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.

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