For Daphne du Maurier the house known as Menabilly was a home she treasured for more than 26 years. From the first moment she saw it until the day she died the house fascinated, inspired and captivated her.
After years of planning and dreaming Menabilly near Gribbin Head in Cornwall finally became Du Maurier’s family home when she managed to pursuade the Rashleigh family to lease it to her. But it was always more to the writer than just walls and a roof over her head. She wrote:
“Perhaps it is wrong to love a block of stone like this, as one loves a person. It cannot last. It cannot endure. Perhaps it is the very insecurity of the love that makes the passion strong. Because she is not mine by right. The house is still entailed and one day will belong to another.”
Menabilly was a source of inspiration and a refuge where she spent hours alone writing in her hut in the garden. She called it her “house of secrets” but it was also her house of stories, most famously the gothic romance Rebecca.
These days Menabilly is still privately owned and impossible to get near to, which only serves to reinforce its air of mystery.
House of Stories
Considering its age it’s hardly surprising that Menabilly has stories seeping from its very walls. Originally built in 1596 by John Rashleigh, the head of what was to become the greatest landowning family in Cornwall, the house has played a role in many chapters of local history. It has seen political upheaval and ridden out the inconstant tides of fortune.
During the Civil War (1641 – 1651) Menabilly, then one of the finest mansions in Cornwall, was looted and nearly destroyed. Ransacked of all its furniture, livestock and stores, its Royalist owner Jonathan Rashleigh was locked away in St Mawes Castle. And Menabilly fell into ruin for the first time. The house was rescued and almost entirely rebuilt by its 4th owner Phillip Rashleigh in 1710. Beautiful landscaped gardens full of exotic and rare plants grew up around the fashionable family home. And then just over a hundred years later Menabilly was once more in ruins. This time it was a fire that nearly destroyed the house.
Now it was William Rashleigh who had the task of rebuilding in around 1824, and he also took the opportunity to greatly expand his home. It was during these alterations that a rather startling discovery was made.
This strange episode in the house’s history was to truly captured Du Maurier’s imagination. It became the inspiration for her book The King’s General. Daphne discovered that during the course of the restorations in 1824 a skeleton of a young man had been found in a small hidden room at the base of a supporting buttress.
In December 1944 Daphne wrote to local historian Mary Coate, the author of Cornwall during the Civil War, to ask if she had any more information. Daphne wrote:
“I am very anxious to write a novel on Menabilly during that period, the sacking of the house etc . . . I can of course, write a completely fictitious tale about the house and inmates of that period but it seems a great pity not to reconstruct what really happened . . . A skeleton was found here in about 1820, dressed in cavalier clothes, walled up in a secret room (since bricked up and impossible to find) and family tradition has it that the skeleton was that of a young Grenville, who was hiding here and could not escape. This is exciting but vague to my mind and it seems to me very odd that the Rashleigh family should have fled from the house leaving a friend in a secret room . . . I am so anxious to write the truth about what happened in those days.”
Daphne also consulted with the Rashleigh family and A. L. Rowse, another local historian, to ensure the accuracy of The King’s General plot. She used real historical characters such as Honor Harris and members of the Grenville and Rashleigh families. But most importantly of course a body in a secret room was included as part of the plot. The King’s General set in Cornwall during the Civil War was published 3 years after she moved into Menabilly.
The Lure of Cornwall
Daphne du Maurier, whose stories still lure people to Cornwall, fell in love with the area after visiting on family holidays. And it was the inspiration behind many of her best known books including Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and Castle Dore.
She always dreamed of moving to Cornwall permanently and in 1926 the family decided to look for a second home here. Arriving in Bodinnick Daphne, her mother and her two sisters spotted Ferryside, the house that was to become her first foothold in Cornwall and where her son Kits lives to this day. Daphne wrote that in Cornwall “was the freedom I desired, long sought-for, not yet known. Freedom to write, to walk, to wander, freedom to climb hills and be alone”.
It was while climbing the hill at Gribbin Head that Daphne first spotted the roof tops of Menabilly hidden in the trees. Here’s a link to a similar walk.
She tried to find the house that day, sometime in 1927 I believe, but had to turn back because of the fading light and the tangled overgrown gardens. After this Daphne never forgot Menabilly. In her book Enchanted Cornwall she describes when she finally saw it properly for the first time, a short while later, walking there from Fowey early one morning. By this time Menabilly was empty and practically in ruins again and Daphne had to trespass to find it.
“I paused, stung by the beauty of that first pink glow of sunrise on water but the path led on and I would not be deterred. Then I saw them for the first time – the scarlet rhododendrons. Massive and high they reared above my head, shielding the entrance to a long smooth lawn. I was hard upon it now, the place I sought . . . My house of secrets. My elusive Menabilly.”
The Menabilly Daphne saw that morning was almost entirely engulfed by creeper and had been abandoned by the Rashleighs for many years. But there must have been something in the emptiness, the shabbiness and disrepair of the house that captivated her. It’s shuttered windows and darkened rooms were full of possibility.
After years of trying she eventually persuaded the Rashleigh family to let her have the lease. The du Maurier family moved in, after some hurried building work, for Christmas 1943. Menabilly became their much-loved home for the next 26 years. Daphne’s daughter Flavia wrote in her biography many years later that the house was always bright and cheerful for the children. They adored the space and freedom it gave. She recalls hearing her mother “tap-tapping on the typewriter in her hut at the end of the lawn” but even before she lived there Menabilly was influencing Daphne’s writing.
The famously atmospheric description of Manderley at the start of her bestselling book Rebecca published in 1938 was based almost entirely on her first failed attempt to find Menabilly in 1927. The creaking iron gates, the empty lodge and the twisting driveway, she recalled and described them “many years later when sitting at a desk in Alexandria”. She wrote “it had the magic quality of a place hitherto untrodden, unexplored. . . The woods were sleeping now but who, I wondered, had ridden through them once? What hoofbeats had sounded and then died away? What carriage wheels had rolled and vanished? Doublet and hose. Boot and jerkin. Patch and powder. Stock and patent leather. Crinoline and bonnet.” Those lost moments in the house’s history fired her imagination.
After moving into Menabilly in 1943 Daphne immersed herself in researching the history of the house and the Rashleigh family. She wrote:
“It is wonderful living here, the house teams with atmosphere.”
Daphne went on to write a further 16 books while living at Menabilly, including the novels My Cousin Rachel and The House on the Strand as well as a number of non-fiction publications including Vanishing Cornwall. But Menabilly never belonged to Daphne. The Rashleigh family were only leasing it to her and in 1969 that lease came to an end. She wrote:
“There is a plant, the mandrake, which bleeds and shrieks when it is pulled up, and that is how I felt on leaving Menabilly.”
The family moved to Kilmarth just a couple of miles away and although she was happy there and continued to write, Daphne’s heart belonged to Menabilly. On a wild Sunday afternoon in April 1989 high winds were whipping up the sea and the rain was battering the windows at Kilmarth. Despite the weather and her failing health Daphne asked her friend Margaret Robertson to drive her to Pridmouth Cove, the closest beach to Menabilly, where she and the family had spent many happy days mucking about on the water. Daphne got out of the car and spent several minutes watching the crashing waves. She then asked to be taken to Menabilly. It was to be her final visit. She died in her sleep three days later.
In her book Vanishing Cornwall Daphne wrote: “I walked this land with a dreamer’s freedom and with a waking man’s perception – places, houses whispered to me their secrets and shared with me their sorrows and their joys. And in return I gave them something of myself, a few words passing into the folk-lore of this ancient place.”
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