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Menabilly, My Love… Part Five: ‘The Cottage in the Woods’

Polridmouth Cottage, Menabilly, Cornwall

The sea was glass. The air was soft and misty warm and the only other creature out of bed was a fisherman hauling crab pots at the harbour mouth. It gave me a fine feeling of conceit to be up before the world. My feet in sand shoes seemed like wings. I came down to Pridmouth Bay, passing the solitary cottage by the lake, and, opening a small gate hard by, I saw a narrow path leading to the woods.’ (‘The Rebecca Notebook’, by Daphne du Maurier)

The solitary cottage’ by the lake on the grounds of Menabilly estate that Daphne du Maurier had passed on the way to the house served her later as an inspiration for creating the half-cottage half-boat house in her book, ‘Rebecca’. The two-storey stone structure of early 19th century is the Polridmouth Cottage. The Cottage is situated to the east of the remains of the grotto, - an octagonal structure, the interiors of which were decorated with a collection of shells and minerals gathered by Philip Rashleigh (1729-1811), - and overlooks the lower pool and the beach.

In the book, the indirect reference to the Polridmouth Cottage, especially its proximity to the grotto, can be found in the preoccupation of the half-wit, Ben, who spends lots of time on the beach, digging for shells:

‘He watched me with interest, smiling all the while. ‘Diggin’ for shell,’ he said. ‘No shell here. Been diggin’ since forenoon.’

(‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

‘‘Here,’ he said. ‘Here, I got something for you.’

He smiled foolishly, he beckoned with his finger, and turned towards the beach. I went with him, and he bent down and picked up a flat stone by a rock. There was a little heap of shells under the stone. He chose one, and presented it to me. ‘That’s yourn,’ he said.

‘Thank you; it’s very pretty,’ I said.’’

(‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Another indirect reference to the shells of the grotto and the grotto itself can be spotted in a scene taking place at the precipice in Monte Carlo, involving the narrator and Mr de Winter:

The sea, like a crinkled chart, spread to the horizon, and lapped the sharp outline of the coast, while the houses were white shells in a rounded grotto, pricked here and there by a great orange sun.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The cottage in the woods and the half-wit, Ben, with his shells play an important role in the mystery of the ‘Rebecca’. The place forms the background of the two romantic affairs, and is the scene of the murder committed by Maximilian de Winter. The love affairs and the murder are linked, and the links are Maximilian de Winter, and Maxim de Winter. In the book, seemingly the same person, but, in fact, two different people related to each other and to the participants of the mystery. The crucial witness to the love affairs as well as to the murder is the half-wit, Ben, who is often seen by the narrator on the beach and around the cottage in the woods.

The mention of the cottage in the woods, comes in the book as early as in the second chapter. The referral to the place is made by the narrator in connection with certain events and people. In this particular passage, the storyteller transforms from a ‘she’ into a ‘he’, becoming a teenage boy, a ‘timid fellow’:

A multitude of weeds, a colony of birds. Sometimes perhaps a tramp will wander there, seeking shelter from a sudden shower of rain and, if he is stout-hearted, he may walk there with impunity. But your timid fellow, your nervous poacher - the woods of Manderley are not for him. He might stumble upon the little cottage in the cove and he would not be happy beneath its tumbled roof, the thin rain beating a tattoo. There might linger still a certain atmosphere of stress.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The ‘timid fellow’ represents one of the narrating voices that Daphne du Maurier weaved in to certain parts of the story. In this case, the narrator is linked to a real-life counterpart, John Cosmo Stuart Rashleigh (1872-1961), the son of Mary Frances Labouchere (1848-1874), the woman who was married to Jonathan Rashleigh, jun., (1845-1872). As a teenage boy, John Cosmo, on certain occasions, used to come to Menabilly, while his grandfather, Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) was living there with his second wife and children from his two marriages.

The ‘certain atmosphere of stress’ that lingers in the cottage is connected to the boy’s parents and their stories, which John Cosmo Stuart Rashleigh must have learnt about at some point in his life. Most likely, it was his grandfather, Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905), who shared these stories with John Cosmo. The knowledge that might have led John Cosmo to deep dislike of Menabilly, and refusal to live at the estate once he had inherited it.

Daphne du Maurier, being obsessed with Menabilly and its secrets, had discovered some secrets associated with the place and its inhabitants and shared them in a coded manner in the ‘Rebecca’. The coded manner was necessary, so not to be accused of indiscretion or speculation on the matter, for some of the participants of the events were still alive. In particular, John Cosmo Stuart Rashleigh (1872-1961). The hint that she was aware of the secrets of Menabilly had been noted by her in the ‘Rebecca Notebook’:

Little by little, too, I gleaned snatches of family history. There was the lady in blue who looked, so it was said, from a side window, yet few had seen her face. There was the cavalier found beneath the buttress wall more than a hundred years ago. There were the sixteenth century builders, merchants and traders; there were the Stuart royalists, who suffered for their king; the Tory landowners with their white wigs and their brood of children; the Victorian garden lovers with their rare plants and their shrubs. I saw them all in my mind’s eye, down to the present owner, who could not love his home and when I thought of him it was not of an elderly man, a respectable justice of the peace, but of a small boy orphaned at two years old, coming for his holidays in an Eton collar and tight black suit, watching his old grandfather with nervous, doubtful eyes. The house of secrets. The house of stories.’ (‘The House of Secrets’, ‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier)

As had been noted by Daphne du Maurier, John Cosmo Stuart Rashleigh (1872-1961), while occasionally visiting Menabilly, would spend some time with his grandfather, Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905). Perhaps, sometimes, sitting in the library, having tea there, or perhaps, going for walks together, and playing on a beach as imagined by Daphne du Maurier in the ‘Rebecca’:

We were mortal again, two people playing on a beach. We threw more stones, went to the water’s edge, flung ducks and drakes, and fished for driftwood. The tide had turned, and came lapping in the bay. The small rocks were covered, the seaweed washed on the stones. We rescued a big floating plank and carried it up the beach above high-water mark.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

It is very likely that during one of his walks John Cosmo could have stumbled upon the Polridmouth Cottage described in the book as a certain ‘cottage in the woods’:

The beach in the cove was white shingle, like the one behind me, but steeper, shelving suddenly to the sea. The woods came right down to the tangle of seaweed marking high water, encroaching almost to the rocks themselves, and at the fringe of the woods was a long low building, half cottage, half boat-house, built of the same stone as the breakwater.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Although it is hard to say for certain what the Polridmouth Cottage was used for and who lived there at the time prior to John Cosmo discovering it, it is possible to detect some of such information from the description of the cottage given by Daphne du Maurier in the ‘Rebecca’.

The definition of the building found in the book, - ‘half cottage, half boat-house’, - points at its dual usage, suggesting that either it had two owners or its owner led a double life. In the context of the stories that Daphne du Maurier is sharing with the reader of the ‘Rebecca’, both speculations are true. Further clues to this can be found in the interior elements of ‘the cottage in the woods’:

The room was furnished, and ran the whole length of the cottage. There was a desk in the corner, a table, and chairs, and a bed-sofa pushed against the wall. There was a dresser too, with cups and plates. Bookshelves, the books inside them, and models of ships standing on the top of the shelves. For a moment I thought it must be inhabited - perhaps the poor man on the beach lived here but I looked around me again and saw no sign of recent occupation. That rusted grate knew no fire, this dusty floor no footsteps, and the china there on the dresser was blue-spotted with the damp. There was a queer musty smell about the place. Cobwebs spun threads upon the ships' models, making their own ghostly rigging. No one lived here. No one came here.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Each interior element placed in the cottage can be identified with specific personages of the book as well as their real-life counterparts. ‘A desk’ and ‘bookshelves, the books inside them’ are references to studying, education, and obtaining knowledge, relating to two men - the father and his son. In the book, these men are Maximilian de Winter and Maxim de Winter. Their real-life counterparts are Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) and Jonathan Rashleigh, jun., (1845-1872).

In this regard, the Harrow School Register of 1832 and 1859 provides detailed information about the studies and careers of the two men:

Harrow School Register May 1832. Rashleigh, Jonathan, son of W. Rashleigh, Esq., Menabilly. Fowey, Cornwall. Left in 1836: Cricket XI., 1836, but too ill to play at Lord’s; O.U. Cricket XI 1840; Balliol Coll. Oxf., B.A. 1841; J.P. for Middlesex and Westminster, 1856; J.P. and D.L. for Cornwall, 1872; Chairman of Cornwall County Lunatic Asylum Committee for twelve years 1873-1885; High Sheriff, 1877. J. Rashleigh, Esq., J.P., Menabilly, Par Station, Cornwall.’

‘Harrow School Register January 1859. Rashleigh, Jonathan, son of J. Rashleigh Esq., 3, Cumberland Terrace, Regent’s Park, N.W. Ch.Ch.Oxf., B.A. 1869; student of the Inner Temple, 1868. Died 8th December 1872.’

As their records show both men studied at the Harrow all-boys boarding school. Jonathan Rashleigh, jun., (1845-1872) continued his education at Christ Church, Oxford, where the two main subjects were mathematics and classics, the fact that is reflected in the presence of the ‘bookshelves, the books inside them’ in the interior of the cottage. The same books relate to his father, Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) who also studied at Oxford, in the Balliol College. One of the significant features of the College is that it has a long history of being open to all on merit, meaning that people of exceptional potential could study there with academics who were experts in their field. The reforms that resulted in Oxford University selecting students solely on academic ability happened sometime in the beginning of the 19th century. It seems that Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) was one of such exceptional students.

In the book, his intelligence and exceptional potential are referenced in the scene where Maximilian de Winter speaks with Mrs Van Hopper, sitting on a certain sofa in the Hotel Cote D’Azur in Monte Carlo:

Mr de Winter is so modest he won’t admit to it, but I believe that lovely home of his had been in his family’s possession since the Conquest. They say that minstrels’ gallery is a gem. I suppose your ancestors often entertained royalty at Manderley, Mr de Winter?’

This was more than I had hitherto endured, even from her, but the swift lash of his reply was unexpected. ‘Not since Ethelred,’ he said, ‘the one who was called Unready. In fact, it was while staying with my family that the name was given him. He was invariably late for dinner. She deserved it, of course, and I waited for her change of face, but incredible as it may seem his words were lost on her’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The swift lash’ of Maximilian de Winter’s reply highlights the level of intellectual ability and education of his real-life counterpart. It is not only the fictional Mrs Van Hopper who does not get his reply but not every reader can either. For, in order to do it one has to know the British history and its Kings but also understand the linguistic puns and play on the words, as well as etymology of the names.

This particular scene in the Hotel Cote D’Azur not only showcases the intellectual abilities of the fictional Mr de Winter and his real-life counterpart but also links the participants of the conversation, especially Mr de Winter and the narrator to two places at Manderley: the little ante-room in one of the bedrooms, and the cottage in the woods. This is done by using a specific interior element that appears in both locations – ‘a certain sofa’:

‘At the Cote d’Azur she staked a claim upon a certain sofa in the lounge, midway between the reception hall and the passage to the restaurant, and she would have her coffee there after luncheon and dinner, and all who came and went must pass her by.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Moved to Manderley, the sofa of ‘the lounge’ as well as a hard chair of the narrator: ‘…and before I knew what had happened he was sitting in my usual hard chair, and I was on the sofa beside Mrs Van Hopper,’ appear in the ‘little ante-room’ of the narrator’s large double bedroom in the east wing:

‘… and I came to a little ante-room, or boudoir, furnished with a sofa, chairs, writing-desk, which opened out to a large double bedroom with wide windows and a bathroom beyond.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The presence of the ‘writing-desk’ in the ante-room points at one of the de Winters, in this case, Maxim de Winter and his real-life counterpart Jonathan Rashleigh, jun., (1845-1872). Then, as the story develops the same sofa, the ‘chairs’ plus the ‘writing-desk’ move in to ‘the cottage in the woods.’ Daphne du Maurier’s placing them there signifies a progression in the story and a link of the personages – the narrator, Maximilian de Winter, and Maxim de Winter, - to ‘the cottage in the woods.’

The sofa from the lounge is not simply moved in to the cottage but is transformed into a bed-sofa, symbolising certain developments in the married life of the participants involved. The bed part of the bed-sofa comes from the ‘large double bedroom’ of the east wing of Manderley. The size of the bedroom points at the duplicity. It is not one but two bedrooms and two couples. One relates to the marriage of the father, and one to the marriage of his son. Relayed to real life, these marriages refer to the second marriage of Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) to Jane Elizabeth Pugh (1836-1902), and the marriage of Jonathan Rashleigh, jun., (1845-1872) to Mary Frances Labouchere (1848-1874). Both marriages happened at the time when Menabilly was still owned by the eldest brother of Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) – William Rashleigh (1817-1871).

The placement of the fictional double bedroom in the east wing of the house gives a hint to the reader that the narrator and her husband, similarly to the two real-life couples were regarded as ‘visitors’, not as the mistress and master of the house. This was done to identify the time line and sequence of the events connected to the certain period in the life of the Rashleigh family and its members.

Another clue to the sequence of the events as well as a reference to one of the participants is ‘a little china cupid’ that the narrator accidentally breaks and then conceals the fact by hiding its pieces in one of the desk drawers.

As noted by Maximilian de Winter, ‘a little china cupid’ was a wedding present from Rebecca who ‘knew a lot about china’. In this particular case, the Rebecca personage cannot really be Maximilian de Winter’s first wife, for brides do not give presents to grooms for their own weddings. Instead, the cupid serves as a clue to a real-life event - the second marriage of Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) that took place in 1869, a year before his son’s wedding. It is, therefore, the son of Jonathan Rashleigh who had given the present to his father. Rebecca personage, in this case, becomes a ‘he’ and not a ‘she.’

However, in the response of Maximilian de Winter given to the narrator about the cupid, the he-Rebecca, representing Jonathan Rashleigh, jun., is intertwined with she-Rebecca who personifies Mary Frances Labouchere, making it appear as if it is one and the same person.

‘Was it very valuable?’

‘Heavens knows. I suppose so. I’ve really forgotten.’

‘Are all those things in the morning-room valuable?’

‘Yes, I believe so.’

‘Why were all the most valuable things put in the morning-room?’

‘I don’t know. I suppose because they looked well there.’

‘Were they always there? When your mother was alive?’

‘No. No, I don’t think they were. They were scattered about the house. The chairs were in a lumbar room I believe.’

‘When was the morning-room furnished as it is now?’

‘When I was married.’

‘I suppose the cupid was put there then?’

‘I suppose so.’

‘Was that found in a lumber room?’

‘No. No, I don’t think it was. As a matter of fact, I believe it was a wedding present. Rebecca knew a lot about china.

(‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

It is she-Rebecca who has a great taste for arranging things and bringing the best and the most valuable together in one room, and he-Rebecca who has given the wedding present to the newly-wed couple. The theme of china continues in the interior of 'the cottage in the woods' where the narrator spots ‘the china there on the dresser,’ which ‘was blue-spotted with the damp.’ This links the fictional Maxim de Winter as well as his real-life counterpart, Jonathan Rashleigh, jun., to the cottage in the woods and marks his participation in the affairs that take place there.

Apart from the pieces of furniture, the cottage in the woods also contains a specific element of decoration that identifies an additional participant. This element is ‘ships’ models’ standing on the top of the bookshelves. The ships and sailing are connected to the nautical theme and the navy. In the book, there is a certain personage, Rebecca’s cousin, - Jack Favell, - who, according to Mrs Danvers, was sent in ‘the Navy’ but failed to make a career there:

They sent him in the Navy, but he wouldn’t stand the discipline, and I do not blame him. He had too much spirt to obey orders, like my lady.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Jack Favell’s failing to stand the discipline and therefore not succeeding in the navy is expressed as ‘cobwebs’ that ‘spun threads upon the ships' models.’ In this context, the ‘ships’ models’ are a piece of the past. Their presence on the bookshelves represent Jack Favell’s connection to the he-Rebecca, which mirrors the relationship of Jonathan Rashleigh, jun., and his male lover.

Prior to becoming the half-cottage half-boathouse, the building was just a boat store, the fact that points at two real-life people – Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) and his elder brother, William Rashleigh (1817-1871).

What did she use the cottage for?’ I asked; ‘it looked quite furnished, I thought from the outside it was just a boat-house.’

It was a boat-house originally,’ he said, his voice constrained again, difficult, the voice of someone who is uncomfortable about his subject. ‘Then - then she converted it like that, had furniture put in, and china.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The single use of the building as the boat store signifies William Rashleigh (1817-1871) who served in the navy. The half part of the original building that remained as the boat house represents Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) and references his studies in Oxford at the Balliol College which had a boat-house where the Boat Club (BCBC) was housed - the rowing club for members of the Balliol College. The things found by the narrator in the half-boathouse serve as clues to the two men and their educational and professional background:

It was only a boat store after all. Here were the ropes and blocks I had expected, two or three sails, fenders, a small punt, pots of paints, all the litter and junk that goes with the using of boats. A ball of twine lay on a shelf, a rusted clasp knife beside it.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The ‘ropes and blocks’, ‘sails’, and ‘fenders’ are the sailing elements that point at ships and yachts. The number of sails cited - 'two or three sails’ - references the size of the yachts associated with or having being possessed by the Rashleigh family. The three sail yachts are usually big ones and the two sail ones are smaller, mostly used for leisure activities but can be also used for doing sailing as a sport. The big ship sailing is representative of William Rashleigh, who was the owner of Menabilly prior to his younger brother inheriting it, for he was educated for the army and was a man of the sea. Preferring to live by the shoreline he built an Italianate marine villa, 'Point Neptune' in 1862. While he was building it, Menabilly was left under the stewardship of his brother, Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905).

Apart from marine related items found in the boat house, there is another element that is identified with William Rashleigh - 'a rusted clasp knife.' The clasp knife can be associated with hunting as well as the army. Both apply to William Rashleigh as he was educated for the army and also did, as all titled gentry, hunting, especially in Scotland where his wife, Hon, Catherine Stuart, who had a residence there.

While ship sailing and travelling as part of a career is associated with William Rashleigh, the yacht sailing done professionally or as a leisure activity is more representative of his younger brother, Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905), and his son.

Symbolically, the three sails represent the three men who were connected to Menabilly and its ownership: William Rashleigh, Jonathan Rashleigh, and Jonathan Rashleigh, jun.

In contrast to the ship and yacht sailing, ‘a small punt’ is purely associated with leisure, romantic time and relaxation. This particular object is a reference to Oxford, where punting was and is one of the leisure activities. The Oxford punts can be of different colour, hence the ‘pots of paints.’ A small punt’ points at the two men – Jonathan Rashleigh and Jonathan Rashleigh, jun., as both had studied at Oxford.

One of the ‘three sails’ found in the boat house plays an important role in identifying the connection of the half-wit, Ben, to one of the three male figures who are associated with the half-cottage half-boathouse:

I bent down to Jasper, putting my hand on his collar, and looked round the edge of the door. Someone was sitting in the corner against the wall. Someone who, from his crouching position, was even more frightened than me. It was Ben. He was trying to hide behind one of the sails.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The fact that Ben is frightened and hiding shows that there exists a certain external threat to his life. The threat, as Ben himself highlights int he conversation with the narrator, is connected to a prospect of being sent to the asylum and the reason for that is Ben’s witnessing something that had taken place in the cottage in the woods:

‘I done nothing,’ he repeated, ‘I never told no one. I don’t want to be put to the asylum.’ A tear rolled down his dirty face.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The person who had threatened Ben with the asylum is described by him as ‘tall and dark’:

Tall and dark, she was,’ he said, ‘she gave you the feeling of a snake. I seen her with my own eyes. Be night she’d come. I seen her.’ He paused watching me intently. I did not say anything. ‘I looked in on her once,’ he said, ‘and she turned on me, she did. ‘You don’t know me, do you?’ she said. ‘You’d never seen me here, and you won’t again. If I catch you looking at me through the windows here I’ll have you put to the asylum’, she said. ‘You wouldn’t like that would you? They’re cruel to people in the asylum,’ she said. (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Although the half-wit, Ben, refers to the person as ‘she’, it is not a woman but a man. The inversion that had been applied by Daphne du Maurier serves to conceal the real-life figure - Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) - who inspired the ‘tall and dark’ personage. For, in order to be able to put anyone into the asylum, one had to be either his close relative or a person in the authority. But not just any kind of authority. The authority that was connected to a certain type of the asylum – the Lunatic Asylum, - for Ben is a half-wit, or ‘cracked’ as Jack Favell describes him. Such a person of authority could be either a doctor or, like the real-life counterpart of Maximilian de Winter, - Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905), - the Chairman of Cornwall County Lunatic Asylum Committee.

Whether similar to Ben witness existed in real life is hard to say, but what is obvious in the book is that Ben must have witnessed several things: the love affair of Maximilian de Winter and she-Rebecca: ‘I looked in on her once,’ he said, ‘and she turned on me, she did.’; the queer amorous relationship of he-Rebecca/Maxim de Winter with Jack Favell, as the later attests himself: ‘He was always hanging about, when I used to come down and meet Rebecca. I’ve often seen him. He used to sleep in the woods, or on the beach when the nights were hot.’; and possibly the murder of he-Rebecca. (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Relayed to the real-life, the fictional events witnessed by Ben suggest that Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) had an affair with his daughter-in-law, Mary Frances Labouchere (1848-1874), that his eldest son, Jonathan Rashleigh, jun., (1845-1872) had an affair with a man, most likely, from the Rashleigh family, and that Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) was linked to the death of his queer son that occurred in December 1872, as well as disappearance of his daughter-in-law that happened in February 1874.

To be continued…

Part One: Into the Woods

Part Two: A Glimpse Inside

Part Three: 'An Appalling Tragedy'

Part Four: 'Queer'

Part Six: 'A Sort of Boy'

Seraphima Bogomolova

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