Monday, 17 July 2017

Literary DNA

Thirteen years ago, I travelled to Fowey in search of the house that had inspired Daphne Du Maurier to write Rebecca. On that occasion, I borrowed the novel from a library to compare text with findings. When I purchased the book several years later, I was surprised to discover that particular edition didn’t contain a disclaimer.  I presumed they had omitted to include this because the characters were based on real people. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that the protagonist resembled the author herself? Daphne Du Maurier began writing Rebecca when she was living in Alexandria, the dutiful yet reluctant wife of an army officer [1]. Homesick and living in strange surroundings, Du Maurier must have been suffering the same feelings of inferiority that plagued the new Mrs de Winter in Rebecca.

Surely, all authors must draw on personal traits and experiences? It is, after all, the easiest way to write a novel. Agatha Christie, a pharmacist who married an archaeologist, was clearly inspired by both these subjects. Similarly, I can not imagine an author's work would not be influenced by a personal tragedy. The impact of Branwell Bronte’s addictions is evident throughout his sisters’ work. I remember staring at Branwell’s portrait of his three sisters and being mesmerised by the ghostly apparition between Emily and Charlotte. This fuzzy self portrait is now understood to have been a conscious decision by the artist to remove him self from the painting. It seems as if he felt unworthy within their company when in actual fact he was the creative force behind the family. You could argue that Branwell was their greatest influence.

Every year, thousands of tourists visit Haworth and the surrounding area in search of Bronte inspirations. There are so many other writers that we associate with particular locations: Christie’s Devon, Du Maurier’s Cornwall, Dickensian London... the list is endless. It doesn’t have to be limited to a county either; for example, when I think of Wilbur Smith, Africa comes to mind. Whether authors focus on a particular county or continent, the one common factor seems to be that these places hold some significance in their life. Maybe, the settings are based on the place where they currently live, have lived, or would like to live. They may have gone there on vacation? Perhaps it was a childhood haunt? Whatever is the case, most authors stick to what they know. Why opt for some random place you’ve never been to before? You might be able to create authenticity during a one-off research trip, but is it really worth the time and effort, when you could have chosen somewhere far more familiar?

The sources for the Bronte novels are widely contested. It seems likely that Shibden Hall near Halifax was the inspiration for Thrushcross Grange (the Linton’s home in Wuthering Heights) and High Sunderland Hall where Emily Bronte worked as a Governess is similar to Lockwood’s description of Wuthering Heights. However, there are other buildings that could have been inspirations for Wuthering Heights, such as Ponden Hall and Top Withens.

Ponden Hall also resembles Thrushcross Grange [2]. Sometimes, it makes sense to create a single fictional setting from a mix of real locations. I amalgamated the view from my window (the woods and snicket) with another location that was prone to landslides and flooding; both of which were essential plot requirements. If I had stuck with the view from my window, the corpse would have had to find her own feet and walk through the woods to the nearest flooded field. You can’t mix up forensic science, but you can play around with location.

The de Winter’s home in Rebecca was a combination of sources. Du Maurier based Manderley on both the estate of Menabilly (near Fowey) and Milton (near Peterborough) [3]. Following my visit to Cornwall in June 2004, I was in no doubt that the infamous first lines of Rebecca were inspired by Du Maurier’s first visit to Menabilly.  I retraced her footsteps with only the novel and an inadequate map as my guide. The first encouraging sight was a gatehouse, which resembled the “uninhabited” lodge in the first paragraph. Beyond this, a long winding driveway that matched the ‘twisting and turning’ drive on page one. [4]

After consulting the map, I realised that there was a public footpath leading to the beach and this might allow access to the rear of the house. We parked on the next turn off and made the rest of the journey by foot. I recognised Menabilly Woods immediately from Du Maurier’s descriptions and knew I was on the right path. I saw fields on the edge of a coastline and a sky full of gulls; a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock’s depiction of Du Maurier’s short story The Birds. I felt an overwhelming urge to march on ahead. Clinging onto the hope that I might catch a glimpse of the grounds, perhaps even the house itself.

I stepped out of the woods onto shingle and sand. Rebecca’s boat house was easily recognisable; perched on a hill to the right of the cove. However, I felt compelled to walk in the opposite direction, along a grassy verge, towards a long lawn and Rhododendrons. In the novel, the house had been destroyed by fire. What I saw at that moment was Manderley rising from the ashes, well tended and far from dilapidated. Du Maurier’s descriptions had come to life. This place had her DNA all over it.   


[1] Enchanted Cornwall [Penguin Books Ltd. 1989 p127/8]

[2] Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte [First Published 1847, republished Penguin Popular Classics 1994]

[3] Enchanted Cornwall [Penguin Books Ltd. 1989 p19]

[4] Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier, [First Published 1938, republished Virago Press 2003]



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