War and Women: 1930s England

Just one year before World War II broke out, Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca was published.  It takes place in Cornwall, England, where the author spent much of her life; however, at this time she was currently living in Egypt with her husband.  Due to the impending war, the coming years before the novel’s debut were filled with political and social strife, which perhaps influenced the constant tension inside the world of the novel.  Many nations were still recovering from the devastation of World War I and desperately wished to avoid entering another as Hitler gained power and began expanding his territory.  The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain advocated for an appeasement policy, in which Germany could expand without dispute, to help prevent the U.K. from greater slaughter (“How”).  Culturally, the U.K. was also facing complicated gender conflicts, which most certainly would have had an impact on du Maurier.  In 1918, women in the U.K. gained the right to vote; American women would get that privilege just two years later. By the 1930s, women were starting to parcel out their place in society in this interwar period.  They could receive some form of education, work, get divorced, etc., but they still belonged to the subordinate group (Souhami).  The small percentage (1/3) of women who did work, were only offered smaller-paying jobs, like care work or domestic assistance, which hardly offered them an escape from the home (Souhami).  Additionally, “the civil service, the education sector and nursing all operated a ‘marriage bar’, which meant women had to resign when they married” (Souhami).  It seems as though this time period offered the allusion of freedom and agency for women, but the emphasis on their domestic role remained.  Same-sex relationships were still frowned upon and single women were still shunned.

The cultural environment in England, as well as other countries worldwide, and the inconsistency of gender performance in society certainly reveals a fascinating relationship with the novel.  While women struggled between these two contrasting social expectations, Daphne du Maurier chose to center her novel Rebecca largely in the domestic space.  Women were trying to experience life outside the home, but du Maurier placed readers right back in it.  In the novel, the narrator, Mrs. de Winter, primarily faces the challenges of maintaining the large estate and staff at Manderley, as well as navigating this new marriage and its secrets.

“How Britain Hoped to Avoid War with Germany in the 1930s.” Imperial War Museums, 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/how-britain-hoped-to-avoid-war-with-germany-in-the-1930s.

Souhami, Diana. “The 1930s: ‘Women had the vote, but the old agitation went on’.” The Guardian, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/feb/04/the-1930s-women-had-the-vote-but-the-old-agitation-went-on.

3 thoughts on “War and Women: 1930s England”

  1. Thank you for examining such an underlooked part of World War II history! I find WWII is such a male-dominated period, with almost every focus being on what men contributed and almost everyone interested in it being men themselves (……there’s a great joke my female identifying history major friends tell me about them but I digress!). I would love to see if there’s more areas of the novel where you feel like there are complex political tensions that can be identified from the looming threat of WWII, as well as how potentially it may inform post-war England’s view of women as this book would’ve still been well-read then.

  2. Thanks for this piece, Grace; social context around the time of du Maurier and Rebecca. It is interesting as you point out that du Maurier chooses the domestic sphere for the antagonism of identities. Does the external context seeps into the life of the characters? or Is it purely insulated? What does this choice say about du Maurier, her psychology and politics? Does it matter? If the time period you delineated offers an “allusion of freedom and agency for women,” do the women in the novel have agency; should you explore the specific form of their agency? What is really agency, after all, especially for English women within this period? How does one live with agency? Good luck!

  3. Grace, I think this historical and political context is a really revealing lens from which to read Rebecca. During a time when white women were gaining more and more freedom and career opportunities, it is interesting that Rebecca is set in the domestic sphere, like you mention, and it makes me wonder what du Maurier’s beliefs were on women’s rights and equality- was she an advocate for it or more conservative? Also, I thought the detail you mention about a “marriage bar” was something I’d never heard of before and so absurd. Women were given the opportunity to make a living for themselves only until they married, impling that after marriage her value to contribute to society seemingly decreases as she “retires” to the home. I wonder if du Maurier mentions the lives of her female characters at Manderly before they married- who were they before becoming Max’s wife?

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