By Ellie Jackson
Here is the last of the guest blogs from Sheffield Hallam student, Ellie Jackson, about the novels of Daphne du Maurier. This is part of Ellie’s final year project. Here she sets out her thoughts on the issue of class.
I will be discussing Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novels; Rebecca (1938), Jamaica Inn (1935), and My Cousin Rachel (1951). The female protagonist in all of these novels are victims of the class division, but particularly in Rebecca.
Mrs de Winter’s decision to marry a man above her own class challenges the rules for social mobility, but it is important to consider whether this was Du Maurier’s intention. Not only does her decision challenge the rules for mobility, but also the expectations of a woman’s role in marriage, and whether the woman should choose herself or conform to those expectations. We quickly realise that the narrator’s decision to marry was not actually her decision at all. Maxim gives her the choice: ‘Either you go to America with Mrs. Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me.’ (du Maurier, 1938, 6). This suggests that a woman of her status cannot have the privilege of choice. It’s a matter of which upper class individual to be dependent upon.
Mrs de Winter is aware of the class division in her marriage, and of her lack of confidence and awkwardness. but eventually realises her ‘intense desire to please’ (du Maurier, 1938, 16), especially when it comes to Mrs Danvers, the late Rebecca’s maid. Mrs Danvers is a constant reminder of Rebecca’s presence in Manderley, retelling stories of her perfectly proper mistress and insulted by her replacement. We do not even learn the name of our protagonist throughout the entire novel – only the powerful Mr de Winter and his well-bred, upper class wife Rebecca, whom he could not control, unlike the second Mrs de Winter. Even before our narrator is betrothed to Maxim, her social status is reinforced through her paid companionship to the obnoxious Mrs Van Hopper. The narrator is very aware of her social class and what others think of her when travelling with Mrs Van Hopper. She wishes that she were ‘a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls’ (du Maurier, 1938, 5). She makes her wish to be someone else early on in the novel, which foreshadows the identity she will replace – Rebecca – when she arrives at Manderley, something she will regret ever wishing for.
Similarly, in My Cousin Rachel, du Maurier demonstrates the class difference between Rachel and Philip, her nephew by marriage. He is completely perplexed by Rachel’s desire to make her own way in the world without the financial stability of a husband, and suggests that he would prefer to pay her for doing nothing. Rachel’s independence ultimately proves to be a threat to the social class she now belongs to, after her marriage to Ambrose. Throughout the novel, there is the uncertain question of whether Rachel is genuine, or if she murdered Ambrose in order to inherit his wealth and estate, to send money out of the country and leave the family in debt. Rachel becomes a villain as she is accused of poisoning Philip suddenly after he gives up his inheritance for her. Is she, however, presented this way for other reasons? Is the thought of a woman with a new upper-class status, being independent with her finances and refusing to marry, so hard to believe that she must be a villain? Rachel is a defiant character. She is difficult to relate to as a woman who has moved through the classes and has a strong, powerful influence on a man. With Philip’s inability to accept Rachel defying convention, he allows himself to be complicit in her death.
Du Maurier ultimately suggests the determination of society to eradicate those who pose a threat to societal norms – especially those who aim for a higher social class. Mary Yellen in Jamaica Inn is another of du Maurier’s female characters who defy the societal norms of women being completely dependent on a man, as she is happy to continue her free, quiet life on the farm following the death of her mother. However, this independence is not unusual for a woman of Mary’s lower class and the main class difference that we see in Jamaica Inn is the type of work her uncle Joss undertakes. Joss is not an upper class man with a good economic situation, and so his dangerous smuggling operation contrasts the comfortable lives of the men in the other novels (despite their often endangering the lives of the women they know). The characters in Jamaica Inn are much lower in the social order than those in Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, and therefore have less security and may have to take risks. The dark, depressing and abysmal dwelling in which Jamaica Inn is set, confirms the impact of the lower social class in terms of the lacking opportunities and freedom. The smuggling operation is not only a symbol of a lower social class and the pressure to have money in their pockets, but their lack of freedom to live regular lives.
Here are Ellie’s previous blogs: Daphne du Maurier and the Gothic and Rebecca, Mary and Rachel: Daphne du Maurier’s unconventional, strong women.
Du Maurier. D. (1938). Rebecca. HarperCollins.
Du Maurier, D. (1951). My Cousin Rachel. Penguin Books.
Du Maurier, D. (1935). Jamaica Inn. Penguin Books.