By Ellie Jackson
It’s good to welcome back guest blogger, Ellie Jackson, from Sheffield Hallam University. Ellie has already written her reading journey and a review of Gaudy Night (1935) by Dorothy L Sayers for our blog. Now she is looking at the novels of Daphne du Maurier for her final year project and, as part of that, is writing three blogs for us. Here is the first.
Daphne du Maurier had already published four novels and two biographies by the age of 30 and went on to write many more novels, short stories etc. Search her name in Google, and the first three book titles to show are Rebecca (1938), Jamaica Inn (1935) and My Cousin Rachel (1951) as her most famous novels. Rebecca is undoubtedly the most recognised novel of the three, with multiple film adaptations and written ‘sequels’ by different authors, such as Mrs de Winter (1993) by Susan Hill or Rebecca’s Tale (2001) by Sally Beauman.
Throughout this blog I will be discussing how du Maurier represents her female protagonist in relation to the gender identities presented in these popular fictions. Du Maurier both demonstrates and also subverts the conventional views of femininity through the use of her protagonists.
In Rebecca, this is particularly suggested by the hidden character of Rebecca herself. In some ways, it is suggested that Maxim de Winter’s first wife is an evil villain, a woman who posed a great threat to the conventional rules of female conduct and therefore judged by her unfeminine behaviour and her subversion of the female ideal of pleasing her husband. But critics have suggested that Rebecca was not only a victim of sexism, but of her husband too. The novel is an important early work of feminism, certainly presenting the ways in which the male character dominates. We only ever hear Maxim’s side of the story. Rebecca is never given a voice to speak her truth. Is Maxim the real villain? A controlling husband who expects his wife to behave as an obedient child and when she refuses to abide by his rules, becomes hateful and lashes out at her? Though absent in the novel, Rebecca has a strong presence throughout. Our impression of her becomes increasingly negative and we are made to believe that she is the primary antagonist of the novel, a skilful manipulator having extramarital affairs, and Maxim is portrayed as her helpless victim. Is the novel ahead of its time in terms of gender roles or has it aged badly? Rebecca is a woman who refused to let marriage destroy her right to identity, but she is also judged according to conventional rules for female behaviour that by modern standards don’t carry much currency.
My Cousin Rachel is a second novel by du Maurier that undoubtedly demonstrates this feminist ideology through her independent protagonist Rachel. Du Maurier makes very clear that in the only sex scene in the novel, Rachel is at the height of her power. From the beginning of the novel, Philip lays down his thoughts on the fundamental rules of female behaviour, in which he suggests women are emotional, unpredictable, ‘erratic and unstable’ (du Maurier, 1951, 5) in contrast to the rationality of a man. Rachel’s expression of her comfortable and overt sexuality completely bewilders Philip, and ultimately du Maurier uses his ambivalence to demonstrate that the power of a man is much stronger than the sexual power Rachel exhibits. This is made evident through Rachel’s inability to become pregnant. Sex is independently an act of pleasure rather than a function of marriage or family, and it is definitively on her own terms as Rachel uses it to ‘thank [him], that’s all’ (du Maurier, 1951, 22). So Rachel denying Philip marriage after they slept together turns him rather violent, emphasising his intolerance of her sexual power by attempting to physically overpower her.
The subversion of conventional views of femininity is further shown through du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Mary, her protagonist, exhibits a profound loathing for the culturally defined identities which society has given to women. She attempts to ignore her own femaleness, questioning ‘why were women such fools?’ (du Maurier, 1935, 5) in relation to the cruel, powerful character of her uncle Joss. Despite Mary’s self-sufficient character, the lack of identity of a woman under patriarchal influence is demonstrated when she ends up at Jamaica Inn. The masculine power of Joss Merlyn is used as a means to control the women in the novel, as they are ‘trained by constant cruelty to implicit obedience’. (du Maurier, 1935, 2).
Throughout all three of Du Maurier’s most popular novels, it is fair to suggest that she was ahead of her time in terms of gender identity, with her attempts to subvert the traditional societal roles given to women through her female protagonists, but ultimately positioning the male characters in such a way that they will always be superior. The lives of women are in the hands of the men in each of the novels. Mary is the only female protagonist that makes it out of the hands of her male superior. The same cannot be said for the characters of Rebecca and Rachel, who are both murdered for their ‘crimes’ against traditional feminine standards.
Du Maurier, D. (1938). Rebecca. HarperCollins.
Du Maurier, D. (1951). My Cousin Rachel. Penguin Books.
Du Maurier, D. (1935). Jamaica Inn. Penguin Books.