"A nasty man like me coming and spoiling all your fun": Forced-Masc Fantasies in Daphne du Maurier

Previously: Forced-masc fantasies in Georgette Heyer.

The particular cruelty of Rebecca’s forced-masc fantasies focus on defaults; unless someone is the most extremely woman person to ever live, they’re rounded down to a sort of malfunctioning boy and stashed in an attic somewhere. The premise is something like this:

Mrs. de Winter 2: Hello, I’m your wife who loves you very much.

Maxim: No – no – this isn’t right at all. You idiot! I’ve already met a woman before. You can’t fool me! You must be something else.

“What if your husband treated you like an especially irritating fraternity pledge?” is a pretty foundational exercise when it comes to forced-masc fantasy, and look no further than Daphne du Maurier if you want irritated male indifference.

She wore boys' clothes and played boys' games and invented an alter ego named Eric Avon, who went to Rugby. The onset of puberty shattered her, forcing her to lock Eric Avon up in a psychic box from which he had only intermittent escape.

One such episode occurred in 1925, when Daphne was 18, and “this half-breed” (as she described herself) "fell in love, as a boy would, with someone who was French and had all the understanding in the world, and he loved her in every conceivable way."

The someone was her teacher, Ferdinande Yvon, nicknamed “Ferdy.” In a sign of the ambivalence and confusion that were to mark all of her sexual experiences, Daphne later swore that if anyone described their relationship "by that unattractive word that begins with `L' I'd tear their guts out."

We might consider taking du Maurier at his word when he calls himself a boy and not a lesbian; biographers are often quick to ascribe this sort of thing to a dissatisfaction with sexism, as if it were merely feminism dialed up to 11 that would make someone christened Daphne to call themselves Eric. But! We digress. Rebecca postulates the following:

  1. There is perhaps one woman who has ever existed. Her name was Rebecca. She was remarkable!! She was exhausting. She ate glory and horses for breakfast, signed her letters with Edward the Confessor’s pen, slept with everyone in France, swam to Russia, owned every piece of lingerie in the world, was a better man than most men and a lustier woman than Mary Magdalene. If you want to be a woman, you have to be a man first, or at least beat one up: “She twisted her father round her little finger, and she’d have done the same with her mother, had she lived. Spirit, you couldn’t beat my lady for spirit. She drove a four-in-hand on her fourteenth birthday, and her cousin, Mr. Jack, got up on the box beside her and tried to take the reins from her hands. They fought it out there together, for three minutes, like a couple of wild cats, and the horses galloping to glory. She won though, my lady won. She cracked her whip over his head and down he came, head-over-heels, cursing and laughing.”

  2. Everyone else is either a man (normal), a girl (raw-boned and awkward), a servant (whatever), a Lesbian (fine, but everyone hates you), a sister (distantly related to Women), a boy (wonder of wonders!) or a dog (fine).

  3. You are either a boy, a dog, or a Lesbian in a schoolgirl’s outfit who accidentally put on a wedding dress one day. The falsest bride there ever was!

“Later her friends would come in for a drink, which I must mix for them, hating my task, shy and ill-at-ease in my corner hemmed in by their parrot chatter, and I would be a whipping-boy again, blushing for her when, excited by her little crowd, she must sit up in bed and talk too loudly, laugh too long, reach to the portable gramophone and start a record, shrugging her large shoulders to the tune.”

“Why am I automatically a boy when I imagine getting beat up in my own fantasies? Never you mind, reader. Never you mind.”

“Not in a church?” I asked. “Not in white, with bridesmaids, and bells, and choir boys? What about your relations, and all your friends?”

“You forget,” he said, “I had that sort of wedding before.”

“I’ve already MET a woman and it’s obvious you’re no woman at all! Perhaps you’re a boy in disguise…which means it’s time to expose, humiliate and repress you! You better not get anything gratifying out of this!”

We should grow old here together, we should sit like this to our tea as old people, Maxim and I, with other dogs, the successors of these, and the library would wear the same ancient musty smell that it did now. It would know a period of glorious shabbiness and wear when the boys were young—our boys—for I saw them sprawling on the sofa with muddy boots, bringing with them always a litter of rods, and cricket bats, great clasp-knives, bows-and-arrows. On the table there, polished now and plain, an ugly case would stand containing butterflies and moths, and another one with birds’ eggs, wrapped in cotton wool. “Not all this junk in here,” I would say, “take them to the schoolroom, darlings,” and they would run off, shouting, calling to one another, but the little one staying behind, pottering on his own, quieter than the others.

It’s telling, I think, that the second Mrs. de Winter’s wildest fantasies about her own future happiness exactly mimic Gaston’s from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: “A rustic hunting lodge, my latest kill roasting over the fire…The little ones play on the floor with the dogs. Oh, we'll have six or seven — Strapping boys, like me!”

I heard myself speaking in a hard cool voice. “If you don’t think we are happy it would be much better if you would admit it. I don’t want you to pretend anything. I’d much rather go away. Not live with you anymore.” It was not really happening of course. It was the girl in the play talking, not me to Maxim. I pictured the type of girl who would play the part. Tall and slim, rather nervy.

“Oh, if a woman were ever to play me in a movie? What would she be like? I guess, um, she’d be tall, with narrow hips, and a bold and impudent sort of personality. Boyish. Maybe in menswear. Broad shoulders. She’d, uh, she’d be a boy. A boy would play me.”

And she doesn’t come kindly, not she, not my lady. She was never one to stand mute and still and be wronged. ‘I’ll see them in hell, Danny,’ she’d say, ‘I’ll see them in hell first.’ ‘That’s right, my dear,’ I’d tell her, ‘no one will put upon you. You were born into this world to take what you could out of it,’ and she did, she didn’t care, she wasn’t afraid. She had all the courage and spirit of a boy, had my Mrs. de Winter. She ought to have been a boy, I often told her that.

Women who are bad at being women ought to be boys; women who are good at being women ought to be boys; in Rebecca, all roads lead to “God, I should have been a boy!!” It’s “I should have been a pair of ragged claws” energy brought to every single lady character from start to finish. Mrs. Danvers, the haunted lesbian who goes by Danny and is married to a ghost? Should have been a boy. Rebecca, the extra-gendered primeval spirit who lives in the ocean and was the greatest interior decorator to ever seduce her cousin? Should have been a boy. The house, Manderley? “I-Should-Have-Been-A-Man-derley.” You, the reader, reading this book? Should have been a boy. You should be a boy with your boy husband and nine boy kids and a boy dog named Jasper and no girls are ever allowed to come over except on Visiting Days.

“Maxim,” I said, “can’t we start all over again? Can’t we begin from today, and face things together? 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.”

Pretending you’re asking for less than what you want when it’s actually your wildest dream to be treated as a stumbling, awkward boy by your confident male husband is classic forced-masc bullshit! “Aw, gee-whiz, mister, I guess if you could see your way towards kicking me down the street like an old stick-and-hoop game, and gave me a pair of your old suspenders and flannel shirts, I could figure out a way to make my peace with it, I guess.”

“She looked very pale, very thin. She began walking up and down the room, her hands in the pockets of her trousers. She looked like a boy in her sailing kit, a boy with a face like a Botticelli angel.”

You know, like how straight men love describing their former wives as very attractive boys twice in the same sentence? They love that, right? I assume they love doing that.

“You ought to take it up,” he said. “My eldest girl is very keen, and she can’t find young people to play with her. I gave her a small car for her birthday, and she drives herself over to the north coast nearly every day. It gives her something to do.” “How nice,” I said. “She ought to have been the boy,” he said. “My lad is different altogether. No earthly use at games. Always writing poetry. I suppose he’ll grow out of it.”