I’ve been too shy to mention it much, but I have a new book coming out on October 14. It’s called MAXINE WORE BLACK and it is my YA homage to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, with a lesbian and transgender cast. You don’t have to have read Rebecca in order to enjoy my book, but really, why wouldn’t you want to read Rebecca?
It should go without saying that I love Rebecca (as well as some of Daphne du Maurier’s other books which are less well-known, such as My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat, I’ll Never Be Young Again, and her short story collection The Blue Lenses.) But it’s always a curiosity why people decide to write a “retelling” of a story, so I thought I’d explain what my thinking was. First of all, the term retelling is usually applied to mythic folk tales where most people don’t know who came up with the story in the first place (like Sleeping Beauty.) But I think Rebecca has such a legendary status that it is fair to place it in this category along with fairy tales. It’s always fun to “queer” a classic tale, especially in a case like this where the original storyteller was either in the closet or offering up coded gay content, because then it feels like you’re righting a historical wrong. Doing a retelling was fun because almost every character and situation and element I chose has an analogue in Rebecca.
Brilliant lesbian YA writer Malinda Lo shared on her blog a very entertaining answer to a letter she received from a college student asking why she changed Cinderella “into a story involving homosexuality” when Cinderella is such an iconic heterosexual story. Lo said, “Ash is a retelling of Cinderella. The purpose of a retelling is to change the story, to reimagine it with a different angle. If I hadn’t changed the story in some way, it wouldn’t be a retelling. It would be the same.” So what I want to tell you about is me changing the story of Rebecca.
I hadn’t read Rebecca in years when my girlfriend and I decided to read it out loud to each other. The two things that struck me about that experience were 1) how much time du Maurier spends describing flowers, which isn’t that noticeable until you have to read it all aloud and 2) how awful Maxim is!
(Some spoilers of both Rebecca and MAXINE WORE BLACK ahead!)
As a child, I was extremely taken with Maxim and how witty and debonair he was. As an adult, I can’t help noticing that he’s verbally abusive and creepy and threatening to the narrator. And essentially he killed his first wife for being unpleasant and unfaithful to him. Is that any kind of way to behave? Why am I rooting for this perpetrator to get away with it? Doesn’t the narrator deserve better? How can a favorite book have this poisonous role model of an unhealthy reationship being sold as romantic? How is a feminist supposed to reconcile all this?
Then my brother told he had read a biography of Daphne du Maurier which said she knew very well how unpleasant and abusive Maxim was. Well, of course she did! She wrote the character and she was a genius! I should have known. In fact, du Maurier was very surprised by how the public latched onto Maxim as a romantic hero. They uncritically swallowed the point of view of her narrator, who was madly in love with Maxim. Du Maurier does my favorite thing, having her characters express one viewpoint while she as author tries to show another point of view through the story alone. (By the way I am also fully aware that this story shows how lazy I am. I simply listened to what my brother said and never read the biography myself.)
I decided I would do a retelling where the Maxim character’s true nature is made transparent, and the main character gets an actual happy ending. The next question is why did I decide to make my main character transgender. My initial thinking was very simple, even naive: I wanted to promote diversity in YA novels. There are very few YA novels with transgender characters, and these novels almost always revolve around the character’s transition and coming out journey. I wanted to write a novel where the character’s transition was in the past and her identity as transgender was an integral part of who she was but not the focus of the story. I had a slight interest in educating cisgender teens about transgender issues and combating stereotypes, but I mainly wanted to create a fun and affirming story that a transgender teen could pick up that would validate their reality. So they could say, wow, here is a book about a person like me. I can be the hero of the story. That was the reader I was writing to.
I also gave myself a difficult task because I wanted to describe an abusive relationship without having my transgender protagonist getting roughed up. Most YA novels with transgender characters have a part where that character gets beaten up. That’s partly because unfortunately that is a thing that happens in the real world but I think also because YA is in an Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe kind of place.
To unpack this a little: Harriet Beecher Stowe was a white person writing about African-American characters at a time when this was groundbreaking; most writers of transgender-themed YA novels are cisgender and it’s seen as groundbreaking for them to write about transgender characters. Harriet Beecher Stowe created very tragic storylines for her African-American characters to rouse sympathy for the abolitionist cause in a white reading public. Maybe some YA writers have a similar idea; I don’t know because I’m not a mind-reader. I do not mean that YA novels with transgender characters are bigoted, condescending, or stereotypical the way Uncle Tom’s Cabin is. It’s just that I often see this pattern of a minority group being portrayed first as a joke, then as a tragedy, then as a wisecracking sidekick or “very special episode” and finally as a full-fledged hero with a rich and complex backstory. I believe for transgender YA fiction we are mostly in the “tragic” phase now. I can’t wait to move on. I cannot wait for the day there are tons of YA novels about transgender characters and 90% of them are written by transgender authors and they’re all amazing and everyone is laughing at me and how passé and superfluous MAXINE WORE BLACK is. That is my dream, and the sooner the better. And just to be clear, I have great respect for these other YA writers with transgender-themed novels. It’s not a contest, yet I know all of them are better writers than I am. I just personally find the beat-up scenes a bit of a downer and I wanted to do something different. I tried to go for a breezy gothic thriller feel, just like the original Rebecca. It’s a little serious, but not too serious.
There is another reason why I think Rebecca is a superb choice for a transgender and lesbian retelling. This is back to righting a historical wrong and the coded queer subtext. Daphne du Maurier had a husband and three children, a non-sexual romantic relationship with Ellen Doubleday, and a sexual and romantic relationship with Gertrude Lawrence, leading contemporary biographers to characterize her as bisexual. (Or as a lesbian. Because bisexuality and pansexuality get erased.) But in her lifetime Daphne du Maurier was very firm in saying that she was not a lesbian. In a letter to Ellen Doubleday she said, "By God and by Christ, if anyone should call [our] love by that unattractive word that begins with 'L', I'd tear their guts out."
The most obvious way to interpret this is as very sad internalized homophobia on du Maurier’s part. Her father was extremely homophobic and so was the society she lived in; is it any wonder she would feel that way? But I also believe it should be up to people themselves to define their sexual orientation, and not to have labels slapped on them by other people. And I think there’s another reason in addition to internalized homophobia why du Maurier did not see herself as a lesbian. She saw herself as partly a man, or as neither male nor female. In another letter to Ellen Doubleday she wrote,
“Imagine D. du M. as a little girl… and growing up with a boy’s mind and a boy’s heart…. And then the boy realised he had to grow up and not be a boy any longer, so he turned into a girl, and not an unattractive one at that, and the boy was locked in a box forever….. But when she found Menabilly and lived in it alone, she opened the box sometimes and let the phantom, who was neither girl nor boy but disembodied spirit, dance in the evening when there was no one to see.”
This is more label-slapping, but today we would describe this identification and these feelings as transgender (or gender non-conforming or gender fluid), terms that du Maurier didn’t have. So I hope to honor this part of Daphne du Maurier with my book.
I’m now joining a club that’s larger than you’d think, the club of people who have written homages/retellings/sequels to Rebecca. There’s Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman and Mrs. De Winter by Susan Hill. In the last few years there have been several YA retellings: Thorn Abbey by Nancy Ohlin, New Girl by Paige Harbison, and my personal favorite, Timothy by Greg Herren, which is a gay YA Rebecca retelling published by my very same publisher, Bold Strokes Books’ Soliloquy imprint. (If you like my book, I think you would like Timothy, and vice versa.)
Many people know about Rebecca principally from the 1940 Hitchcock movie. I told my brother I was going to write a blog post about writing MAXINE WORE BLACK, and he said I should be sure to mention that Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick’s big concern was the title, which he thought would make it sound like it was “about a Jewess.” So that is just a little hint of the zeitgeist of 1940 for you.
I like to end my blog posts by praising a living writer. I asked my brother who I should pick, and he said Lois Duncan because she is our contemporary Daphne du Maurier. He is totally right. I love Lois Duncan, and her chilling, suspenseful YA tales have a lot in common with du Maurier. Next time I will go into more details about Lois Duncan and how great she is, but for now I will let you get back to whatever you were doing before.