Menabilly, My Love… Part Six: ‘A Sort of Boy’

Seraphima Bogomolova
Books and writing
Published in
17 min readMar 3, 2024


The nameless narrator telling the story of ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier has always been the focus of many a reader attention. The readers used to write to Daphne du Maurier asking who or what served as an inspiration for the narrator and why the narrator does not have a name:

‘I continue to receive letters from all over the world asking me what I based my story on, and the characters, and why did I never give the heroine a Christian name?’ (‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier)

In the same notes, Daphne du Maurier seemingly answers the question by saying:

‘The answer to the last question is simple: I could not think of one, and it became a challenge in technique. The easier because I was writing in the first person.’ (‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier)

I could not think of one…’ although true sounds somewhat strange. That is only if to believe that Daphne du Maurier was talking about one narrator. Also, her answer sounds somewhat lame considering that she was a professional and experienced author — ‘Rebecca’ was not her first book. Prior, Daphne du Maurier had published ‘The Loving Spirit’ (1931), ‘I’ll Never Be Young Again’ (1932), ‘The Progress of Julius’ (1933) (later re-published as Julius), and ‘Jamaica Inn’ (1936). Besides, it seems that Daphne du Maurier was able to come up with the names for other main characters of her book. Why not for the narrator?

Partially, the explanation lies in her saying that her not coming up with the name for the narrator ‘became a challenge in technique.’

Writing from the first person’s perspective, if it is a singular perspective of one narrator, should not be much of a challenge. This is true if the narrator stays the same throughout the whole book, which seems to be not quite the case with the ‘Rebecca’. For, in the book, contrary to common mistaken belief, there are more than one narrating voice. Those voices cannot be clearly identified as they neither individually nor collectively had been assigned any name(s). The technique employed can also be described as shifting narrating, albeit nameless as in the course of the story it seamlessly shifts from one person to another.

Although writing in the first person had given Daphne du Maurier certain freedom in her storytelling it also became ‘a challenge in technique.’ The challenge mainly stemming from the narrators being of different genders — male and female, — and of different generations. Despite of this, it was still easier than writing in the third person, as then each narrator’s gender would have to be revealed. Hence, Daphne du Maurier’s phrase: ‘The easier because I was writing in the first person.’

But why to go to such a trouble? The answer is simple — to be discrete, not name the names, and point fingers at anyone. For, the ‘Rebecca’ contains secrets and stories of a real-life family, — the Rashleighs, and their home — Menabilly. The beloved by Daphne du Maurier ‘house of secrets.’ (‘Rebecca Notebook’, Daphne du Maurier)

The chosen manner of sharing the secrets of Menabilly served to protect the privacy of one of the participants of the real-life events who was still alive. This participant was the owner of Menabilly, John Cosmo Stuart Rashleigh (1872–1961), who, in 1943, granted Daphne du Maurier the permission to rent his family’s home.

Although Daphne du Maurier did not name the names, she, nonetheless, placed enough clues and references to piece together the stories that her nameless narrators tell. One of her nameless narrators is a teenager, a public-school boy. His voice represents John Cosmo Stuart Rashleigh (1872–1961), the son of Mary Frances Labouchere (1848–1874), who was married to Jonathan Rashleigh, jun., (1845–1872), the heir to the Menabilly estate.

It is his bits of narrating that have misled those who study the literature works of Daphne du Maurier into speculating on the theme of the author being a lesbian or having a wish to be a boy instead of a girl. But, however intriguing, this speculation is not true.

Although John Cosmo Stuart Rashleigh was only indirectly involved with the mystery, his life nonetheless had been directly affected by the consequences of the deeds of the other participants of the events described in the ‘Rebecca’. By acting out his part of the story in the first person narrating Daphne du Maurier offers the reader an opportunity to ‘get into his shoes’, and see and experience his perspective of the story.

The skill of stepping into one’s shoes in order to transform into different characters while acting out their stories had been picked up by Daphne du Maurier from her childhood environment. After all, she was a daughter of an actor, Gerald du Maurier. ‘In ‘Myself When Young’ du Maurier describes her love for her father; how they enjoyed games and the outdoors and how they both loved acting.’ (‘Myself When Other: Daphne du Maurier and the Double Dialogue with ‘D’.’ by Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik)

‘I saw D. like to dress up and pretend to be someone else; I began to do it myself…’ […] ‘acting, after all, was in my blood.’ (Myself When Young’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Dressing up as a teenager boy and acting out his story not only allowed Daphne du Maurier to share his perspective with the reader but also gave her a chance to relay her own feelings and experiences. She, as her fictional character as well as his real-life counterpart, John Cosmo Stuart Rashleigh, was involuntary discovering dark secrets of Menabilly.

In the book, the narrating voice of this ‘timid fellow’ can be detected as early as in the second chapter of ‘Rebecca’:

A multitude of weeds, a colony of birds. Sometimes perhaps a tramp will wander there, seeking shelter from a sudden shower of rain and, if he is stout-hearted, he may walk there with impunity. But your timid fellow, your nervous poacher — the woods of Manderley are not for him. He might stumble upon the little cottage in the cove and he would not be happy beneath its tumbled roof, the thin rain beating a tattoo. There might linger still a certain atmosphere of stress.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Introduced in the second chapter, the ‘timid fellow’ then reappears in further chapters, specifically in the scenes connected to the major turning points of the story. These turning points are the discovery of the half cottage half boathouse, the inquisitive conversation with Frank Crawley, the visit to the west wing, the Fancy Dress ball and dressing up as Caroline de Winter, the confession of Maximilian de Winter, the blackmailing scene and the subsequent investigation in the library, and the driving to and from London.

All of the above scenes are the mile stones in the ‘timid fellow’s’ quest of discovering the truth about his parents, the real-life counterparts of whom are Jonathan Rashleigh, jun., (1845–1872) and his wife, Mary Frances Labouchere (1848–1874).

In the book, both of the parents are represented by the same personage — Rebecca, — who has a ‘he’ and a ‘she’ personalities. In order to highlight each of the two personalities Daphne du Maurier ‘cross-dresses’ her character. The ‘cross-dressing’ of Rebecca results in certain confusion of genders when ‘she’ becomes ‘he’ and wise versa. The trick had been borrowed by Daphne du Maurier from William Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’ (1601). A nod to the English Renaissance theatre playwright as well as to his play is expressed by the narrator’s ‘pencil drawing’ which very much resembles one of the portraits of William Shakespeare:

‘When he had gone I put the note away in my pocket, and turned once more to my pencil drawing, but for no known reason it did not please me any more; the face was stiff and lifeless, and the lace collar and the beard were like props in a charade.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Because of its dual role the character of Rebecca appears ambiguous and contradicting, combining many features and qualities that would be difficult to find in one person. Hence the remark of the narrator: ‘‘She seems to have been so good at everything too,’ I said, my voice just careless enough to show I did not mind, while I played with the fringe of my glove. ‘It’s not often you get someone who is clever and beautiful and fond of sport.’ ‘No, I suppose you don’t,’ said the bishop’s wife.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

In the text, the parts that belong to the narrating voice of the ‘timid fellow’ can be distinguished by their inquisitive and blunt nature. Especially, this applies to the topics associated with the death of the he-Rebecca, the supposed father of the ‘timid fellow’, and disappearance of the she-Rebecca, the ‘timid fellow’s’ mother:

‘‘Why is the buoy there in the little harbour place?’ I said.

‘The boat used to be moored there,’ he said.

‘What boat?’ I asked.

‘Her boat,’ he said.

A strange sort of excitement was upon me. I had to go on with my questions. He did not want to talk about it. I knew that, but although I was sorry for him and shocked at my own self I had to continue, I could not be silent.

‘What happened to it?’ I said. ‘Was that the boat she was sailing when she was drowned?’

‘Yes,’ he said quietly, it capsized and sank. She was washed overboard.’

‘What sort of size boat was it? ‘ I asked.

‘About three tons. It had a little cabin.’

‘What made it capsize?’ I said.

‘It can be very squally in the bay,’ he said.

(‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

As a narrator the ‘timid fellow’ also stands out because he is referred to as a ‘child’. Mostly, by Maximilian de Winter, — ‘My good child’ — and his sister, Beatrice, — ‘poor child’, ‘my dear child,’ but also by other characters, such as, for example, the old grandmother: ‘Bee, who is this child?’, and Mrs Van Hopper: ‘You’re a capable child in many ways.’ […] ‘‘My dear child, it’s extremely sweet and kind of him to take you driving: the only thing is — are you sure it does not bore him dreadfully?’’ […] ‘What an odd, unsatisfactory child you are.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The ‘dear child’ is not only referred to as such but also on many occasions treated like one. Especially it is apparent in the scenes with Maximilian de Winter who is short tempered and dismissive with the narrator:

‘My good child, what am I supposed to excuse myself about?’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ I said wearily; ‘let’s stop this.’

‘Not at all, you began it. What do you mean by saying I was trying to find an excuse? Excuse for what?’’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

In different scenes related to major mile stones of the narrator’s journey the childish behaviour of the ‘timid fellow’ is an expression of his immaturity. For example, the scene with the broken and hidden away china cupid illustrates the fear of being punished or disapproved of, especially so that the ‘timid fellow’ does not feel a part of the family but more as a non-significant guest:

‘‘Don’t be a little idiot. Anyone would think you were afraid of them.’

‘I am afraid of them. At least, not afraid, but…’’

(‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Although, at times, the ‘little idiot’ behaves immaturely and generally lacks confidence, he is the one who dares to investigate the estate’s ‘secrets’ as well as to doubt answers given to him by the ‘grown up’ inhabitants of the estate. This particular doubtfulness is mentioned by Daphne du Maurier in connection with the ‘current owner’ of Menabilly who was ‘orphaned at two years old’. The ‘small boy’ she had referred to in her ‘Rebecca Notes’ is John Cosmo Stuart Rashleigh (1872–1961). Similar to the fictional ‘timid fellow’ of the book, he has his own doubts, hence him ‘watching his old grandfather with nervous, doubtful eyes’. Both boys long for approval and acceptance from a fatherly figure. In the case of the fictional narrator, this figure is Maximilian de Winter, and in the case of the narrator’s real-life counterpart — the figure of his grandfather, Jonathan Rashleigh (1820–1905).

But why to seek the approval?

The answer lies in the identity of a certain person who is not present in the life of the two boys. In both cases, the boys have a strong identification with this person as well as competitive comparison that takes a form of wanting to be like the missing figure.

In the case of the fictional ‘timid fellow’, the identification and comparison takes place on his journey of discovery of the identities and personalities of his parents whose collective image is represented by Rebecca. Both of the narrator’s parents are missing from his life, hence being an orphan and being ‘alone in the world.’

In the case of the real-life counterpart of the narrator, these figures are also his parents — Jonathan Rashleigh jun., (1845–1872) and Mary Frances Labouchere (1848–1874). The circumstances of the death of the first parent are as mysterious as in the book, and the disappearance of the second parent as perplexing.

The competitive comparison is mainly related to the narrator’s supposed father, the he-part of Rebecca, embodying the features, traits and behaviour of the son of Maximilian de Winter — Maxim de Winter, in real-life Jonathan Rashleigh (1820–1905).

It appears that the narrator is particularly bothered by the looks, talents, skills, and popularity of the he-Rebecca. However, his view is a distorted one, for he does not know the whole truth about this person. The ‘timid fellow’ believes that he is no good match to be the off-spring of his supposed father who seemingly had so many ‘talents’ of which the narrator possesses none:

I had only confessed my sense of insecurity, following as I did upon Rebecca. And she must have had these qualities that he presented to me as mine. She must have been kind and sincere, with all her friends, her boundless popularity.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The he-Rebecca might have been popular and might have had many friends, but was missing on kindness and sincerity the qualities that the narrator appears to have in his possession but not recognising them as of such a great value. The fact that is pointed out to him by Frank Crawley:

‘…I should say that kindness, and sincerity, and — if I may say so — modesty are worth far more to a man…’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The Frank’s full statement also includes the words that come after ‘to a man’ — ‘to a husband’. The latter is applicable to another narrator — the mother of the ‘timid fellow’, whose narration is weaved into the story line, interlacing with her son’s one. Thus, both narrators are linked by the qualities that are contrasting with the ones of the he-Rebecca. What is interesting in this technique is that the she-narrator also becomes the subject of her son’s narrating. Especially in the scenes relating to other characters remembering or referencing her. When she-narrator becomes the subject of the narrating she takes the role of the she-Rebecca.

The ‘timid fellow’s’ wish to be someone different, to stand out and, at the same time, to be similar to the he-Rebecca is expressed in the costume that with the ‘help’ of Mrs Danvers he chooses for the Fancy Dress ball. The outfit is copied from a portrait of Caroline de Winter that the narrator admires. The girl on the portrait represents one of the she-Rebecca’s ancestors. In real life, a certain ancestor of Mary Frances Labouchere (1848–1874). Although the narrator has been strategically manipulated into choosing the outfit as his costume for the ball, he, nonetheless, has a certain affinity with the portrait: ‘I always loved the girl in white, with a hat in her hand.’ This link is a clue to the connection of the ‘timid fellow’ and the depicted girl. She, as he, is of the same family. In other words, Caroline de Winter is one of the narrator’s mother’s ancestors and for that reason his own too. This special connection is also hinted at by the narrator’s words: ‘When I had finished I went upstairs to the minstrel’s gallery to have a look at the pictures, I knew them well of course by now, but had never studied them with a view to reproducing one of them as a fancy-dress.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Dressing up as Caroline de Winter, the narrator unwittingly replicates the choice that has been made by his supposed father, the he-Rebecca, whose choice of costume had a different kind of motivation from the narrator’s. The motivation that the ‘timid fellow’ is not aware of. Nor he is aware of the replication of the choice, yet he is able to sense it by observing the facial features that appear to him ‘in the glass’, while he is dressed as Caroline de Winter:

‘I did not recognize the face that stared at me in the glass. The eyes were larger surely, the mouth narrower, the skin white and clear. The curls stood away from the head in a little cloud. I watched this self that was not me at all and then smiled; a new, slow smile.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

One of the clues pointing at the connection of the reflection to the identity of the person whose features came through is ‘the skin white and clear’. The same colour of the skin is observed in Maximilian de Winter: ‘His eyes blazed in anger. His face was still ashen white…’, and Mrs Danvers: ‘I could not take my eyes away from hers. How dark and sombre they were in the white skull face of hers, how malevolent, how full of hatred.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier) The face colour creates a link between the three characters, — Maximilian de Winter, Maxim de Winter, and Mrs Danvers, — denoting their family ties. What the narrator does not realise though is that he is also part of the same family. The evidence of this can be found in his reflection in ‘the glass’ as he explores the west wing suite:

How white and thin my face looked in the glass, my hair hanging lank and straight. Did I always look like this? Surely, I had more colour as a rule? The reflection stared back at me, sallow and plain.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The reason that the narrator does not clearly see the link is because the link is not apparent to him, for he believes he is an orphan. But he is not. He has a living father, whose very approval he seeks on daily basis at Manderley. The proof of that yet again can be found in a reflection in ‘the glass’ that he sees while being dressed as Caroline de Winter — the ‘self that was not me’. ‘This self’ is the he-Rebecca, the supposed father of the ‘timid fellow’.

And so, dressed as his mother’s ancestor, looking very much like the he-Rebecca, whose choice he has unwittingly replicated, the narrator presents himself to the man, the approval of whom he so much seeks. Yet the reaction at his appearance is not what the narrator has expected:

‘Maxim had not moved. He stared up at me, his glass in his hand. There was no colour in his face. It was ashen white. I saw Frank go to him as though he would speak, but Maxim shook him off. I hesitated, one foot already on the stairs. Something was wrong, they had not understood. Why was Maxim looking like that? Why did they all stand like dummies, like people in a trance?’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The shock that the appearance of the narrator produces is not attributed to the dress or even him being dressed as Caroline de Winter, but to the very fact that in this disguise he looks very much like the he-Rebecca and therefore reminds Maximilian de Winter of the past and another member of his family the memory of whom he tries to eliminate.

The most intriguing in this scene is that the choice of the costume had been replicated once before, by the she-Rebecca, the mother of the ‘timid fellow’, — in real life, Mary Frances Labouchere (1848–1874). And not only. The replication was also done unwittingly and the reaction it had produced was exact the same. But that time, it was Maxim de Winter, or the he-Rebecca, who reacted strongly to his wife’s appearance dressed as Caroline de Winter. For, this reminded him of the reaction and disapproval of his father, Maximilian de Winter, to his appearing dressed as a woman that highlighted his queer inclinations, — in real-life, Jonathan Rashleigh, jun.’s queer inclinations.

In order to create this sequence of memories, interlacing reactions and personal stories Daphne du Maurier had used the shifting narrating technique, the masquerade, and the gender confusion. Similar techniques can be found in her two other works — ‘The Parasites’ (1949), and a short story titled ‘A Border Line Case’ (1971).

In the text of the book, the verbal reaction to the appearance of the each narrator dressed as Caroline de Winter slightly differs in manner. The one that is directed at the ‘poor child’ contains mention of the ‘frock’:

‘‘Go and change,’ he said, ‘it does not matter what you put on. Find an ordinary evening frock, anything will do. Go now, before anybody comes.’’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The reason why this ‘frock’ does not equal to an evening gown for a woman is that there are no really ‘ordinary’ evening gowns. As a rule, they are all special. However, when the same applies to men, there can be indeed an ordinary evening frock. Mention of the frock is a reference to the dressing codes of the mid to end of the 19th century. Typically worn by men the frock had evolved from the ‘justaucorps’ — a long, knee-length coat worn in the latter half of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century. The garment is of a French origin and was introduced in England as a component of a three-piece ensemble. This ensemble served as the prototype of the frock, which in turn evolved into the modern-day three-piece suit, as well as became part of the white-tie or full evening dress for men. Therefore, Maximilian de Winter’s suggestion to go and find an ordinary evening frock means that the ‘timid fellow’ had to change from the fancy costume into the frock i.e. the white-tie dressing code suitable for the occasion.

The scene in the narrator’s bedroom taking place right after the unfortunate narrator’s appearance dressed as Caroline de Winter addresses the reaction of the narrators to the fact that at least in two cases they have replicated the choice of the he-Rebecca. The reaction of the ‘poor child’ or the ‘timid fellow’ is the one of the self-criticism, for he thinks that it was his duty to ‘have known’ about things that concerned his parents. The sister of Maximilian de Winter, however, thinks that the ‘poor child’ could not have predicted the outcome of his actions, for he was not aware of his supposed father’s deeds many years ago:

‘You poor child, how wretchedly unfortunate, how were you to know?’

‘I ought to have known,’ I said stupidly, staring at her, too stunned to understand. ‘I ought to have known.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

The ‘timid fellow’ is constantly and painfully aware of he-Rebecca, this shadow of the past that comes ‘sharp as a sword’ between him and the fatherly figure of Maximilian de Winter. In his ignorance he firmly believes that it is he-Rebecca whom Maximilian de Winter loves, and that he himself is not worthy of that love:

I don’t want you to love me, I won’t ask impossible things. I’ll be your friend and your companion, a sort of boy. I don’t ever want more than that.’ (‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier)

Part One: Into the Woods

Part Two: A Glimpse Inside

Part Three: ‘An Appalling Tragedy’

Part Four: ‘Queer’

Part Five: ‘The Cottage in The Woods’

Seraphima Bogomolova