By William Shelton • November 25, 2020
Many readers are devoted to Daphne Du Maurier's 1938 novel Rebecca without having even a hint of the compulsive need of the author to solve a mystery greater than any contained in her fiction. That mystery began for the author many years before the novel was published when she and her husband were spending a holiday near Fowey, on the Cornish coast. Ms. Du Maurier kept getting hints of a house buried in the woods; would pass the monumental gate posts that stood before an overgrown wilderness; on sea excursions would sail past a shingle beach cove only to have fellow passengers whisper, "That's Menabilly, but you can't go there…"
Patiently probing her neighbors she learned that the Menabilly estate dated to the time of Queen Elizabeth, and that the gardens had once been famous. Dissatisfied with the cottage that she and her family had purchased in the district, Ms. Du Maurier began to weave a fantasy about a derelict mansion, so wracked by scandal and intrigue that the owners had fled, and neighbors shunned the property. Like a magpie she gathered details: the drive was three miles long, and lined with monstrous rhododendrons so overgrown that they impeded all but the most persistent traveler; no boat would dock in the shingle cove of Menabilly lest the boat be broken up by the swift current and the rocks; the house had been empty so long that by now the very stones would have been crushed between the cords of vines scaling the walls.
The mystery became a fevered obsession, and as Du Maurier frequently retold the story: "At last I did something I have done only once before, I got up at 5:00 am." She rose so early so that she could discover Menabilly, to learn if the house in reality lived up to the dreams of it she had created. She decided that trekking through the woods from the coast would be the safest approach, and the least likely to be discovered. Many times she had to crawl through the brackish muck, over fallen trees, at last cleared the "slaughterous red" gigantic rhododendrons and stood on the lawn of Menabilly. The descriptions of Manderley contained within Rebecca are her recollections of her first sight of the house: "a jewel in the hollow of a hand", "secret, silent", with "perfect symmetry."
What she could never learn over the fifteen years that she and her family would return to Cornwall for the summer was why the house had been abandoned. The owners lived in Devon, never visited, nor would they allow the house to be opened. They seemed content to allow nature to reclaim the whole estate. This only fueled Du Maurier's imagination. There had to be a reason, a secret so great, a tragedy, a "crash" as she called it later, that justified leaving so beautiful a house to ruin. If there was no story, the she would craft one.
Growing bolder in her trespasses, time and again she would sneak through the woods, always alone, always with a backward glance over her shoulder lest the ghost of some former resident be watching from the woods, or from one of the many paned windows. Rebecca was born during these excursions. She at first titled the work after the nickname she had given the place itself "The House of Secrets".
It was in 1943, during the height of war ravaged London that she and her family again fled to Cornwall for safety. Then she discovered that Menabilly was almost gone. Windows broken, doors collapsed, open to all manner of elements, the house was dying, and she was furious. She telephoned her lawyer in London and instructed him to track down the owner. Time passed, and at last she learned that the owner would not sell, but would lease the place to her for an indeterminate number of years, but warned her that given its state she would only be able to "camp" in the structure. So began a multi-year restoration of Menabilly.
The house today remains in the original family, is again "private", and the estate is not open to visitors. Like Daphne Du Maurier, I too have been a "paying guest" at the estates of Devon, and have passed the lodge gates of Menabilly. No hint of the house is visible from the road, nor the beach, and perhaps it is that secretiveness that attracts people to her. A whisper of beauty concealed by woods, a hint of a famous occupant, and our minds begin to create a story to match the mystery.
Daphne Du Maurier, in her book The Rebecca Notebook, and Other Memories, wrote extensively of how Menabilly influenced her descriptions of Manderley, and included original chapter notes of how the story developed. For those who love Rebecca, it is worth the time to discover how the novel evolved, and the mystery that inspired it.