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Mrs de Winter or Mrs de Winter: A Personal Essay by Rebecca Ferrier

In partnership with the Melbourne UNESCO City of Literature Office, EWF is proud to host Rebecca Ferrier for a virtual residency for the month of November. 

In this personal essay, Rebecca explores the contradictory roles women are asked to play in society and how magical feminism can translate that challenging – often surreal – experience onto the page.

I was named after Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. The gothic novel follows an unnamed protagonist and her new marriage to a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter, who swiftly installs her at his West Country estate: Manderley. The protagonist – the new Mrs de Winter – is sweet, timid and unassuming. It’s not enough. Her every utterance, move and decision is compared to those of Maxim’s enigmatic former wife, Rebecca – the first Mrs de Winter – whose charms have lasted beyond her death. 

I was not named after the novel’s hero. 

*

It is January, 2019, and I am on a small Cornish ferry with my dog, Ruby. Slowly, we journey from a town called Fowey and across a brown river called the same. Boat railing in one hand, lead in the other, I see can Ferryside. This is the house where du Maurier wrote her first novel. It leans over the water, which is too dark and ever-moving to offer reflection. The house itself is bright white with rich blue accents, stark against the winter landscape. It is easy to imagine du Maurier here, pressed against a window, waiting for the weather to clear and facilitate her walks. 

I felt closer to du Maurier here, taking the paths she took and touching a palm to the Rook With A Book sculpture at the town’s quay. It’s a playful creature, all steel and mischief. One talon holds The Birds – another story written by du Maurier – while its neck bends down, asking you to take it, asking if you’re quick enough, asking, “Who would win?” The sculpture is a reminder of du Maurier’s range. She can terrorise with beak-and-feathered horror, then romance us with Frenchman’s Creek. 

‘The Rook with a Book’ sculpture at Fowey, Cornwall, UK

Occasionally, I wonder on modern-publishing, on brands, on authors and their ability to shift into new genres or age-ranges. For an emerging writer, the advice is generally : “Don’t.” It’s sound advice. Stick to a brand, to what’s safest, marketable. Save your wilder ideas until you’re established, if you ever are established. 

Yet, men are commended when they take on multiple roles: the father, the boss, the coach, the brave and out-spoken hero who’ll say it like it is. But a jack-of-all-trades is still a Jack, he’s still a man. 

Women, historically, have assigned roles. On bright mornings in Edinburgh, I’ll walk around a local cemetery which moonlights as a nature reserve. Etched into moss-palmed stone, half-worn with rain, I read, “wife of, wife of, wife of,” until I find that rare gift, a woman of her own, an artist or a writer or a philanthropist.

We – those who identify as female – may be assigned other roles, too, beyond our professions and marriage status, beyond Mrs de Winter or Mrs de Winter, the first or the second wife. Either we are the virgin or the whore. Depending on age, perhaps the maiden, mother or crone. And should you stray from one of these perceived social ideals of femininity, you will be condemned. 

This has been seen throughout history. In witch trials, in newspaper headlines, in the literary and television tropes we readily accept and rarely question. Vocalising that experience, one which can be both surreal and contradictory, has steered many writers – including myself – towards magical realism. Or, as it’s been named, magical feminism. It is a tool with which to elucidate, daze and confuse, allowing female-identifying writers to translate their experiences onto the page and find sense in what, at times, is nonsensical. By writing what is non-real or hyper-real, we are best able to translate what we have normalised or minimised in our everyday realities.

To be a woman is to be a chameleon. One must wear the right clothes in the right context, fall into a fawn response to mitigate danger, be called a reptile and smile through it. 

In the journal Electric Literature, Sophie Stein listed eleven short story collections which explore themes of magical feminism. She wrote: “Women construct multiple personas to make themselves palatable in different contexts, temper emotion for fear of repercussions, and endure such constant scrutiny that they must become endlessly adaptable.” 

By merging the unusual and the typical, the works highlighted by Stein can communicate the opposing messages women are routinely fed. Take one example from the past three decades, where fashion has morphed from hyper-thin heroin chic to knife-pressed curves and plumped mouths. The packaging has changed, but the core expectation remains eternal: women should not age, though ageing is a natural process. The messaging does not make sense, it opposes our natural laws. In literature, magical feminism does the same. It explores opposition and nonsensical reality, abjection and separation (often from one’s own body, thoughts and perceived purpose), using compelling narratives and engaging characters.  

Carmen Maria Machado, who is listed by Stein, also explores these themes brilliantly in her short story collection Her Body & Other Parties. In one tale, The Husband Stitch, a wife implores her husband not to touch the green ribbon tied around her neck. It is the one thing she asks of him, the only thing (and he does not obey). Throughout the entire collection, Machado explores how alienated a woman can be from those around her and even, at times, from her own body and her own agency. 

Isha Karki’s short story Hair, featured in Extra Teeth: Issue Two, is another example of magical feminist writing. It begins: “Aradhana let a boy climb her hair once, thinking it would be fine.” Karki’s exceptional prose has us envision a clumsy ascent as a man scales a woman’s “trailing hair” like a ladder. The reader knows this is a metaphor for sex, with the woman’s flesh used for another’s pleasure, yet the author communicates the experience in a warped yet visceral way. In the hyper-real, she makes what has been normalised, what is old, into something painful and new. 

Many roles women have to play – the harpy, the siren, the bitch – come from the names we assign to deviants. The ones who reject traditional roles and who have, traditionally, been ostracised from society. A few artists have also adopted these insults, taking what could be used to oppress them and re-packaging themselves as monstrous. This gorgon renaissance takes classic villains, such as Medusa from Greek mythology, and portrays them as victims of patriarchal might (see Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine for further examples). Looking through a mainstream lens, consider Taylor Swift, who took a “snake” insult bandied about on social media and made it her brand. Even more recently, there have been creative efforts to reclaim once-feared titles – such as witch – away from those who would misuse them. 

And then there are writers like Kirsty Logan, who not only re-brand, but dissect the roles we pin to women. In her collection, Things We Say in the Dark, there is a short story which names fears, which builds and unbricks houses around her protagonists. In Last One to Leave Please Turn off the Lights, Logan puts a new spin on the word “housewife”. She toys with objectification, making objects of the subjects – the women – within her work. 

It is by challenging these titles, these insults or responsibilities and then subverting them, that many writers of magical feminist works take back power. It is also how women are able to shed light onto dark, unspoken subjects. For marginalised writers, whose enforced roles and expectations are rarely represented in white, able-bodied, cis-gender mainstream media, magical feminism offers another avenue with which to communicate what can, at times, seem incommunicable to those outside their lived experiences. 

In du Maurier’s The Birds, the author takes what is known – the birds we see and interact with on a daily basis – and defamiliarises them, asking the reader to view them as strange, as dangerous. This, again, is what Machado does, what Karki does, what Logan does in the examples I’ve teased from their prose. Taking what’s real and challenging the reader, encouraging them to see the unseen or (what society deems to be) the unseeable. 

Ruby the dog, post-biscuit snaffle

Back at Fowey, sailing from the Rook with a Book statue, I hear birds. Throaty caws, high twitters, the tick-tick-tick of a wren. I can see why Fowey inspired du Maurier. It is shaped with tidal creeks, high-hilled walks and tumbledown ruins, which wait in the surrounding woodlands, all bare for me in January. My dog and I are taken across the water to a village called Bodinnick (from the Cornish word “bosdinek”, meaning fortified dwelling). We warm up at The Old Ferry Inn. I drink a pint, Ruby snaffles a biscuit, and then the owner asks, in a tone which could be taken from a du Maurier novel: “Would you like to see the weeping wall?” 

True to its name, it weeps. Mineral-rich water runs shadows down the stone, with tables and chairs pressed snugly against it. Names, then, can tell us exactly what a building is, what a place is, who someone is.

When I think on my name, I think on my mother who gave it to me. When she read Rebecca, it resonated with her. She is the person who introduced me to du Maurier, to literature, to stories, to writing. She not only gave me my name, she gave me whole worlds and the knowledge to question them. 

My mother was the first woman I witnessed. She took on multiple roles, the same ones we all play in society, and pushed back against them. I take after her and I revel in it, in those contradictions, in those opposing parts. Some are true, some are false, some are somewhere in between. And although I was not named after a hero, I was named after Mrs de Winter, whichever one I choose to be.