Guest Post: Wicked Women and the Female Gothic, Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ & ‘My Cousin Rachel’

As the sun in the northern hemisphere gains strength, many of us seek the coast. Always geographically close, on this island as I am, the coast I seek is literary: Du Maurier’s sharp and unforgiving coastline, haunted by traumas past and present.

Though born in London in 1907, Du Maurier is intrinsically linked to the rugged Cornish coast in my mind. The deeply atmospheric settings of Rebecca and Jamaica Inn are ones, ironically, I visited stateside. Under the Californian city sun I lapped up her deeply British, female gothic. On a trip down to Carmel-by-the-Sea, followed by the sun, the setting came to life. The astounding Point Lobos State Natural Reserve (Carmel, CA, USA) became Hitchock’s Cornwall – the location for Hollywood’s onscreen adaptation of Rebecca in 1940.

This Bank Holiday Sunday, I will leave the coastlines alone. Beach-seeking holiday-makers and the traffic they conjure are horrors far less favourable. Instead, I will revisit Du Maurier’s heroines with the help of a guest.

© Generally Gothic

Currently in her final year, Abigail Cockles is studying English Literature at Sheffield. Her recent independent research focusses on Du Maurier and the gothic. She thought you may be interested in her findings; I tend to agree. And so, I shall step back and allow Abigail to present her argument in her own, italicised words…

Gothic literature, to me, is a focus on the atmospheric elements of writing. A darkness and mystery, that makes you fall into the story, permeates gothic narratives – even if at times it challenges your logic. The mix of themes within the gothic is one of the most interesting aspects to me. It combines much of what the human experience embodies – a simultaneous experience of death and romance – and creates an atmosphere that often makes you feel unsettled, uncomfortable, or claustrophobic. The main word that I use to describe the gothic is ‘uncanny’. This is the defining feature of the gothic novels I have read and enjoyed the most.

The gothic is a genre [Generally Gothic: Or is it a mode? ] that has given us some of the most interesting villains in literature, but also some of the most debated. Rebecca De Winter and Rachel Ashley, from Du Maurier’s female gothic novels Rebecca (1938) and My Cousin Rachel (1951) respectively, are one such debated pair; were they really villains at all? 

Both novels heavily feature an estate; the need to protect the gothic home becomes a shared defining narrative device with the respective ‘villains’ threatening to undermine them. The idea of possession and home is one that is seen throughout much of literature, particularly the gothic where grand estates are a common narrative feature. Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel explore a threat to the home – a threat that the women in these novels seem to encompass – and an inherent suspicion of their motives. While both novels can be (and have been) categorised within many different genres, there is no mistaking the intense gothic influences that permeate the narratives. 

© Generally Gothic

Rebecca (1938) is a novel focusing on the young, unnamed protagonist’s marriage to a wealthy older widow who owns the large Cornish estate: Manderley. However, their marriage is tainted by the lingering presence of his late wife, Rebecca. The protagonist feels inferior to Rebecca in terms of her husband’s affection and her own social capabilities. 

My Cousin Rachel (1951) has a male protagonist, Philip, who is reeling from the death of his uncle, Ambrose. He has convinced himself that his uncle’s new wife, Rachel, is the culprit. Philip is determined to discover the truth but once Rachel arrives at his late uncle’s estate, offering Ambrose’s assets to Philip as his heir, he is unable to resist her charms and becomes infatuated. 

Rachel Ashley is treated as though her actions are an intentional choice to gain her late husband’s fortune and Cornish estate. While some of her actions can be viewed as dubious, it is important to consider why there is this view; is it because she is female that her actions seem like manipulative scheming?

Rebecca De Winter, however, appeals to the supernatural aspect of the gothic. As the main antagonist, she exerts pressure on the living long after her death, particularly on the timid unnamed protagonist who is constantly conscious of Rebecca’s presence in the Manderley estate… and her need to fill the absence. 

“𝔗𝔥𝔢 𝔧𝔦𝔤-𝔰𝔞𝔴 𝔭𝔦𝔢𝔠𝔢𝔰 𝔠𝔞𝔪𝔢 𝔱𝔬𝔤𝔢𝔱𝔥𝔢𝔯 𝔭𝔦𝔢𝔠𝔢 𝔟𝔶 𝔭𝔦𝔢𝔠𝔢, 𝔱𝔥𝔢 𝔯𝔢𝔞𝔩 ℜ𝔢𝔟𝔢𝔠𝔠𝔞 𝔱𝔬𝔬𝔨 𝔰𝔥𝔞𝔭𝔢 𝔞𝔫𝔡 𝔣𝔬𝔯𝔪 𝔟𝔢𝔣𝔬𝔯𝔢 𝔪𝔢, 𝔰𝔱𝔢𝔭𝔭𝔦𝔫𝔤 𝔣𝔯𝔬𝔪 𝔥𝔢𝔯 𝔰𝔥𝔞𝔡𝔬𝔴 𝔴𝔬𝔯𝔩𝔡 𝔩𝔦𝔨𝔢 𝔞 𝔩𝔦𝔳𝔦𝔫𝔤 𝔣𝔦𝔤𝔲𝔯𝔢 𝔣𝔯𝔬𝔪 𝔞 𝔭𝔦𝔠𝔱𝔲𝔯𝔢 𝔣𝔯𝔞𝔪𝔢.”

Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier

The two novels focus heavily on these female villains while almost entirely avoiding character development: we never learn more than we need to about either of them. This contributes to the overarching themes in the novel of mystery and secrecy. The protagonists are constantly trying to navigate the mystery in the novels; and we as readers are attempting to do the same as we struggle to understand questions that are never answered.

© Generally Gothic

Both Rachel and Rebecca rely on the archetype of the femme fatale, and their sexuality is utilised as their main ‘weapon’ to manipulate and control those around them. Their sexuality is constantly alluded to as a character flaw, as expected for the assigned antagonists. However, this diminishes the part that other characters play in their development as villains; we only view these characters through a specific lens that has been curated for us. How then are we so convinced that the events in the novels are triggered by the supposed female antagonists? In our current context we have become much more accepting of overtly sexual behaviour and this alters the perception of the villains. Compared to a reader in the 1930-1950s, modern readers will find much less significance in the romantic trysts of characters.

The antagonists (Rachel and Rebecca) are also kept at a distance from the reader, while we are privy to the protagonists’ motives and thoughts, we are forbidden access to the antagonists. Therefore, we are offered no justification or explanation for their actions other that which is presented through the protagonists. This can be problematic when establishing why both novels antagonise the female characters whilst seemingly offering the male characters exemption for their dubious actions. That the women are sources of conflict in both novels is no accident. By subscribing to strict gender roles, Du Maurier is able to explore the emotional conflicts of jealousy and greed which her contemporary readers would automatically associate with women during the early portion of the 20th century.

“‘𝔗𝔥𝔢𝔯𝔢 𝔞𝔯𝔢 𝔰𝔬𝔪𝔢 𝔴𝔬𝔪𝔢𝔫, 𝔓𝔥𝔦𝔩𝔦𝔭’, 𝔥𝔢 𝔬𝔟𝔰𝔢𝔯𝔳𝔢𝔡, ‘𝔤𝔬𝔬𝔡 𝔴𝔬𝔪𝔢𝔫 𝔳𝔢𝔯𝔶 𝔭𝔬𝔰𝔰𝔦𝔟𝔩𝔶, 𝔴𝔥𝔬 𝔱𝔥𝔯𝔬𝔲𝔤𝔥 𝔫𝔬 𝔣𝔞𝔲𝔩𝔱 𝔬𝔣 𝔱𝔥𝔢𝔦𝔯 𝔬𝔴𝔫 𝔦𝔪𝔭𝔢𝔩 𝔡𝔦𝔰𝔞𝔰𝔱𝔢𝔯. 𝔚𝔥𝔞𝔱𝔢𝔳𝔢𝔯 𝔱𝔥𝔢𝔶 𝔱𝔬𝔲𝔠𝔥, 𝔰𝔬𝔪𝔢𝔥𝔬𝔴 𝔱𝔲𝔯𝔫𝔰 𝔱𝔬 𝔱𝔯𝔞𝔤𝔢𝔡𝔶. ℑ 𝔡𝔬𝔫’𝔱 𝔨𝔫𝔬𝔴 𝔴𝔥𝔶 ℑ 𝔰𝔞𝔶 𝔱𝔥𝔦𝔰 𝔱𝔬 𝔶𝔬𝔲 𝔟𝔲𝔱 ℑ 𝔣𝔢𝔢𝔩 ℑ 𝔪𝔲𝔰𝔱.'”

My Cousin Rachel, Daphne Du Maurier

When we consider the required characteristics of a villain (that they are evil, cunning, and create major disturbances within the plot), we are brought back to the same question: are Rebecca and Rachel really villains at all? If so, is it their own actions that are villainous or the impressions that the reader is offered by other characters? In my opinion, they are not true antagonists. They are simply creations of unequal perspectives; as is often stated, ‘everyone is the hero of their own story’. I realise that this can be debated, relying upon your individual reading of the novels. If you approach them as romances then you will likely view the two women as antagonists because of their disruptive effects on the narrators. However, when reading them as mysteries then the women cannot truly be viewed as the instigators of conflict, and therefore the portrayal of Rebecca and Rachel as villains is brought into question. 

How fitting that Abigail’s analysis of two novels each steeped in mystery should end in questions without unequivocal answers… What I – Generally Gothic at the helm again, without italicisation – am keen to know then, is what these two female characters are in a gothic reading of the novels. Are they gothic villains, femme fatales, or antagonists? What, really, is the difference between the three designations? Join the conversation below/over on Instagram; I am, as ever, excited to hear your opinions.


If you have enjoyed exploring the opinions of others, dive into past guest posts hosted here, :
Aesthetically Hoarded Guest Post: Witches of Western Art
Guest Post: ‘Geek Love’, An Intimate Portrait of a Nuclear Family
Decadence and Dark Ages’ Guest Post: Medieval Gothic

If you want more Du Maurier, pore over this:
That Very Special Gingerbread: ‘A Gothic Cookbook’ Recipe

If you want to see your words, ideas, and/or creations here, get in touch. Generally Gothic is open for submissions.

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