Living with Rebecca

Sally Beauman has written a companion novel to Daphne du Maurier's 1938 classic Rebecca. She explains why she felt compelled to give du Maurier's silent heroine a voice, and describes the strange sensation of being haunted by a fictional character.

Haunted by Rebecca: Sally Beauman

How do books begin? Where do they come from? This is a question novelists are always being asked - and I've always found it difficult to answer. In my own case, usually, I start to see scenes, or hear voices. I get glimpses of a character, or a situation, and I know they may lead the way to the next book. They usually come to me as I'm approaching the end of the previous novel, and they're always shadowy and elusive, like the snatches of a dream. But my new novel Rebecca's Tale had a very different gestation. When it's published this September, it will be nearly seven years since I first thought of it - and seven years is a very long time to be pregnant. It will be a relief, finally, to give birth.

As the title indicates, my book is linked to Daphne du Maurier's 1938 classic novel, Rebecca. But it is not, and was never intended to be, a sequel. On the whole, I dislike and distrust sequels, and those that I've read have always been pale shadows of the original. It can be read by those who know Rebecca intimately, and by those who have never read du Maurier's book (and for them, there's a treat in store). In other words, my novel is deeply indebted to du Maurier's but also, I hope, free and independent of it. We certainly return to Manderley, but we look at that dark and resonant fictional domain from a very different angle, and there are some surprises in store.

I'd always been deeply interested in du Maurier's work, and I've always felt it had been much misunderstood and misinterpreted. Du Maurier herself resented the tag 'romantic novelist', which attached itself to her during her lifetime, and still obstinately adheres now: she felt it was unjust - and I agree with her. Some of her novels may fall within the romance category, but Rebecca, I believe, does not. If anything, it is an anti-romance - a clever, cunning and subversive attack on the very genre to which it would be consigned. Yet at the time of publication, that aspect of the novel was ignored, and the novel's ambivalences remain relatively uninvestigated to this day. Why? It was when I first began to ask myself that question that the seeds of my own Rebecca's Tale were sown.

It was late in 1993, and I was writing an article about du Maurier, and Rebecca, for New Yorker magazine. The more closely I looked at the book, the more fascinated I became. Du Maurier's publisher, Victor Gollancz, had received the manuscript with jubilation. He predicted it would be a huge bestseller (and of course he was correct; Rebecca has never been out of print since). In his view, it was "an exquisite love story" - and he duly promoted it as such. In the run-up to publication, du Maurier's was the sole dissenting voice. She feared the novel was too dark to win popular readership; she saw it, she told Gollancz, as "grim".

I think she was right. I also think (and du Maurier was too modest to make such claims) Rebecca is a brilliant, astonishing and prescient novel. You could argue that, in Mrs de Winter, the famously 'anonymous' second wife who tells the story, she created the first unreliable narrator in popular fiction. De Winter is a narrator so convincing and so persuasive that most readers never look beyond the gaucheries of her prose, and never notice the devices du Maurier uses to undermine it. Certainly, reviewers leapt to the assumption that the narrator's views and the author's were one and the same. Examine Rebecca closely, and you begin to see how wrong they were. The novel may seem to celebrate the sweet 'feminine' virtues embodied in the second Mrs de Winter - obedience, modesty, sexual inexperience, naivety, a willingness to conform to male ideas as to suitable female or wifely behaviour - but does it actually do that? No. The woman who rises triumphant from the novel is Rebecca, the disobedient and profoundly transgressive first wife.

That she does so is an extraordinary technical feat on du Maurier's part. Rebecca is dead when the novel commences; she neither speaks nor appears in it; she is the antithesis of conventional female virtue, yet she burns the imagination. Vengeful, rebellious, indestructible and superb, she rises from the dead to avenge herself on the husband who has killed her. She destroys him, his house and the entire social structure he represents - and, like the woman in Sylvia Plath's poem who boasts 'I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air', she achieves a terrifying, mythic stature. This female avatar is dangerous - and she haunts the reader long after the last page is turned.

It was then, writing my New Yorker article, that I first began to imagine her story. How would it be if one altered the camera angle, and looked at events at Manderley from the first wife's point of view? I thought of Jean Rhys's fascinating novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story of Bertha Rochester's early life, and rescues her from the madwoman's attic to which Charlotte Bronte confined her in Jane Eyre. Du Maurier's novel, of course, has many deliberate echoes of Bronte's. So I wondered, what would one discover if one looked at Manderley, that quintessential male domain, from Rebecca's point of view?

In 1938, it would have been very difficult for a novelist to do that, certainly a novelist like du Maurier, who was aiming at a wide readership. The proprieties of her time had to be observed; if she intended to celebrate Rebecca (and I think she did), she could not do so openly: she was forced to take a covert approach. There are no such restrictions now. So who was Rebecca? Where did she come from? Was she the unprincipled and promiscuous woman that her gentleman husband claimed - or something other? Du Maurier deliberately occludes Rebecca's past; she gives only the tiniest of hints, hidden away in the narrative - but that was fine, from my point of view. It meant I was free to invent, free to imagine. And from the moment I finished writing the New Yorker article, that was what I began to do.

Time passed, however. I was working on other novels, and I pushed Manderley to the back of my mind. Then, some three years ago now, I was invited to speak at the du Maurier festival in Cornwall, and while there met du Maurier's son, Christian Browning.

I talked to him at unpardonable length about my Rebecca ideas; he listened with generosity and patience and finally (I'll always be grateful to him for this leap of faith) he turned to me and said, "If it interests you that much, why don't you do it?"

The next day, electric with nerves, I took the train back to London. I thought about the book that would become Rebecca's Tale the entire way. By the time I arrived at Paddington, some four hours later, I had the entire shape of the book blocked out in my mind. I knew I wanted multiple narrators, so the text was destabilised and no one character could be regarded as the repository of narrative truth. I knew I wanted the book to have a gender divide, so it was split fifty-fifty, male/female, at its heart. I knew that, honouring du Maurier's novel, this book should ask questions rather than provide pat answers. And I knew that, if I was to make it work as it could and should work, I had to find a voice for Rebecca herself: if I didn't do that, and do it convincingly, the book was stillborn.

It is for others to decide if I've been successful in that aim. All I can say is that to write in Rebecca's voice was an extraordinary experience - one of the strangest episodes I can recall. I usually write 'cold' - very cold. I like to be distanced from my material. I write, and rewrite, endlessly, circling my subject matter in a slow, crab-like way. When I came to write the 'Rebecca' section of this book, none of that pertained. All I knew when I began was that this voice had to come from the very edge; I had to push it as far as I dared. So I started - and I found I was writing fast, so fast that it felt like taking dictation. At times, I felt I was struggling to keep up - and that was both exhilarating and unnerving. It's not something that's ever happened to me before; I don't expect it to happen again - nor am I sure I would want it to do so.

That experience can't be explained. You could call it a haunting, I suppose, or a possession. But one of the central concerns of Rebecca's tale is suppression - the ways in which, even today, the male viewpoint and the male voice, tends to dominate, while the female, the soprano voice, is drowned out by the swelling chorus of bass and baritone. That's as true, one might suggest, of literature as it is of - say - politics. So perhaps that's why it felt as if Rebecca grabbed her chance at an aria; she'd been written out, or silenced, too long.

The Guardian, Wednesday September 12, 2001


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