Du Maurier’s Rebecca and Queer Culture

Why has Rebecca always had a reputation as a queer novel?

Generations of gay men have declaimed the first line, spoken by Joan Fontaine in the 1940 film: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’. But for most of its 82 years in print, critics dismissed it as an ordinary gothic romance.

Image: Poster advertising the 1940 film Rebecca
Film poster dated 1939 promoting Rebecca the film which was released in 1940.

It has a mysterious mansion, an innocent heroine, an enigmatic hero, a beautiful dead first wife, a sinister housekeeper, and a faithful dog. The heroine is haunted by the first wife and nearly kills herself. But she and the hero end up together.

Still, there was something more going on.

I know when I decided that Rebecca was a queer novel. It was in 1977, when I heard Antonia Fraser (biographer of Mary Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell) and writer Daphne du Maurier go head to head about Rebecca on Radio 3. I remember the programme because I had just come to the UK and discovered Radio 3, and found it fascinating.

Fraser took part in the programme because she found Rebecca fascinating. She had named her eldest daughter for the beautiful and compelling title character. She had become so involved with the story that she decided to rewrite it from Rebecca’s point of view.

In the original story, Rebecca, mistress of Manderley, dies one night in a sailing accident. Everyone (it seems) mourns the loss of such a graceful, spirited, kindly person. Maxim, her widower, marries a naïve young woman, a heroine whose name we are never told. One of life’s lurkers, shy and undistinguished, she wonders endlessly about Rebecca.

Halfway through the action, Maxim reveals that Rebecca’s good qualities were a sham. In reality she was a manipulator and a liar. She enjoyed acting the part of the lady of Manderley while pursuing a hedonistic life in London. She was incapable of love, he insists: ‘she was not even normal’. When she threatened him in her cottage on the beach, he killed her and sank her boat to make it look like an accident.

Fraser wanted to believe that Rebecca was ‘really’ kind and lovely, and that Maxim was the liar. She was reading the novel as young people and fans sometimes do: as a participant, not a spectator.

Du Maurier listened politely to Fraser’s rewritten version of her story. Then she said that, yes, she had to wonder if she had gotten Rebecca completely wrong. But she felt that meddling in other writers’ work could lead in strange directions. As it so happened, she had been doing research into the life of Charles the First, and discovered a manuscript describing his affair with Oliver Cromwell. She said she had no plans to publish this startling revelation, but hoped Fraser would take it as a friendly warning.

Many people must have listened to this talk, and some of them may have wondered about it afterwards. Du Maurier had warned Fraser off elegantly and made her look a bit naïve. (Fraser didn’t seem offended. Her alternative Rebecca story and du Maurier’s riposte were later republished together.) But why had du Maurier used such a daring fantasy to make her point – a fantasy which was a bit beyond the pale? In the 1970s, talking about queer kings at all was pushing the boundaries.

I wondered if there was a covert message in du Maurier’s talk and remembered the line about Rebecca as a woman who could not love; ‘she was not evennormal.’ Not even normal? Were her lovers not normal, or was her attraction to them not normal – because some of them were women?

Maxim also says that Rebecca told him terrible things about herself, things he would never repeat to anyone. What could they have been? Rebecca probably had not told him she was the leader of a Satanic cult or a serial murderer. The phrase was much more likely to mean that she boasted of her sordid affairs with both sexes and that he realised she was one of those ‘reptile women’ who could not feel love, only unnatural lust.

Book cover: Rebecca First Edition 1938 Gollancz
Book cover of the first edition of Rebecca published by Gollancz in 1938

The idea that a book as famous as Rebecca, which had been in print for 39 years at that point, could be ‘a gay novel’ was tremendously exciting. Just four years earlier, Vita Sackville-West’s autobiography had been published. It revealed that Orlando was Virginia Woolf’s love letter to Vita. Little by little, queer dimensions in writing were emerging. (These days, we even hear that Charles the First may have been attracted to his father’s lover, the Duke of Buckingham.)

Du Maurier herself insisted that Rebecca was not a romance. She called it ‘a study in jealousy’. The most overtly jealous character is the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. She is ‘devoted’ to Rebecca, who called her ‘Danny’. She tells anyone who will listen about Rebecca’s courage, distinction, riding skills, taste in clothes. In one of the novel’s most famous scenes, brilliantly translated to the screen in Hitchcock’s film, she shows the heroine Rebecca’s evening clothes, her nightdress and her bed, encouraging her to touch the satin and put her face against the furs. She is a camp figure, exaggeratedly grim and stark, but for most readers, just a sinister sideline in a story of jealousy in marriage.

But after du Maurier died in 1989, her biographers were able to be truthful about her life. It emerged that she was bisexual and had fallen in love with her publisher’s elegant wife, Ellen Doubleday. She had also had an affair with the actress Gertrude Lawrence (though Lawrence’s family deny the idea to this day).

In letters, du Maurier compared Doubleday to Rebecca, seemingly embracing her vision of Rebecca’s beauty and charisma and discarding the dark side. Perhaps du Maurier herself, through her passion for Doubleday, had come to see Rebecca differently.

Du Maurier’s death left other writers free to ignore the warning she gave to Fraser. (In modern publishing, with its publisher-commissioned prequels and sequels, being involved with other writers’ works is not just a temptation, it’s good business.) Sally Beauman, journalist and critic, published Rebecca’s Tale in 2001. It portrays Rebecca as adventurous, romantic, ruthless – and, marginally, bisexual. Meanwhile, one of the characters, her brother, turns out to be gay.

The character of Mrs Danvers – rarely explored in writing – has grown and changed in film and on the stage. Portrayed by powerful actresses such as Judith Anderson, Diana Rigg and Anna Massey, she is no longer the grotesque figure in the novel. In Rebecca, Das Musical, Susan Rigava-Dumas portrays her as darkly beautiful and vital, almost an avatar of Rebecca herself.

This comes closest, perhaps, to a queer reading of du Maurier’s novel. Mrs Danvers, who loved Rebecca, becomes her voice in the world of the living and holds onto her claim to Manderley. But all the major characters, not just Rebecca or Mrs Danvers, could be described as misfits in the world of patriarchy. They are people who don’t belong, sexually and in other ways. It is a novel about three women fighting over a house (and over a man because he brings them a place in that house). Manderley is more than just a mansion – it is the characters’ only chance at a life or a home.

Our views of Rebecca will keep unfolding as queer culture becomes more insightful, as boundaries are rethought, challenged and broken down.

Rebecca has been in print ever since it was published in 1938. Lavender Menace Queer Books Archive has a copy of the Virago edition.

Murder in the Collective

Murder in the Collective by Barbara Wilson
Women’s Press, 1984
ISBN 0704339439

‘Safe spaces’ in 1984 were thin on the ground

‘Safe spaces’ for queer  people were rarely heard of in 1984. This mystery by a lesbian writer explores the idea of ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’. In a liberal, wealthy city, challenging the system isn’t supposed to lead to murder. But when Pam’s radical print shop collective proposes to merge with a lesbian typesetter, she is horrified to find the shop’s machinery smashed and one of her co-workers shot dead.

Cover: Murder in the Collective

Quiet, methodical Pam teams up with impulsive Hadley from the lesbian collective in order to solve the mystery. At first, they are less than serious, but then they become lovers as well as fellow-sleuths. As Pam tries to come to terms with a complete change in her life, the situation spins out of control – and the police, saboteurs and foreign rebel movements are involved. Pam and Hadley are no longer sure if they can trust anyone – including each other. 

Mysteries are one of the most popular types of lesbian books today, but few deal with the world of queer books and presses. Lesbian writer Barbara Wilson, now known as Barbara Sjoholm, founded Seal Press in the US, lived in London in the 1980s, and came to Lavender Menace to read from Murder in the Collective.

This is a taster of a longer appreciation of Wilson’s first crime novel, which will be published as a longer blog soon.

Maybe the Moon

Maybe the Moon
Bantam Press 1993, a division of Transworld Publishers Ltd
ISBN 0593 027655

The Lavender Menace LGBT+ Archive has been growing for about a year now. One of our books was rescued from a remainder shop – Maybe the Moon by Armistead Maupin, a hardback novel published in 1993. On the front is a ‘friendly label’ showing a catastrophic drop in the price.

Why did the publisher, Transworld, expend so much effort to create a beautiful design? At the time the bookshop opened, few commercial publishers would go anywhere near a lesbian or gay book. We may never know what inspired Transworld’s change of heart. But Maupin’s novel lies at a crossroads in the history of queer books – and of our bookshop itself.

By the 1990s the Tales of the City novels were popular. They had even spawned a tv series (though the negotiations around the queer content led to years of delay.) But, meanwhile, Maupin had moved on to something very different. He was writing and publishing Maybe the Moon.  

Tales of the City tells stories of colourful, bohemian San Francisco. They are comic and light-hearted though often serious as well (focussing, for instance, on the HIV epidemic.)   Maybe the Moon comes from a very different place – and not just because it’s set in Hollywood.

David Benson with Armistead Maupin, West & Wilde Bookshop 1990

Maupin’s reading for Maybe the Moon filled West & Wilde’s large shop. Tales of the City fans listened as Maupin explained that this was a different novel, not part of the San Francisco series, based on the life and writings of his friend Tamara De Treaux, who had died recently at age 30.

De Treaux was a Hollywood actor who had played the title role in one of the most famous films of all time, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. But she remained unknown. She played the legendary alien in a rubber suit and was never credited. She was 31 inches tall.

‘She was invisible,’ Maupin told San Francisco Focus magazine in 1992. ‘It occurred to me that there was a very strong parallel between her and lesbian and gay actors who are required to stay invisible, to remain in the closet.’  De Treaux refused to obey the rules and gave interviews about her role to magazines and newspapers, drawing Spielberg’s anger – and Maupin’s respect.

‘She was the inspiration for my character Cady,’ he said. He insisted that Cady was an amalgam of De Treaux’ experience and his own. He believed, he said, in empathy as the basis of storytelling (and living).

Photo: Armistead Maupin and the Menaces at a reading of Logical Family, 2017
Armistead Maupin and the Menaces at a reading of Logical Family, 2017

Now, almost 30 years later, Maybe the Moon is out of print. The lesbian and gay community (as it was known then) has changed dramatically. But how does the novel read today?

Maupin’s portrait of Cady’s life – seen through her notebooks – is stark. There is gentle humour, as in Tales of the City, but some of it is darker. We learn how Cady copes with people’s ignorance, with constant hostile stares – with living in a ‘normal’ world which is, to her, a set for a film about giants.  She lives by her feisty wit, but often has to bite her tongue because there is so much about her life that people simply cannot understand.

And then there’s sex.

To most people, Cady is a sexless freak  – but she is strongly heterosexual and frank about it. ‘If sex with a little person was kinky by definition,’ she explains, ‘I had no choice but to embrace kink and be damned grateful for its existence.’

 ‘It was a question of perception,’ she adds, ‘and taking control of my own destiny.’

Eventually, she falls in love with Neil, a black piano player. He is a loyal friend – and then he and Cady become lovers. Their relationship is affectionate, sexual, and full of humour – even though it is not easy or without cost. One of the best parts of the book is their shy but joyous first night together on Catalina Island.

Meanwhile, Cady’s friends are outsiders like herself: Renee, warm-hearted, generous and somewhat dim, getting older, still single, and very talented at finding the wrong men;  Jeff, gay waiter and writer – who is determined never to be closeted, but, like Cady, finds that honesty comes at a price. He helps her in a plot to defy her producer’s orders and appear at a lavish movie event, not as a character in a rubber suit, but as herself.

In his interview for San Francisco Focus, Maupin detailed his own struggles with Hollywood. One producer wanted to make a version of Tales of the City without queer characters. A screenwriter suggested that one of Maupin’s gay characters should become a serial killer.

Another version of the hardback
cover published in the UK in 1993

The UK publisher of Maybe the Moon took a different, positive view. The initial print run of the book was 60,000. At least two versions of the silver-and-lavender cover of our copy were produced, as well as another, different, American cover. Someone thought it was a novel which would be bought and remembered.

It marked a time the lesbian and gay community was becoming the LGBT+ community, making a place to stand and facing outward.  Like Cady, we were taking control of our destiny.  Maybe the Moon has no lesbian, trans or non-binary characters, but Maupin’s view looks forward to the queer writing of today. It shows the moment we changed our vision: Cadence Roth, sexual outlaw, is straight, but she is also queer.

Footnote: Gay writer Paul Magrs blogged about Maybe the Moon in 2012 at http://lifeonmagrs.blogspot.com/2012/05/maybe-moon-by-armistead-maupin.html. You can see the American cover of Maybe the Moon as part of our banner photo at the top of our website. A new series of Tales of the City was launched on Netflix in 2019, with the same queer characters as the original series and  no gay serial killers.

Please leave a comment about this review and your own thoughts if you’ve read the book yourself.

Welcome to our new Lavender Menace Queer and LGBT+ Books Archive blog

When we opened in 1982, one person asked shyly, ‘Are there were really enough lesbian and gay books to fill an entire shop?’.

Today, there are enough queer books (as we would call them now) to fill an enormous library. Small presses such as Onlywomen, Gay Men’s Press, and Brilliance Books opened the door. Larger publishers followed and created such classic bestsellers as Rubyfruit Jungle and A Boy’s Own Story.

Interior of McDonald Road Library showing book display including What Belongs to You
Interior of McDonald Road Library Edinburgh, featuring book display including What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

Forty years on the queer library has so many floors, attics, cellars, corners, and balconies, that some of them are hard to find. The rise of the internet and changing fashions in publishing have meant that the original presses have closed – of all of them, only Virago Press still exists. Many of their books are now out of print and unknown.

But at the same time there are new queer writers and new shops and publishers. After 20 years which saw independent bookshops in decline, two queer booksellers have set up business in the UK since 2018 – Category IS Bookshop in Glasgow and Portal Bookshop in York. We don’t seem to have to worry about having enough books or readers.

This blog will wander through the queer library, climb the ladders to some of the inaccessible shelves, try the keys to rooms which aren’t usually visited, and help visitors make their own maps. We’ll call on guest bloggers to take us where we haven’t been before. We want to use our knowledge of the start of queer bookselling to connect the older books and writers with the new ones – it’s all one story.

We’ve already started blogging about the books in our growing archive – found in our own and friends’ collections and secondhand shops.  And we invite you to comment – tell us about your part of the queer library and take part in readers’ conversations which wouldn’t have been possible when we opened the shop in the 1980s.