Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Creating Fictional Mansions: Daphne Du Maurier's Manderley

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…
I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive.”

When people ask how I became a writer, I blame it on my sickly childhood, a book-lined room, and Daphne Du Maurier’s fondness for old mansions. It began when I was a young girl, my mother sent me to Girl Scout camp. After a day of caving, I spiked a high fever and couldn’t breathe. The doctors were puzzled. They took my mother aside and asked if I had been exposed to tuberculosis. X-rays and skin tests finally determined that I’d contracted histoplasmosis, a rather common malady in middle Tennessee.

Fearing that my brother would catch the disease, my mother sent me to my grandmother’s house in the piney woods of Mississippi. My Mimi’s home didn’t have servants or sweeping views of the ocean, but its cozy warmth and smells of fresh baked bread were healing forces. I spent a rainy morning in Mimi’s book-lined study—a rare treat because my mother did not purchase books and borrowed them from her friends or the local library.

On Mimi’s shelf, I found a tattered copy of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. I curled up in the window seat, and for the next few days, I entered the world of Manderley. I could see Jasper, the spotted Spaniel dog, as he followed the unnamed narrator around the stone mansion, the sinister housekeeper, Danvers, lurking in the shadows. I could feel the warm, sandy grass as I walked down the path to the sea. When the narrator sat down at the dinner table, I saw her lift the linen napkin and run her finger over the ornate, monogrammed R. When she walked down Manderley’s secluded driveway, I was right behind her.

In real life, apparently Daphne Du Maurier was a bit of a house stalker, one of my favorite vices. Her young mind was shaped by two English estates. The first, Milton Park, was located in Northamptonshire, and Daphne spent the summer in the lavish gardens. Later, Hitchcock would use Milton as the inspiration for Manderley’s interiors.
The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done….

But it was the second house, Menabilly, that shaped Du Maurier's vision of Manderley, along with her other fictional mansions (My Cousin Rachel and The King’s General).
Here's a video tour of Daphne at Menabilly:

While working on Rebecca,Daphne would walk around the ruined house, and while she mentally refurbished the manse, her writer’s imagination was firmly engaged. Using words, she constructed a hybrid of Milton Park and Menabilly, and a house with another M-name was born: Manderley. Daphne constructed the grey stones, soaring ceilings, and windows with glimpses of the water.

I recovered from my illness and returned to Tennessee, but part of me stayed in Manderley. I became a seasoned house stalker. I’d walk around the neighborhood, ringing doorbells, boldly asking owners if I could tour their homes. Oddly enough, these kind souls never refused.

My mother forbade me to become a writer, and I ended up with a B.S. in nursing. I wrote in a stuffy closet under the staircase and papered the walls with rejection slips. During those long, unpublished years, Manderley was never far from my mind. When I began writing full time, I wasn’t sure how to build a fictional world, so I turned to Rebecca. Fictional houses became just as important as my characters—in fact, the houses became characters.

In Acquainted With the Night, I “designed” a farmhouse in rural Tennessee, a cliff-top monastery, a stone house in Oxford, an English country estate, and a London pharmaceutical building. My favorite house was an Italian vampire’s villa. I placed it on an island near Venice:

The villa reminded Caro of a floating hotel. The four-story Italianate was the color of oyster shells. Stone gargoyles peered down from an upper balcony. The island wasn’t landscaped so much as sculpted. Stone nymphs danced around a fountain. Further out, boxwood hedges formed crosses. Next to the front steps, topiaries were carved into mythological beasts.

The mansion’s name is Villa Primaverina. Inside, it had been modernized: a mirrored weight room, lap pool, media center, game room, elevators, blood bank, and a virtual golf course. Naturally the manse has a windowless, book-jammed library or two.

Source: Shutterstock
In real life, I will soon move to a farmhouse, mainly because I fell in love with the winding driveway. It’s far from the sea, but the setting has already sparked my imagination, because just last night, I dreamed of Manderley.

Acquainted With the Night book trailer: