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Rhododendrons and Memories of Manderley: A Garden Visit

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Rhododendrons and Memories of Manderley: A Garden Visit

April 18, 2017

“Rhododendrons stood fifty feet high” along the abandoned drive to Manderley. The memorable first pages of Rebecca describe an ordered garden gone native.

Manderley is not only a fictional place but a well-rounded character in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Inspired partly by the deserted house Menabilly, which du Maurier later leased and repaired, Manderley is a classic Cornish estate. Caerhays Castle, farther to the west, has stood in for it on television and can claim some essential common ground, including a beach and a good deal of rhododendrons.

We visited the rhododendrons of Caerhays on the sort of misty morning that belongs in a mystery novel:

Photography by Heather Edwards, unless otherwise noted.

Rhododendrons at Caerhays Castle in Cornwall.
Above: Rhododendrons at Caerhays Castle in Cornwall.

Caerhays has the mullioned windows and cold grandeur of Manderley, though the drive does not go on for three miles. Its sense of privacy is endearing: visitors must park by the sea and face the walk up to the castellated manor. In June, just as other “attractions” are in full swing, Caerhays closes for the season. It has been lived in by generations of horticultural Williamses, who give their name to camellia strains and new magnolias.

Rhododendrons create a carpet of color. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.
Above: Rhododendrons create a carpet of color. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

For wild and wonderful magnolias bearing the Caerhays name, see Gardening 101: Magnolias.

Jungly rhododendrons and palms in Cornwall.
Above: Jungly rhododendrons and palms in Cornwall.
Photograph by Kendra Wilson.
Above: Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

Rhododendrons, camellias, and magnolias (and everything and anything else as well) find a cozy combination of acidic soil in a damp valley an invitation to unbridled growth. The fact is, it doesn’t take much for a jungle atmosphere to take hold in the gardens of Cornwall: where shelter is created and shrubs are massed, plants brought back from China by Edwardian plant hunters find welcoming conditions.

Rhododendrons at Caerhays in Cornwall.
Above: Rhododendrons at Caerhays in Cornwall.

In Daphne du Maurier’s novel, before the second Mrs. de Winter fully realizes that Manderley may not be providing a home of happy-ever-afters, her husband Maxim (Laurence Olivier in other words) takes her to a quiet part of the estate called the Happy Valley. There, rhododendrons and azaleas are pleasantly fragrant even in the rain, in colors of “salmon, white, and gold.” They are a relief after the “glaring” blood-red rhododendrons near the house, “luscious and overproud,” not unlike Rebecca herself.

Caerhays in Cornwall, looking out over Porthluney Beach.
Above: Caerhays in Cornwall, looking out over Porthluney Beach.

Caerhays was first listed as an “enclosed castle” in the 13th century, though the present house was designed  in the early 1800s by John Nash (who designed the area of London around Regent’s Park). The house is in a wooded valley, facing the English Channel.

 Rain and wind batters the estate but the garden thrives within a shelter belt of trees and giant shrubs. Pines provide a tall backdrop to troops of laurels and of course, rhododendrons.
Above: Rain and wind batters the estate but the garden thrives within a shelter belt of trees and giant shrubs. Pines provide a tall backdrop to troops of laurels and of course, rhododendrons.
Super-sized rhododendrons in Cornwall.
Above: Super-sized rhododendrons in Cornwall.

The nameless narrator of Rebecca is taken aback by the specimens spilling over the winding drive to Manderley. She describes how she had always thought of these plants as ordinary things, growing neatly in island beds: “And these were monsters, rearing to the sky,” she worries. Too beautiful, too powerful, “they were not plants at all.”

Snake-like trunks and a magenta carpet at Caerhays in Cornwall. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.
Above: Snake-like trunks and a magenta carpet at Caerhays in Cornwall. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.

As an upper-class Cornishman, Max de Winter knows his flowers. The walled garden provides decoration for the house—not wild flowers, which are only picked by vandals. The Morning Room, where Mrs. de Winter is expected to sit planning menus, is different: it was Rebecca’s center of operations and is filled with armfuls of the dreaded crimson rhododendrons. Their shameless, sybaritic abandon is most intimidating.

A view over the sea, from the windy front of the house at Caerhays.
Above: A view over the sea, from the windy front of the house at Caerhays.

Part of the problem with the monstrous rhododendrons of Manderley is their tendency toward blood red. Saturated color works brilliantly in Cornwall, with red clashing nicely with magenta, mainly because of all the green. RGB gardens prosper even under leaden skies, the reds and greens of spring giving way to the blues and greens of summer. Blue hydrangeas are never maligned in Rebecca.

For Cornwall-style hydrangeas, see: Landscaping 101: Wild Hydrangeas, 7 Ways.

Product summary  

Daphne Du Maurier

Rebecca

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