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Menabilly, My Love - Part One: Into the Woods

Daphne du Maurier

I edged my way onto the lawn, and there she stood. My house of secrets. My elusive Menabilly… The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. The house, like the world, was sleeping too. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, or the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those darkened rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale, until someone should come to wake her.’ (from ‘The House of Secrets’, ‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier)

This ‘someone’ happened to be Daphne du Maurier. She fell in love with the house and some years later would kiss it awake when she would decide to move in there with her family. But before that, she would first discover it and admire it from afar and then would declare her love to ‘the sleeping beauty’ in her book ‘Rebecca’. For, in essence, ‘Rebecca’ is a story about the house – Menabilly - and its female inhabitants and their secrets. Contrary to the common belief, Rebecca is not just one woman, she is a collective image. The collective image that encompasses in itself several women who had resided at Menabilly at certain times. Some of their stories Daphne du Maurier had a glimpse of by the means of hearsay as well as by tuning in to the aura of the house, becoming one with it, and subconsciously or not relaying them in the plot of ‘Rebecca’, planting elements of suspense and mystery.

Although in the English language there is no grammatical gender assigned to nouns, especially to non-human objects, such as a house, Daphne du Maurier nonetheless always referred to Menabilly as ‘she’: ‘…and there she stood. My house of secrets. My elusive Menabilly…’ (from ‘The House of Secrets’, ‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier) The reason for that being in the house name itself, in particular its meaning. In order to derive the meaning, one has to look at the dissected parts of the name. ‘Menabilly’ can be dissected in the following two ways: ‘Men-a-billy’ and ‘Mena-billy’. The first dissection can refer to ‘men of will or desire’, since ‘Men’ can be interpreted as men, and ‘billy’ is a short form of ‘William’, which in its turn means ‘will, desire’. This meaning does not explain the ‘she’ epithet, but the second dissection does. In it, ‘Mena’ refers to a female name of Indian origin that means ‘Woman, Mother-Goddess’. In the German variant of the name the meaning is ‘love’. Thus, the dissection ‘Mena-billy’ can be read as ‘Woman or Mother-Godddess of will and desire’ or simply ‘Love and desire’. Even if Daphne du Maurier did not consciously dissect the name, being a creative and, therefore, sensitive person, she, on a subconscious level, intuitively felt that secrets and mysteries of Menabilly are linked to love, will, and desire.

Her obsession with and love for the house Daphne du Maurier voiced out in the ‘Rebecca’ through the words uttered by Maximilian de Winter in his ‘confessional’ speech: ‘I thought about Manderley too much,’ he said.I put Manderley first, before anything else. And it does not prosper, that sort of love. They don’t preach about it in the churches. Christ said nothing about stones, and bricks, and walls, the love that a man can bear for his plot of earth, his soil, his little kingdom. It does not come into the Christian creed.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier) ‘Earth’ and ‘soil’ being two of the four meanings of the name ‘Rebecca’ highlight the major message of the book – love for one’s soil, one’s little kingdom, which is represented by the fictional Manderley and the real-life Menabilly.

As it turned out, one does not need to own a house to love it and be attached to it. When Daphne du Maurier discovered Menabilly and fell in love with it, she did not own it, nor it was hers when she admired it from afar and then declared her love for it in her ‘Rebecca’, neither she possessed it when she moved into the house years later. But she, nonetheless, thought of the house as hers. For, loving Menabilly meant for her more than just loving some ‘bricks and walls’. Her love was linked to what Menabilly personified for her – English history, culture, and traditions in their highest expression.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier) The first line that opens up the book and starts the description of the dream of the first chapter of the ‘Rebecca’ encompasses Daphne du Maurier’s longing for the house and recollection of her visits, especially the two first ones. Feelings of discovery, mystery, nostalgia, and a certain degree of puzzlement that are expressed by the narrator are, in fact, the feelings that Daphne du Maurier experienced herself. The dream of the book is not a dream at all but the reality. The reality that Daphne du Maurier had chosen to present as a dream and fiction.

Angela du Maurier (on the left) and Daphne du Maurier (on the right)

Her first encounter with Menabilly happened in mid 1920s. She was a teenager then on a holiday with her family in Cornwall. She and her sister, Angela, were discovering the surroundings, when they came across a description of the house in an old guidebook: ‘So my sister and I, poring over an old guidebook, first came upon the name of Menabilly. What description the guidebook gave I cannot now remember, except that the house has been first built in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, that the grounds and woods had been in the last century famous for their beauty, and that the property had never changed hands from the time it came into being, but had been passed down, in the male line to the present owner.’ (from ‘The House of Secrets’, ‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier) The mention of ‘the last century’ refers to the nineteenth century, in particular to the second half of it – 1860-1900.

In the ‘Rebecca’, the first acquaintance of the narrator with Manderley happens in a similar fashion. She first sees the house on a postcard purchased while on holiday: ‘… I thought of a picture postcard I had bought once at a village shop, when on holiday as a child in the west country. It was the painting of a house, crudely done of course and highly coloured, but even those faults could not destroy the symmetry of the building, the wide stone steps before the terrace, the green lawns stretching to the sea. I paid two pence for the painting, half my weekly pocket money - and then asked the wrinkled shop woman what it was meant to be. She looked astonished at my ignorance. ‘That’s Manderley,’ she said, and I remember coming out of the shop feeling rebuffed, yet hardly wiser than before.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier) The estate being pictured on the postcard means that it is famous yet the narrator never heard of it or seen it. The narrator’s ignorance creates some suspense and mystery and a wish to find out more about the estate she had bought a postcard picture of.

Whilst the narrator’s first encountering with Manderley is limited by the postcard, Daphne du Maurier’s one had extended further than a page in the old guidebook: ‘Three miles from the harbour, easy enough to find; but what about keepers and gardeners, chauffeurs and barking dogs? My sister was not such an inveterate trespasser as I. We asked advice. ‘You’ll find no dogs at Menabilly, no any keepers either,’ we were told, ‘the house is all shut up. The owner lives in Devon. But you’ll have trouble getting there. The drive is nearly three miles long, and overgrown. I for one was not deterred. The autumn colours had me bewitched before the start. So we sat forth…’ (from ‘The House of Secrets’, ‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier)

What Daphne du Maurier subsequently experienced as she ‘sat forth’ is relayed in the opening paragraph of the dream in the ‘Rebecca’ book: ‘It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited. No smoke came from the chimney, and the little lattice windows gaped forlorn.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier) When the narrator enters the estate it happens as if by magic: ‘Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier) In reality, Daphne du Maurier simply opened the creaking iron gates and walked through: ‘We came to the lodge at four turnings, as we been told, and opened the creaking iron gates with the flash courage and appearance of bluff common to the trespasser. The lodge was deserted. No one peered from the windows. We slunk away down the drive, and were soon hidden by the trees.’ (from ‘The House of Secrets’, ‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier)

As Daphne du Maurier and her sister advanced along the overgrown drive, they both felt the magic vibes emanating from the woods: ‘I remember we did not talk, or if we did we talked in whispers. That was the first effect the woods had upon both of us. […] ‘… on that first autumnal afternoon, when the drive was new to us, it had the magic quality of a place hitherto untrodden, unexplored. I was Scott in the Antarctic. I was Cortez in Mexico. Or possibly I was none of these things, but a trespasser in time. The woods were sleeping now, but who, I wondered, had ridden through them once?’ (from ‘The House of Secrets’, ‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier)

The same spirit of wonder and exploration is present in the narrator’s dream of the ‘Rebecca’ as she describes, sometimes in a grotesque way, her progress along the drive towards Manderley: ‘The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done, but as I advanced I was aware that a change had come upon it; it was narrow and unkept, not the drive that we had known. At first, I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realized what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The farther into the woods Daphne du Maurier and her sister went, the more menacing the surroundings seemed to them: ‘The trees grew taller and the shrubs more menacing. Yet still the drive led on, and never a house at the end of it. Suddenly Angela said, ‘it’s after four… and the sun’s gone!’ The Pekinese watched her, pink tongue lolling, and then he stared into the bushes, pricking his ears at nothing. The first owl hooted…’ (from ‘The House of Secrets’, ‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier)

The same ‘menacing’ atmosphere presents itself to the narrator in her dream: ‘The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church. And there were other trees as well, trees that I did not recognize, squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered. The drive was a ribbon now, a thread of its former self, with gravel surface gone, and choked with grass and moss. The trees had thrown out low blanches, making an impediment to progress the gnarled roots looked like skeleton claws. Scattered here and again amongst this jungle growth I would recognize shrubs that had been landmarks in our time, things of culture and grace, hydrangeas whose blue heads had been famous.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Flowers and plants planted by Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905)

The ‘shrubs that had been landmarks’, beeches’ and ‘hydrangeas’, as well as rhododendrons that are mentioned later in the dream in connection with Manderley are, in fact, the plants of Menabilly that were present at the grounds when Daphne du Mauriern discovered the house. They had been planted by Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) who inherited Menabilly in 1871 and had lived there until his death in 1905. Jonathan Rashleigh was in many ways an old school landowner, a gardener, a collector, and the father of nine children from two marriages. During his life at Menabilly, Jonathan Rashleigh greatly improved and extended the grounds of the estate, ‘the beauty of which is hardly met with outside Kew’ (Cornish Guardian, 2 June 1905) He had planted many trees including pine, cedar, eucalyptus, and beech, and introduced bamboo, rhododendrons and hydrangeas. There was even a palm walk: ‘The grounds contain rare spicemens of shrubs and trees from the ends of the earth, the palm walk in Menabilly’s palmiest days (excuse the pun) being one the many beauties of the place.’ (Cornish Guardian, 6 February 1920) The reference to ‘the palm walk’ can be found in the ‘Rebecca’ too: ‘We ought to be in a conservatory, you in a while frock with a rose in your hand, and a violin playing a waltz in the distance. And I should make violent love to you behind a palm tree. (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Thanks to Jonathan Rashleigh’s efforts and passion of gardening Menabilly’s ‘grounds and woods’ became ‘famous for their beauty’, as was mentioned in the old guidebook in which Daphne du Maurier and her sister first read about it.

In 1905, after the death of Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905), it was his grandson, John Cosmo Stuart Rashleigh (1872-1961), who had inherited the estate. He was a doctor, a liberal, and a humanitarian. He did not have a large family of his own, nor had any siblings or parents. His father died six months after his birth in December 1872, and his mother a year later in February 1874. Therefore, the inheritance of Menabilly did not make much difference to his personal or family life. It was not his home in a true sense of it, since he was not born there and had never really lived there. Instead, during his childhood and adolescence he lived with his great uncle, William Stuart (1825-1893), and his family, first in London at 36 Hill Street, St. George Hanover Square, and later at The Hall, Church End, Tempsford, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire.

It is no wonder then that having no strings attached to Menabilly, the first thing John Cosmo Stuart Rashleigh did when he inherited Menabilly was putting on sale the very plants his grandfather had planted there: ‘A most unusual sight was witnessed on the Town Quay on Thursday week when Mr. R. K. Daniel, of St. Austell, sold by auction a large collection of bedding and other plants, which were brought from the beautiful Menabilly gardens. The quay presented the appearance of one huge magnificent flower bed, with begonias, lobelias, variegated geraniums, and a host of other plants, the names of which are only known to those who study horticulture as a hobby or profession. The disposal of the plants is the result of the decision of the new master of Menabilly to turf down the majority of the beds around the house, and to reduce the staff of gardeners and labours on the estate. The plants were in good condition, and realised unusually high prices.’ (Cornish Guardian, 2 June 1905)

At the time of Daphne du Maurier’s first visit to Menabilly, the house had been standing uninhabited for some time to which the overgrown drive was a proof. But even before, visitors to the grounds of Menabilly could observe that the house had mainly stayed unoccupied, as did the author of an article published in the Cornish Guardian: ‘Menabilly House with its 60 or so rooms, except for a short period during the war when it was let to an officer and his family, has been unoccupied for several years.’ (Cornish Guardian, 6 February 1920) The war that the author of the article refers to is the First World War that took place in the period of 1914-1918.

Ten years prior to the beginning of the First World War, and at the moment of John Cosmo Stuart Rashleigh (1872-1961) inheriting Menabilly, the inhabitants of the house consisted of the daughters of his grandfather, Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905), from his two marriages, as well as seventeen servants. The daughters from the first marriage were Lady Alice Henrietta Rashleigh (1848-1934) and Lady Mary Anna Rashleigh (1852-1905), the latter died six months after her father’s death, in August 1905. The daughters from the second marriage were Miss Kathleen Rashleigh (1875-1960) and Miss Rachel Jane Rashleigh (1882-1962). Six years later, none of these inhabitants were occupying Menabilly anymore. Instead, a record of 1911 Census shows that the only people living at the estate grounds were the head gardener, John Tarr, and his family – the wife, Emily Tarr, and the daughter, Emily Lydia Tarr. Both women acted as caretakers.

Since apart from the short period during the First World War the house stood unoccupied, what Daphne du Maurier witnessed at the grounds of Menabilly during her first and second visits was related to the legacy left by Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) and the times before his death. In other words, the grounds and the house were as if preserved in a time capsule. Perhaps this was one of the reasons for Daphne du Maurier referring to herself when she visited Menabilly as ‘a trespasser in time’. Her first attempt to trespass in time was ended abruptly by her sister, Angela: ‘‘I don’t like it,’ said Angela firmly. ‘Let’s go home.’ ‘But the house,’ I said with longing, ‘we haven’t seen the house.’ She hesitated, and I drag her on. But in an instant the day was gone from us. The drive was a muddied path, leading nowhere, and the shrubs, green no longer but a shrouding black, turned to fantastic shapes and sizes. There was not one owl now, but twenty. And through the dark trees, with a pale grin upon his face, came the first glimmer the hunter’s moon. I knew I was beaten. For that night only.’ (from ‘The House of Secrets’, ‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier)

Pridmouth Bay (top left), Menabilly rhododendrons (bottom left), Menabilly (right)

In the ‘Rebecca’, the attempt to find the house is expressed in the dream as being in a sort of labyrinth: ‘On and on, now east now west, wound the poor thread that once had been our drive. Sometimes I thought it lost, but it appeared again, beneath a fallen tree perhaps, or struggling on the other side of a muddied ditch created by the winter rains. I had not thought the way so long. Surely the miles had multiplied, even as the trees had done, and this path led but to a labyrinth, some choked wilderness, and not to the house at all.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Daphne du Maurier’s second attempt to find Menabilly would happen a year later, in spring. She would be on a holiday with her family again. But this time, she would rise early – 5:00am – to ensure she had the whole day in front of her, and would approach the estate from the side of the ‘Pridmouth Bay’: ‘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. I followed the path to the summit of the hill and then, emerging from the woods, turned left, and found myself upon a high grass walk, with all the bay stretched out below, me and the Gribben head beyond. […] Then I saw them for the first time – the scarlet rhododendrons. Massive and high they reared above my head, shielding the entrance to a long smooth lawn. I edged my way on to the lawn, and there she stood. My house of secret. My elusive Menabilly… (from ‘The House of Secrets’, ‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier)

In the dream, there is no time lapse, and the discovery of Manderley by the narrator happens suddenly, as if by magic: ‘I came upon it suddenly: the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions, and I stood, my heart thumping in my breast, the strange prick of tears behind my eyes. There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the grey stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and the terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

From the moment of discovering Menabilly to the moment Daphne du Mauier could move in to the house as a tenant fifteen years would pass, during which her love for the house would be growing stronger but in secret: ‘Ours was a strange relationship for fifteen years. I would put her from my mind for months at a time, and then, on coming again to Cornwall, I would wait a day or two then visit her in secret.’ (from ‘The House of Secrets’, ‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier) The secretive nature of Daphne du Maurier’s visits to Menabilly is reflected in the dream of the first chapter of the ‘Rebecca’ as the narrator’s wish not to share her dream with anyone, not even with her companion: ‘We would not talk of Manderley, I would not tell my dream.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Both, in real life and in the dream, the house appears as ‘the sleeping beauty’. Menabilly as uninhabited and abandoned: ‘The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. The house, like the world, was sleeping too. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, or the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those darkened rooms.’ (from ‘The House of Secrets’, ‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier) And Manderley at first as untouched and unchanged, and then as a ‘desolate shell’: ‘I turned again to the house, and though it stood inviolate, untouched, as though we ourselves had left but yesterday, I saw that the garden had obeyed the jungle law, even as the woods had done.’ […] ‘I looked upon a desolate shell, soulless at last, unhaunted, with no whisper of the past about its staring walls.’ […] ’The house was a sepulchre, our fear and suffering lay buried in the ruins. There would be no resurrection.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The two states of the house, - ‘inviolate, untouched, as though we ourselves had left but yesterday’ and ‘a desolate shell, soulless at last’, - that are described in the ‘Rebecca’ relate to two different owners and two different periods in the house’s life. The first one is associated in real life with Jonathan Rashleigh (1820-1905) and in the book, with Maximilian de Winter. The second one relates in real life to John Cosmo Stuart Rashleigh (1872-1961) and in the book, to Max de Winter. In the book, these states are presented as a memory and reality. The memory of what the house had been and the reality of what it had become. This trick creates an impression that the states of the house are related to the same owner and the same timeline of one year or so. But it is just an impression.

Part Two: A Glimpse Inside

Part Three: 'An Appalling Tragedy'

Part Four: 'Queer'

Part Five: 'The Cottage in the Woods'

Seraphima Bogomolova

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