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The Terrible Twos: Gothic Doubles in the writing of Daphne Du Maurier

Augusta Leopold By Augusta Leopold Published on May 11, 2017

One of the most popular authors of the 20th century, Daphne Du Maurier was adored by fans but eschewed by critics, it would not be until after her death that her work was recognised for its creative genius. In her own time, she was frequently categorised as a middlebrow romantic writer, a label she heartily resented. While most of her novels are historical fiction involving romance and love stories, Du Maurier wrote across a great number of genres including many short stories and novels that explore genres including horror, dystopian fiction, and science fiction. Throughout this varied career however, Du Maurier’s best description is that of a Gothic writer.

The era of Gothic fiction, which had dominated the late 19th century, had largely passed by the time Du Maurier was writing in the 1930s and onwards, however she remains an essential part of the Gothic canon. She was a master at creating the atmosphere crucial to Gothic fiction, she captures perfectly a sense of brooding despair, of mystery and foreboding, and of supernatural threat. She carries this atmosphere into every genre, giving her work a distinctive coherence despite the variety in theme and narrative. Along with the sense of atmosphere, Du Maurier consistently engaged the use of a range of Gothic tropes and devices, her short story The Doll uses a framing device on the narrative, presenting it as a found manuscript, while her novel The House on the Strand explores a medieval setting as the main character travels in time. The trope that most defined her career however was that of the Gothic double.

The idea of the double was a central concept to much of Gothic fiction, it was based on the idea of the duality of human nature, the potential for good and evil within each person. The idea of the double appears in a variety of ways throughout Gothic literature, there is the alter-ego, best known from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, along with this there is also the doppelgänger, as found in Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson or E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixirs, and finally there is the foil, a character who is juxtaposed against another to highlight their contrasting natures, such as Quasimodo and Frollo in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or Frankenstein and his Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This use of the double is often accompanied by a sense of paranoia and loss of control as the one half of the Gothic pairing begins to infringe on the other’s life and the two attempt to assert dominance over the other.

In Du Maurier’s own work the figure of the double appears in a great number of her works, but the best examples are found in the novels Rebecca and The Scapegoat. Rebecca is Du Maurier’s most famous work, published in 1938 it was the novel that shot her to fame and success, The Scapegoat on the other hand is one of her later novels, published in 1957 it has remained one of her lesser-known, though highly respected works. The novels form a kind of doubling between them, each representing a contrasting elements of Du Maurier’s writing. Where Rebecca sits mainly in the area of her historical fiction, The Scapegoat has more supernatural horror elements. They also each respectively represent a female and male perspective on the experience of the Gothic double. Yet, despite these differences, the two books explore similar themes of personal identity and control and so together they provide the ideal space to explore how Du Maurier expressed this most iconic of Gothic themes.

Of the two, The Scapegoat is more explicitly a story of doubles. It follows an Englishman named John, who by chance encounter in a provincial French railway station comes face to face with his doppelgänger, a Frenchman named Jean. These two men, although completely identical in physical appearance, have led completely different lives. John is a sedate and isolated professor of French language and history, while Jean is caught in an intricate web of business and personal relationships. Jean, sees an opportunity to escape his responsibilities, and so gets John drunk, steals his identity, and leaves his double to fill his place. John must then assume the life of his dynamic French counterpart, duping his way into family life in his new French chateau. Du Maurier deftly conveys the oscillations in John’s conscience, he struggles with the feelings of responsibility and duplicity, but also relishes in the freedom in leading a life that is detached from his own feelings. On his first morning after his arrival to his new life John says,

The sudden anguish that had come over me the night before had vanished. The people in the chateau had reassumed their puppet quality and the jest was with me once again. 

Du Maurier masterfully slips between the supernatural aspects and the real emotional experience of taking on a new life as John seeks to achieve redemption and love in his new start.

Like Jean, the protagonist of Rebecca also hopes to step into a new life. The novel opens with the unnamed protagonist serving as a companion for a rich American woman on holiday in Monte Carlo. While there she meets the inscrutable aristocrat Maxim de Winter, who falls in love with her and they waste no time in eloping. When they return from their honeymoon, the new Mrs. de Winter must step into her role as the lady of the house, in this case the extensive Manderley estate, but more importantly she must step into the shadow of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca, who had died a year previously. Like her name on the cover of this nameless protagonist’s narrative, Rebecca looms large over every aspect of story. The new Mrs. de Winter struggles to contend both with her own imaginings of Rebecca, as well as the memories of those around her, in particular the austere housekeeper Mrs. Danvers who takes every opportunity prop up Rebecca's memory. With her striking presence even after death, Rebecca is the perfect foil for the protagonist. Rebecca is everything strong-willed, graceful, urbane and self-assured, and her successor vainly attempts to fill her place, while representing everything that is opposite, being clumsy, doubtful, naive and uninitiated in the aristocratic lifestyle. Although in essence Rebecca is a love story, the story is much more of a psychological drama as this new wife struggles with an ever-growing sense of paranoia as the memory of Rebecca grows in strength and power. It does not take long for the heroine to sink into despair, even early on she says,

Dear God, I did not want to think about Rebecca. I wanted to be happy, to make Maxim happy, and I wanted us to be together. There was no other wish in my heart but that. I could not help it if she came to me in thoughts, in dreams, I could not help it if I felt like a guest in Manderley, my home, walking where she had trodden, resting where she had lain. I was like a guest, biding my time, waiting for the return of the hostess.

Unlike The Scapegoat, Rebecca only ever threatens to tip into the supernatural, and yet the feeling of uncanny shadowing and doubling is just as potent. In this way Rebecca feels a fitting successor to Jane Eyre in their shared preoccupation with the other woman. It is perhaps unsurprising to learn of Du Maurier's love of the Brontës, as so much of her Gothic sensibility is reminiscent their works.

Although the two stories are superficially quite different, both of them convey the same sense of horror at encountering the double. Both protagonists open the novel by describing their lives of apathy and disconnectedness, until they suddenly find themselves filling the role of their double. Then they both wrestle with living up to the precedent set by their predecessor while also asserting their own morals and ideals on the roles. Du Maurier is a master at creating the sense of horror and the uncanny. Although under very different circumstances the descriptions have a similar effect. In Rebecca the protagonist describes her realisation of the reality of Rebecca's ongoing presence,

Unconsciously I shivered, as though someone had opened the door behind me, and let a draught into the room. I was sitting in Rebecca’ chair. I was leaning against Rebecca’s cushion, and the dog had come to me and laid his head upon my knee because that had been his custom.

The Scapegoat also conveys this sense of impending doom in the description of the doppelgängers' first meeting. John compares the sensation to unexpectedly catching sight of his reflection in a shop window and being horrified at the reflected image. He says,

Such incidents left me chastened, sore, with ego deflated, but they never gave me a chill down the spine, as this encounter did, nor the desire to turn and run.

In keeping with the Gothic tradition, this encounter with the double ultimately results in a struggle between good and evil, both within the protagonist themselves and with their counterpart. Du Maurier manages to create, within these domestic settings a similar level of horror and menace as might be found in the relationship between Frankenstein and his Creature, and in keeping with such iconic Gothic stories, her narratives end with a sense of ambiguity in whether the victory of good over evil was achieved. 

That Du Maurier should explore the concept of dual self in writing gives us a glimpse into the mind of this famously private writer. To the public eye she was a loving wife and mother, but in private her life was more turbulent, with her letters suggesting affairs with other women. Even as a teenager, she created an alter-ego within herself, a boy called Eric Avon, who could express her love of women. In describing her feelings for the headmistress of her school Du Maurier said, 

At 18 this half-breed fell in love, as a boy would do, with someone quite 12 years older than himself who was French and had all the understanding in the world and he loved her in every conceivable way up to the age of 23 or so. And in so doing he learned almost all there is to know about that complex thing, a woman's heart.

As she grew older "the boy realised he had to grow up and not be a boy any longer, so he turned into a girl” however the sense of two people within never really left, in describing her and her husband in a letter she said “We are both doubles. So is everyone. Every one of us has his, or her, dark side. Which is to overcome the other?” For Du Maurier, the idea of the double was not simply a literary device, but rather something with which she could personally identify. Indeed there is also an interesting complementarity between her self-perception and her writing. In creating her masculine alter-ego, Eric, she imagined him as bold and outgoing, captain of sports, direct and clear, this kind of clarity and forthrightness is reflected in the direct nature of the masculine doubles of The Scapegoat. They are doppelgangers, double without question, whereas on the feminine side, the psychological double of the two Mrs. de Winters in Rebecca has a kind of reminiscence to the confused and ambiguous identity of Du Maurier herself. Du Maurier brings much of herself to her writing and to her characters, which is perhaps what brings the sense of dreadful reality to the uncanny horror.

Du Maurier’s works remains among of the best examples of the use of Gothic doubles. Her skill and the power of her writing in creating the shadowy other self is seen in the enduring popularity of Rebecca. Du Maurier’s talent is such that, even though writing decades after the movement, her use of Gothic doubles remains one of the measuring sticks for effective narrative use within the Gothic fiction genre.


Aio, quantitas magna frumentorum est

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