Last night, I dreamt I went to Cornwall again: Porthchapel beach, to be exact. The cool night air drifts in from the sea, people are leaving the beach, and the sun is beginning to set. I am in my usual spot: on the rocks, teetering over the tide, but safe from the eyes of other beachgoers. A perilous scramble down piles of rocks is the only entrance onto this beach, unless someone attempted to abseil down the cliff edges. Pure isolation, but benign. Surrounded by a similar setting, with the soundtrack of the comforting waves, it is no surprise that Daphne du Maurier was inspired to write an all-time classic: Rebecca.
Rebecca is difficult to categorise as a novel. It starts as a romance, then becomes a Gothic ghost story, then that plot twist happens and throws the reader completely out of their depth (or at least it did for this reader!). Du Maurier wrote Rebecca out of homesickness for Cornwall, which she moved to when she was aged 22. Cornwall offered her an escape from stressful and busy life of London and the pressure of having a famous family. Her description of Manderley, the house in which the unnamed protagonist and her husband, Maxim de Winter, live, is strikingly similar to du Maurier’s much sought-after home of Menabilly.
Nostalgia is a key element in the novel, which became apparent for me as my stay in Cornwall was coming to an end. I had spent six weeks there, living by the sea and working at the local pub in Porthcurno. I had felt that there was something intangible about Cornwall which made it differ from the way of life I have in the North, but I always attributed it to the landscapes and the beaches. Rebecca made me realise that it was escapism. Much like Manderley House, Cornish villages are separate from the rest of the world, detached from the hectic modern lifestyle. Similar to the unnamed protagonist, my experience of Cornwall began with awe, being whisked away in the wonder and initial ease of staying there. Du Maurier captures these feelings expertly in her writing, offering the reader a self-awareness and appreciation of their time in Cornwall, no matter how brief.
However, du Maurier’s novel cannot sustain the romantic vision of Manderley, Maxim, and, therefore, Cornwall, for more than around the first hundred pages. The more I read of the book, the more the idyllic image of the setting shattered. It is all too easy to get lost in the wonder of the environment in the South-West, but the latter stages of Rebecca encourage exploration into stranger aspects. Like the protagonist, I was captivated by the blissful setting, but du Maurier reminds the reader that even the dearest places in your heart can hold many secrets. Cornwall has a rich history of smugglers, supernatural happenings and ancient monuments, which Rebecca encourages any reader to look into.
Rebecca is primarily a memory vault for me. Re-reading du Maurier’s novel takes me back to the enclosed Porthchapel beach I grew to know so well. And yet, I cannot think of it without also thinking of the sunken boat in Rebecca, which I shall not go into to avoid spoilers, but is a part which I read whilst on the beach and forever associate with that spot. This takes me onto my main feelings about Cornwall and Rebecca now: the book and the setting are co-dependent. After reading it, my mind cannot separate the two. If you would like to read Rebecca, the perfect place for it is in Cornwall. Not only does it shape the way you see the place and the book, but also it shapes the way you remember them both, as wonderful but mysterious entities.
Cover image: Freddie Hull