I haven’t written much on the blog this week as I have been working on a new novel whose themes of women, storytelling and silence are fed by my reading and research into these ideas in the writing of other women. So, with the noise and distractions of the Bank Holiday weekend I thought this was a good time to stop fictionalising and return to thinking about women’s voices and women’s silence. As I suggested in my last post, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is perhaps best described as what it is not: not a traditional biography of an aristocratic man. Such self-definition through negation is an interesting tool many women writers have used to question the value and authority of traditional definitions. But this approach can also work negatively to erase or at least blue the sound of women’s voices. Perhaps one of the greatest examples in fiction of the woman who is identified by what she is not appears in Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca.
There, the heroine of the tale is literally defined, by herself and by those around her by what she is not: this first person narrator has no name – all the reader knows is that she is not Rebecca, not the first Mrs DeWinter. When, near the climax of the novel this nameless figure hears her husband confess to killing his first wife – she tells him “Rebecca hasn’t won, Rebecca is dead, Rebecca cannot speak!” And in this moment calls to mind not only the central theme of DuMaurier’s novel but of many texts written by women writers whose works remind us to be suspicious of the stories of those who claim to speak for women – even if the speakers themselves are women.
Novels, histories, paintings in which women are represented by the voice or vision of another provide suspect evidence of real women’s experiences: We never get to hear Rebecca’s side of the story. Maybe Rebecca was a perfectly ordinary bored wife and Maxim was a jealous madman. We can’t know because she can’t speak.
But what if she could? What would Rebecca say? That Maxim killed her out of jealousy and paid off some retired doctor to spin a tale about Rebecca’s illness? The point is, we can never know – and so like the story that Woolf tells in A Room of One’s Own about Shakespeare’s sister Judith, we can only ever guess at what we might have discovered if women had been allowed to speak publicly for themselves. And what of the nameless narrator of Rebecca who colludes in the disappearance of the tale of Rebecca’s murder only to win for herself a grumpy distant broken down husband who must live in exile from the beautiful home now burnt to the ground? Is this meant to be a happy ending or DuMaurier’s punishment for the narrator’s insistence upon the benevolence of her patriarchal husband, her refusal to acknowledge the violence he meted out to the wife who challenged him? DuMaurier’s disturbing vision offers both possibilities, and demands that we, as readers are left questioning our safe, romantic reading of the plot. Which is, I suspect, just how DuMaurier wanted it.