For the first day of my du Maurier December project, what could be better than kicking off with musings about Daphne du Maurier’s most famous and much-loved novel worldwide, Rebecca? The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories – du Maurier’s final work – was first published in 1981, and was reissued by Virago in 2005. According to its blurb, The Rebecca Notebook provides ‘an unparalleled insight into the mastery of a writer’s craft and the inner vision that made du Maurier a household name’.
Whilst The Rebecca Notebook is interesting enough to read on its own, it goes without saying that it is best as a companion volume to Rebecca. Much of the ‘Rebecca Notebook’ section describes how du Maurier came to write her famous Gothic novel, ‘tracing its origins, developments and the directions it might have taken’. After this, a collection of essays, all written about a wealth of rather different subjects, can be found. Aside from the original musings about Rebecca, which was first published in 1938, much of the material within The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories was penned towards the end of du Maurier’s writing career.
The preface to the Virago edition is written by Alison Light. Throughout, she talks of du Maurier’s discovery of her beloved Menabilly, the house which inspired Manderley in Rebecca, and discusses the way in which: ‘Fans of du Maurier’s fiction know that in her world disenchantment is the price we pay for the magic: “it is the very insecurity of the love which makes the passion strong”‘. Light also tells us that ‘this volume of short pieces about her family, her life and beliefs, is prompted, like so many of her stories, by the desire to reanimate the past’. Du Maurier’s own introduction to her notebooks is eloquent and informative.
Du Maurier began to conceive her ideas for Rebecca whilst living in Alexandria, where her husband was stationed. In The Rebecca Notebook and The Rebecca Epilogue, it is possible to see the original chapter outlines for the novel, and the edits which were made from notebook to novel are fascinating to compare. It is incredibly interesting to see what du Maurier altered or removed altogether, for whatever reason.
The Rebecca Notebook is quite a slim volume, running as it does to just 180 pages. Despite this, it is crammed to the brim with fascinating ideas and musings upon many subjects. The extra material which has been included is comprised of eleven essays and three poems, each of which has been carefully crafted and thoughtfully written. The themes of du Maurier’s essays range from her cousins, the Llewellyn-Davies boys, upon whom the young Darlings in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan were based, to moving away from Menabilly and speaking of her widowhood. She talks of mythology, Shakespeare, the use of tragedic devices in novels, the concept of heredity, religion and grief.
Of her essays, she writes: ‘The pieces in the present section have nothing to do with my imagination, but with the conscious self, the person who is Me. This may sound, and probably is, conceited, but I make no apology for it; they were written at different times throughout my life because I felt strongly about the various subjects, and so was impelled to put my thoughts on paper’. The essays are relatively short, but they are perfectly formed, and can be dipped in and out of. When writing, du Maurier never wastes her words, and as she does not repeat herself at all, each sentence she crafts feels both fresh and original.
It goes without saying that the writing here is beautiful, particularly when it comes to du Maurier’s descriptions. In ‘The House of Secrets’, which was written in 1946, she writes the following regarding her discovery of Menabilly: ‘It was an afternoon in late autumn, the first time I tried to find the house. October, November, the month escapes me. But in the West Country autumn can make herself a witch, and place a spell upon the walker. The trees were golden brown, the hydrangeas had massive heads still blue and untouched by flecks of wistful grey, and I would set forth at three of an afternoon with foolish notions of August still in my head’. She is rather amusing at times too, and her wit shines through, particularly in the essay entitled ‘Sunday’ (1978): ‘[Sunday is a] day for privacy, except for neighbouring cattle and sheep, with which I am on excellent terms, speaking to them in their own language. (I baa better than I moo, nevertheless they appear to understand the drift of my conversation; even Romany of Till, the bull, acknowledges my presence with a courteous inclination of his horns)’.
Du Maurier’s poetry, too, is lovely. The following extract is taken from ‘The Writer’ (1926):
“Mine is the silence
And the quiet gloom
of a clock ticking
In an empty room,
The scratch of a pen,
Ink-pot and paper,
And the patter of the rain.
Nothing but this as long as I am able,
Firelight – and a chair, and a table.”
The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories is a great accompaniment to Rebecca, and is sure to delight anyone who has so enjoyed the titular novel. The whole has been so well put together, and as well as examining the craft of writing, it gives a real insight as to what du Maurier was like as an individual when viewed away from her craft. She is both candid and modest throughout and, one cannot help but think, would have been quite a joy to know.