Well, to be honest, I didn’t actually dream about Manderley. I dreamt that my novel had just been published and it left me with the best feeling ever.
But dreams are funny things. Especially when it comes to writing.
It is probably to ease the monotony of reading a million stories ending with ‘and then I woke up’, but, from a young age, we are instructed by teachers never to write a story that ends with the realisation that it was all a dream.
I suppose it is a huge let-down for the reader. It’s not ideal for them to be dragged into a plot, to empathise with the characters, to believe in what’s happening, only to finish with the anticlimax that none of it was real at all. Of course they know it’s not really real, as it’s a story, but fictional worlds need to have their own version of reality, and being told that it’s not even up to that, is definitely a bit crap.
And yet I can see why using dreams as a device is so tempting. Dreams are incredibly real. As well as being told, as children, not to end our stories with ‘and it was all a dream’, we’re comforted from nightmares by being told, ‘it’s only a dream’. Nightmares can feel so real, can evoke such horrid feelings of terror, that they can be utterly distressing. And, as well as the reality, there’s always something eerily unreal about dreams. Perhaps it’s the combination of the extraordinary – being able to fly, for instance – with the ordinary – looking down from your broomstick and seeing your back garden, or Regent’s Park – that make them so disconcerting and so enchanting.
I’ve written about dreams and poetry here, but I haven’t yet written about dreams and novels. And, when I think about dreams and novels, the first thing that comes to mind is:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
In Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier uses the dream truly brilliantly. And her English teacher wouldn’t have been all that upset, as du Maurier makes it clear from the very fourth word that ‘it’s all a dream’, and the dream only lasts for the first chapter, rather than encompassing the whole story.
In her dream, she is walking along the drive to the house, Manderley, but finds that ‘nature …with long, tenacious fingers’ has taken over the pretty drive to create a nightmarish vision of ‘tortured elms’ and ‘monster shrubs’. As she nears the house:
Nettles were everywhere, the vanguard of the army. They choked the terrace, they sprawled about the paths, they leant, vulgar and lanky, against the very windows of the house.
The house is just about to fall prey to the ravages of nature. Where is James Lees-Milne when you need him?
Then she imagines the house itself, its rooms:
bear witness to our presence … cushions, with the imprint of our heads upon them, lolling in the chairs; the charred embers of our log fire still smouldering against the morning.
Daphne du Maurier opens her novel with a detailed description of a place. And yet this description is within a dream, the dream of Mrs de Winter. While dreams might prey on our subconscious fears – and there is definitely something nightmarish about this particular dream – they can also reveal our desires. It is clear that Mrs de Winter desires Manderley more than anything.
For, as the story unfolds, it is obvious that the rooms won’t bear witness to her presence, for they continue to be haunted by Rebecca. It is Rebecca’s handkerchief that she will find in a coat pocket, rather than, as she dreams, ‘my handkerchief on the table beside the bowl of autumn roses’. Rebecca is everywhere in the house, her elegant initial on everything, her ghost still served by Mrs Danvers the housekeeper.
But why should Mrs de Winter desire Manderley so much, when it is exposed, eventually, as no more than a façade for Rebecca’s terrible sexual exploits? Max de Winter says how wrong his love for Manderley is. He says,
it does not prosper, that sort of love. They don’t preach about it in the churches. Christ said nothing about stones, bricks, and walls.
So why does Manderley still haunt Mrs de Winter’s dreams? Why is it that at the start of the novel, which happens at the very end of the story, Mrs de Winter still wants the house?
Mrs de Winter’s creator was obsessed with Menabilly, the house on which Manderley was based. She was fascinated by it as a child and, later on in life, with her earnings from the Hitchcock film, du Maurier rented it for twenty years.
Blake Morrison in the Guardian (here) manages to turn pretty much every English country house literary myth on its head, but I for one think there is something incredibly special about a grand country house. Bowen’s Court is an astonishing document of Elizabeth Bowen’s love for her ancestral home (more on this here), and for those, like Daphne du Maurier, or Mrs de Winter, or indeed me, who weren’t born into such grand surroundings, in which each wood panel feels redolent of an ancestor’s touch and has a family tale to tell, then it’s easy to see why they might envy it.
And, before one feel quite smugly above all this very passé envy of the aristos, perhaps one should remember how addicted one might have been to Downton Abbey …
… and dream on.