrils and lay upon my lips rank and sour. It was stifling, like a blanket, like an anaesthetic. I was beginning to forget about being unhappy, and about loving Maxim. I was beginning to forget Rebecca,’ (du Maurier, 1938, 18). The lingering presence of the late Mrs de Winter was like the fog, clouding the protagonist’s vision and judgement. However, it is not suggested that Rebecca’s presence in Manderley disappears as the fog does. Even when Manderley is burned at the end, the foreboding first line of the novel, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ (du Maurier, 1938, 1) suggests not that the presence of Rebecca has been destroyed with it, but that both the house and Rebecca still haunt Mrs de Winter and her husband.
Jamaica Inn encompasses similar conventional Gothic tropes, involving ‘a frail protagonist in terrible danger’, because she ‘is placed in a hostile, threatening, mysterious environment, usually so prodigiously large that it dwarfs her; she is made prisoner, she is threatened by individuals who should protect her, parents and parent-figures’ (Grellet, Valentin, 1996). This describes Mary Yellen, as she becomes the perfect Gothic protagonist on her arrival at Jamaica Inn and is threatened both by her (new) parent figures and the house itself. Although the house is not a ruined castle as pictured in The Castle of Otranto, it embodies characteristics of the traditional Gothic setting, with dark secrets hidden within it, secret rooms, doors and passages which du Maurier uses to build the mystery and workings of Jamaica Inn.
While there are conventional elements of the Gothic seen in both Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, du Maurier portrays My Cousin Rachel as the exact opposite. Traditionally, the Gothic novel features a young, naïve heroine whose inexperience puts her in a disadvantaged position with her older male superior. However, this is not the case for Rachel. Though the Gothic trope of the large manor house on the Ashley estate is present in the novel, it has little power compared to the character of Rachel. She is a headstrong, sexually overt, (eventually) economically stable woman with little need for a man. Du Maurier has drawn on Rachel’s personality in this way to encompass fears and curiosity within the reader about the ‘wicked woman’ who is thought to have murdered her husband and attempted to murder Philip too. Both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel feature the female villain in their stories, but are they really villains at all? Both women have a disruptive effect on the narrators in their novels, but are their actions actually villainous, or are the impressions offered to the reader unfair from the perspective of other characters?
Mystery, suspense and death are present in all of these novels: the lingering death of Rebecca; the dark, dangerous mystery around Jamaica Inn and the activities undertaken there; and the death of Ambrose and poisoning of Philip all convey traditional and modern elements of the Gothic.
Du Maurier, D. (1938). Rebecca. HarperCollins.
Du Maurier, D. (1951). My Cousin Rachel. Penguin Books.
Du Maurier, D. (1935). Jamaica Inn. Penguin Books.
Dryden, L. (2003). The Modern Gothic. In: The Modern Gothic and Literary Doubles. Palgrave Macmillan, London.