Unsung: the queer books that tell our story – the video

As part of this year’s LGBT History Month, Bob and Sigrid took part in a live webinar conversation on 24 February with Chris Creegan about how queer books tell our story. The conversation ran long over time with thought-provoking questions and comments from those who attended virtually – and their enthusiasm for the books, writers and publishers of the 1980s and 90s who made so much possible today. Thanks especially to writer and mental health campaigner Chris Creegan, Cleo Jones of Edinburgh City Libraries who introduced us, and Pretty Bright who produced our video on unsung queer writers and the webinar. If you missed the conversation or the video, now’s you chance to catch up.

Feel free to leave your comments below. We’d love to hear from you.

Unsung: The queer books that tell our story from Howard Elwyn-Jones on Vimeo.

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.

We want your books

Lavender Menace’s queer books archive is growing. We are cataloguing several recent donations, including one from LGBT Health and Wellbeing, and making some exciting finds.

Image: Stack of books in Babelplatz
Book sculpture in Babelplatz, Berlin, the square where the Nazis burnt books.

We’re always looking for out of print and hard-to-find queer books. As everyone who loves books knows, collections can outgrow the space available. If you’ve been thinking that some of yours need a new home, we’re here to help! We can collect donations from your door with all safeguards in place.

We want to keep queer books safe and make a record of them. This image of a sculpture in Berlin shows why. Babelplatz is the square where the Nazis came to celebrate their takeover in 1933 – by burning books. LGBT+ communities suffered terribly under the Nazi regime and afterwards. The Babelplatz sculpture reminds us to safeguard and treasure the books and other materials which trace  our history.

If your collection is manageable for now, you can still help us – by using our app, Libib, to make a digital record of your books, and share it with our queer books archive. Some of these books changed lives and we want to make sure they are all remembered.

You may be young, or older, but you could also think about leaving books in your will – many archives are built on this kind of generous bequest.

If you want to know more about donating books, or making a digital record of your collection, you can find out more at our How To Get Involved page.

The collection and the amount of work are growing, and if you are interested in helping us as a volunteer, we’d love to hear from you.

Rebecca by Daphine du Maurier

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
Gollancz, 1938; Virago (present publisher).

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s best known novel, has never been out of print in 82 years. It’s generated sequels, retellings, films, tv series, an internationally staged musical, fanfiction, and a system of codes used by a Nazi spy. Some are better than others – but they keep coming.

Only one character in the novel – the villain – is openly lesbian. But to those in the know, the novel was probably always part of queer culture.

Book cover: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (Penguin paperback edition) 1962
Penguin paperback edition, 1962

It’s a novel of two women who fight for a beautiful, ancient house. The male character, Maxim, wears the trappings of a gothic hero. But the story is about the power of Manderley and the war between the female characters: the 21 year old second wife and the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who claims the house for the dead first wife, Rebecca.

The story works on many levels and there is something in it for everyone. But gradually the queer content has emerged and, if anything, increased the novel’s appeal.

After du Maurier’s death in 1989, biographies revealed her bisexuality. She saw her creative side as ‘the boy in the box’. He escaped in fantasy and sometimes, in reality. Married with children, she quietly had affairs with women.

Meanwhile, the book, once viewed as a superficial gothic romance, is now seen as a classic – a brilliantly plotted mystery whose characters, like Rebecca herself, have survived – and deepened – long after their time.

This is a summary of a much longer blog which is a queer insight du Maurier and Rebecca. One more book in the Lavender Menace Queer Books Archive.

Mortimer’s Deep

Mortimer’s Deep by Simon Taylor
Balnain Books, 1992.

Book cover: Mortimer's Deep

A house of men on an island at the end of the world…

Mortimer’s Deep is a dangerous stretch of water in Fife. It lies between the village of Aberdour and the medieval monastery of Inchcolm on a stark, rocky island. Storms blow up quickly and, even on what starts as a calm day, lives can be lost.

The characters in Simon Taylor’s medieval novel survive the crossing, but they lose their old lives.

How did gay men live in the Middle Ages? Kings and nobles had male lovers or victimised their servants. In monasteries, same-sex relations were probably as common as they are in all-male settings today. There was severe punishment, but also close friendship and loyalty. For some, like Simon Taylor’s characters, the monastery was a home they could not find anywhere else.

Brother Michael flees to Inchcolm to escape his abusive master, Sir William de Mortimer. Michael’s good looks, he tells us, are his curse. His honesty and conscience bring him almost as much trouble.

Brother Simon has a brilliant career in the church in Rome. He is clever, strikingly handsome and ruthless, but his rise to power ends in disaster. In exile on Inchcolm, he is still scheming and involves Michael, his lover, in his web. Royal intrigues, false visions and mysterious deaths unfold – and Michael realises that someone must stop Simon. But it may mean the sacrifice of Michael’s hard-won peace on Inchcolm – or even his life.

The nineties were the age of ‘crossover’ novels and Mortimer’s Deep, a mystery one reviewer called ‘taut as a coiled spring’, is also a gothic novel – centred on the dark island and the monastery, still visible from the Fife coast today. It also has elements of horror and, most of all, a vision of queer history, woven from many sources by Simon Taylor – a medieval scholar and a native of Aberdour.

This is a summary of a longer blog which is in preparation and will appear here soon.

Create your own queer LGBT+ digital books library

You’ve got your own collection of queer LGBT+ books at home, right? We are encouraging you to create your own queer LGBT+ digital books library and then share it with us. Our long term aim is to create a digital archive of queer LGBT+ out of print and hard to find books which will be interactive and accessible on our website.

Here are a few simple steps to set you on your way.

Logo: Libib graphic square
  • Sign up at libib.com
  • Download the Libib app onto your phone or tablet or use the web version on your desktop
  • Start by naming your own digital books library
  • Add all your queer LGBT+ titles using either your phone to scan their barcodes or enter the details yourself
  • Include a description and tag them, eg, queer fiction, lesbian history, trans politics.

Have a look at our Libib page on our website for more detail and for a simple presentation you can download to keep.