Menabilly, the Real-Life Inspiration for the Manderley House in ‘Rebecca’

The historic Cornwall estate that inspired Daphne du Maurier’s novel ‘Rebecca’ fascinated the author throughout her life.

Manderley in the movie Rebecca
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If you’re using this time spent indoors to watch (or re-watch) Hollywood classics, you might want to add another one to your list. 

Rebecca is a black-and-white, 1940 movie directed by the one and only Alfred Hitchcock, starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson. It was based on a 1938 novel written by Daphne du Maurier, a Gothic story inspired by the likes of Jane Eyre that has gained somewhat of a cult status over the decades. 

Long story short, the plot is centered around an unnamed narrator, a young and naive woman in her 20s played by Joan Fontaine, who marries a wealthy widower by the name of George ‘Maxim’ de Winter. De Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, had passed not long before, and the second Mrs de Winter soon finds herself living in her shoes. 

The couple reside at Manderley, a sprawling estate in Cornwall, England, that seems to be haunted by the ghost of Maxim’s first wife. Though the first Mrs de Winter is gone, her spirit seems to live on in every nook and cranny of Manderley, something that soon becomes disturbing to the new bride.

The dining room at Manderley (via Hooked on Houses.com)

Not to mention that the creepy housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, holds an unwavering devotion to her original mistress, and is constantly playing tricks on the second Mrs de Winter’s mind. 

Joan Fontaine in the fictional Manderley (via IMDB)

The house itself seems to want the second Mrs de Winter out, as Rebecca’s towering and mythical presence is felt in every single room, especially in her majestic bedroom, which Mrs Danvers has kept carefully preserved. 

Mrs Danvers and the new lady of the house in Rebecca’s bedroom (via IMDB)

There’s no escaping the memory of Rebecca, and the second Mrs de Winter is reminded constantly that she will never be able to rise up to her level, by paintings, clothing and even stationary.

However, it eventually turns out that Maxim’s first wife was not all that she appeared to be, and that their marriage wasn’t exactly picture-perfect. We’ll leave it at that in case you haven’t seen the movie. 

The second Mrs de Winter and a painting of Rebecca (via IMDB)

Menabilly, the real-life Manderley 

Manderley is an entirely fictional location, which was actually built in miniature on a table, while the interiors were designed on soundstages, inspired by Milton Hall in Cambridgeshire. The novel’s author visited the estate in 1917 and was impressed with the luxurious architecture of the manor.

The exterior of Manderley, which is really a central character in the novel, was inspired by a real place that Daphne du Maurier spent a lifetime obsessing over. 

The fictional Manderley estate in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca’

The author wrote Rebecca with a real location in mind, namely Menabilly, a historic English estate situated on the south coast of Cornwall, about 2 miles west of Fowey.

Du Maurier was a Cornwall resident and one day stumbled upon an abandoned estate nestled within a dense forest. She became fixated on the house, did her research, and ultimately ended up living there for over two decades. 

Daphne du Maurier’s children at Menabilly (courtesy of The Guardian)

Menabilly is a two-story mansion originally built by John Rashleigh during the 1580s-1590s, and was completed in 1624 by his son, Jonathan Rashleigh. After the Civil War ended, the house was rebuilt by Jonathan Rashleigh III between 1710 and 1715, and once again rebuilt and expanded after a fire sometime in the early 1800s. The Rashleighs were prominent shipowners in Fowey, and they have owned the land on which Menabilly was built since the 1560s. 

Menabilly, circa 1920, via Wikimedia Commons

Menabilly was forgotten and had fallen into disrepair by the 1930s, but its rich history continued to permeate through its walls, according to Daphne du Maurier. She confessed to having trespassed many times to catch a glimpse of Menabilly in those days, and she longed to someday be able to bring it back to its former glory. 

She wrote Rebecca in 1938 with Menabilly in mind, and in 1943, after the success of the novel and of the Alfred Hitchcock-directed movie, she convinced the Rashleighs to let her live in the mansion as a tenant. Du Maurier lived at Menabilly with her husband and two children for 26 years, and during this time she worked tirelessly to restore the crumbling estate. 

Daphne du Maurier and her children at Menabilly (courtesy of British Heritage.com)

While researching the history of Menabilly, she found out that after the Civil War, builders discovered a skeleton bricked up in a hidden cellar, along with a trencher and a pair of Cavalier shoes. This inspired another of her novels, The King’s General, which she actually wrote in her own little writing hut set up in the garden. 

In 1969, du Maurier’s lease on Menabilly was finally up, and she had to leave the estate in order for the Rashleigh heirs to move into their rightful home.

She didn’t move very far, though, settling down in Kilmarth, another Rashleigh-owned estate just a few miles away. Still, her mind always drifted back to Menabilly, just as the second Mrs de Winter’s mind went back to Manderley in the opening line of Rebecca:

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’

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Written by Ioana Neamt

Experienced writer with a background in real estate and a fondness for soaring skyscrapers and Victorian-style mansions. Also loves fancy homes with crackling fireplaces and views of snowy mountains.

One Comment

  1. The painting depicted is of Caroline de Winter, not Rebecca. Danvers suggested to the Second Mrs. de Winter she use it as an inspiration for her costume for the ‘Fancy Dress Ball’ she was planning. Danvers knew that Rebecca had worn the same dress for a previous ball, and suggested it to humiliate the Second Mrs. de Winter. It is a defining moment in the development of the character.