Hello dear friend! This week on the blog, I have another needlework project to show you paired with a favourite classic novel: Rebecca. Written by Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca gets a lot of recognition as the perfect “spooky, gothic book for fall”. It’s definitely a book you don’t want to miss, and while I could praise its various strong points at length, I’m going to be focusing on flower symbolism in this post. Specifically, the importance of the rhododendrons, and the needlework project that captures the essence of Rebecca.
I read Rebecca for the first time last fall, in anticipation of the Netflix film release. I absolutely loved it. Really, truly, absolutely loved every page of it. I can definitely understand why it’s recommended so often, and why so many rave about it. It’s that good.
Set in the 1930’s in England, it follows a newlywed couple as they settle down to their new life together in a country mansion named Manderley. You will hear the name Manderley a lot. The main character, young Mrs. de Winter, remains oddly anonymous throughout the whole story. You never learn her first name. Her enigmatic husband, Mr. de Winter, is much older than her, and naturally hides many a dark secret. You won’t know what to really make of him. The housekeeper appears to be cold and uncanny, and constantly refers to Mr. de Winter’s first wife, comparing, belittling, driving the new Mrs. de Winter mad with insecurity and jealousy. Rebecca de Winter tragically died in a boating accident, forever upsetting life at Manderley. Things can never go back to how they were.
Throw in a murder mystery, and you have Jane Eyre meets Agatha Christie, and you’re in for a real treat. The writing style of this book is simply superb. Every single sentence is delectable. The attention to detail is astounding, from flower vases to embroidered handkerchiefs to paintings hanging on the wall.
Everything is important. Everything.
And it’s written in a way that simultaneously delights and gives you chills. It’s astounding, I tell you. The Netflix movie was cute, but failed to convey the intense, immersive atmosphere that the book delivers.
I am definitely adding my voice to the thousands who already tell you that this is a perfect October read, fulfilling all your spooky-gothic-vibes desires. And I don’t even like “spooky”. It’s just a wonderful book, period, and its dark and gloomy atmosphere is incredibly well-done.
I wrote a review of it on Goodreads as well, so feel free to check it out if you’d like more of my thoughts on it!
As I mentioned earlier, there is an attention to little details that is very particular in this book. It’s haunting, almost, the way seemingly mundane things are given importance. Among these, flowers often come up; it appears the late Mrs. de Winter had a real knack for decorating, and had fresh flowers put in vases every day.
The beautiful flower descriptions abound in this book, but there’s one flower in particular that stands out: the rhododendron.
It’s pretty obvious that flowers (especially rhododendrons) are used symbolically in Rebecca. Many things are used symbolically in Rebecca, in fact. The rhododendrons, flaming red and intrusively imposing, are said to represent Rebecca herself. Indeed, there are many comparisons you can make between Rebecca and the scarlet clusters of rhododendrons.
But what does a rhododendron mean?
A Bit of Floriography
If you’ve been around for a bit, you know that I love analyzing flower meanings according to the Language of Flowers, which was extremely popular during the Victorian era. Rebecca was published and set in the 1930’s and I don’t know whether du Maurier would make direct references to it, but since flowers abound in this book and they’re clearly important, I thought it would be fun to see if we can draw any connections at all between the Language of Flowers and how certain flowers are used in Rebecca.
Yes, there they were, blood-red and luscious, as I had seen them the evening before, great bushes of them, massed beneath the open window, encroaching on to the sweep of the drive itself.Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
Rhododendrons are everywhere around Manderley, crowding the driveway, encroaching over windows, growing uncontrollably big and red. They’re even found inside the house, decorating bowls and vases in the late Mrs. de Winter’s morning-room. Serving as an eternal reminder of Rebecca’s lingering presence, the flaming red flowers seem to suffocate the main character the same way they suffocate the house.
Rhododendron = Danger. Beware.
This seems an incredibly apt significance for this book. One of the first things Mrs. de Winter (present) notices when she first arrives at Manderley are the crowding bushes of scarlet rhododendrons.
[…] on either side of us was a wall of colour, blood-red, reaching far above our heads. We were amongst the rhododendrons. There was something bewildering, even shocking, about the suddenness of their discovery.
They warn her of the danger ahead, of the nightmare she’s about to go through. They bid her beware that all is not as it seems, that Manderley is full of dangerous secrets.
Danger, danger everywhere, written loud and clear in flaming red flower clusters!
It would seem the symbolism of the rhododendrons in Rebecca matches the Language of Flowers very closely. Let’s look at another passage. The book famously opens with the line:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
The main character recounts her dream, in which Manderley seems suffocated by a host of plants.
A lilac had mated with a copper beech, and to bind them yet more closely to one another the malevolent ivy, always an enemy to grace, had thrown her tendrils about the pair and made them prisoners.
The lilac has a few different meanings; “first emotions of love” if purple and “youthful innocence” if white. The beech tree stands for “prosperity”, the ivy signifies “fidelity and marriage”, and its tendrils represent an “assiduousness to please”. All seemingly beautiful and positive things, yet interestingly this opening is clearly meant as a bad omen, a foreshadowing of all the terrible things to come.
We learn soon enough that the main character (who is the narrator) is very young, very naïve, and very much in love with her new husband. And it is precisely her naïve love and desire to please that blind her into paranoid fear and nearly wrecks her marriage. Malevolent ivy indeed! Her assiduousness to please, born of her young love and the prosperity she thought she would have as Mrs. de Winter, are all working against her. Suffocated by the rhododendrons.
The white lilac comes up again, as Manderley prepares for its fancy-dress ball. The gardeners “bring in the rest of the white lilac” as part of the lavish flower arrangements, and once again the main character’s “youthful innocence” cause her quite a lot of trouble with her unfortunate choice of costume for the ball.
Isn’t it interesting?! It all seems to fit so well!
I could probably analyze every flower passage for days as they are so many that are mentioned and seem important, but I’ll just do one more.
Hydrangea = A boaster. Heartlessness.
Well, if you’ve read the book, you certainly know who that describes.
I noticed for the first time how the hydrangeas were coming into bloom, their blue heads thrusting themselves from the green foliage behind.
The hydrangeas appear in the last quarter of the book, replacing the rhododendrons as the months succeed each other. The flaming red clusters make way for the blue heads just as the characters are trying to puzzle out a murder. An important character is at last unmasked, revealed for what they really were: heartless. It would seem the hydrangeas were foreshadowing that too!
I don’t know if du Maurier intentionally referred to the Language of Flowers in her writings, but it certainly was very interesting to analyze the many flowers in Rebecca from that angle! Amazing how the symbolic meanings of floriography lent themselves so well to this book!
Needlepainting Project: Azalea Flowers
This needlework project wasn’t stitched with the story in mind since I finished it before reading the book. However, the rhododendrons struck me so much while I read Rebecca that it reminded me of this project. It was my first real needlepainting project, embroidered as part of my Honours project for university.
I used a feather flower pattern from an 1874 copy of The Young Ladies’ Journal. The feather strokes created perfect guidelines for needlepainting and I really liked the azalea flowers. They’re not flaming red like the rhododendrons in the book, but the contrast of the black background put me in mind of the moody atmosphere in Rebecca.
Azalea flowers fall under the rhododendron family, and actually they are mentioned in Rebecca!
On either side of the narrow path stood azaleas and rhododendrons, not blood-coloured like the giants in the drive, but salmon, white, and gold, things of beauty and of grace, drooping their lovely, delicate heads in the soft summer rain.
I like to think that my embroidered azaleas are more “things of beauty and of grace” than some dangerous warning, and their colour fits nicely with this passage!
Azalea = Temperance
A touch of sobriety to a rather tempestuous story, the azaleas serve as a foil to the red rhododendrons, much the same way the two Mrs. de Winter were so different from each other.
My project seemed to fit this book so well that I couldn’t resist pairing the two and telling you all about it. I’m planning on detailing my project more at length in a future post (this one is long enough already!) and show you more floriography findings (unrelated to this book). In the meantime, have a look at some other posts featuring floriography and classic novels:
Alright, I think that’s enough flower talk from me for one day, but before you go, do tell me -do you prefer rhododendrons or hydrangeas? What do you think of Rebecca? I would love to hear any thoughts on it!
I really hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post and if you find flowers and floriography as lovely and interesting as I do, I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly. I wish you all a wonderful week!