A Marriage Proposal

So that’s settled, isn’t it?’ he said, going on with his toast and marmalade; ‘instead of being companion to Mrs Van Hopper you become mine, and your duties will be almost exactly the same.’   (Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca)

We often associate marriage proposals with food: candlelit dinners in quiet restaurants, classical music playing in the background and a bottle of champagne at the ready. 

But we don’t usually associate them with breakfast, the meal that Daphne du Maurier chooses to accompany the marriage proposal in her novel Rebecca.

Du Maurier’s novel, which draws on many of the conventions of the gothic novel genre and is clearly indebted to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), was first published in 1938 and has never gone out of print. It has been the subject of TV and film adaptations, most famously the Hitchcock film version that came out only two years after the book’s adaptation. It has also inspired other novels, including Susan Hill’s Mrs de Winter (a sequel published in 1993) and Sally Beauman’s Rebecca’s Tale (2001: a sequel but with some sections set before du Maurier’s original).

Rebecca opens with one of the most famous opening lines in literature: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ The female narrator – who is unnamed throughout the novel – reminisces about the grand house in Cornwall she lived in with her husband in the early years of their marriage. Only at the end of the novel, does the reader discover why they are no longer at Manderley.

Following the opening dream sequence, the narrator rewinds time to her first meeting with her husband. Staying in a Monte Carlo hotel with the elderly Mrs Van Hopper, to whom she is a paid companion, the narrator meets the wealthy widower Max de Winter: his recently deceased wife is the Rebecca of the book’s title. When Mrs Van Hopper is confined to her bed with flu, Max takes advantage of her absence to spend time with the narrator.

From the outset their relationship is characterised by an imbalance of power. The narrator is poor, young, inexperienced and gauche; Max is affluent, older, well-known in society and with a tendency to patronise: he orders the narrator around – ‘Go upstairs and put your hat on’ – and criticises her – ‘stop biting those nails, they are ugly enough already.’

Despite all this – or perhaps because of it! – the narrator quickly falls in love with him. But her dreams are promptly shattered one day when Mrs Van Hopper tells her they will be leaving Monte Carlo and travelling to New York the next morning to visit her daughter. With Max away in Cannes all day, and not returning until late at night, the narrator has no possibility of telling him.

After a tearful sleepless night, the narrator breakfasts with Mrs Van Hopper and is then sent to reception to deliver a message. For the first time she rebels and, instead, goes to Max’s room, walking in on him when he is ‘shaving by the open window, a camel-hair jacket over his pyjamas’, undoubtedly a shocking thing for a girl of her class and age to do.
Having told Max she is about to leave, he instructs her to wait whilst he dresses (in the bathroom – du Maurier wouldn’t be that risque!) and then to join him for breakfast on the terrace.

Having ordered ‘coffee, a boiled egg, toast, marmalade, and a tangerine’, Max takes an ‘emory board out of his pocket and began filing his nails’ and then utters one of the most unromantic marriage proposals in literature:

So Mrs Van Hopper has had enough of Monte Carlo … and now she wants to go home. So do I. She to New York and I to Manderley. Which would you prefer? You can take your choice.

When the narrator accuses him of making a joke of the situation he retorts:

If you think I’m one of those people who try to be funny at breakfast you’re wrong… I’m invariably ill-tempered in the early morning. I repeat to you, the choice is open to you. Either you go to America with Mrs Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me.’
‘Do you mean you want a secretary or something?’
‘No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.

Whilst the narrator gets her head around an idea which seems beyond her wildest dreams, Max eats his way through his English breakfast, ‘spreading his toast thick’ with marmalade.

So an utterly unromantic proposal, but the breakfast sounds good – I think I’d ditch the proposal and just go with the breakfast. Having never made marmalade I thought I would give it a go – it was surprisingly easy, and the end result tasted better and fresher than the shop-bought variety. I used blood oranges, because that’s what I had lying around, but you can use any type.

Ingredients (makes 3 jars):
3 large oranges
1200 ml water
Juice of 1 lemon
1 kilogram jam sugar

3 medium-sized old jam jars
1 sharp knife
One large heavy-based saucepan
One wooden spoon
One saucer

Place the saucer in the freezer (you will need it to test the marmalade later).
Sterilise the jam jars: I do this by putting the jars and their lids in a clean and empty sink, with the plug in, and pouring one kettle-full of boiling water over them. Make sure you fill the jars with the boiling water and that the lids are covered too. Leave in the sink with the plug in whilst you make the marmalade.
Slice off both ends of the oranges and discard.
Using a sharp knife, thinly slice the oranges and cut each slice into quarters.
Place the orange slices in a large saucepan or preserving pan and cover with the water. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently for up to 1 1/2 hours until the orange rinds are soft.
Now bring the fruit and water mixture back up to the boil and add the lemon juice and sugar. Boil briskly, stirring it frequently with a wooden spoon. Begin testing it for readiness from about 35 minutes. Here is where the saucer comes in. Take the saucer out of the freezer. Place a teaspoonful of the fruit mixture on it and allow it to cool. Push the mixture with your little finger; if it wrinkles and looks ‘jam-like’ it is ready. If not, place the saucer back in the freezer and continue cooking the fruit mixture for another 5 minutes – and then ‘test again’, and again until it is ready.
Allow the mixture to cool slightly in the saucepan and then pour into the sterilised jars. It will still be very runny but will set as it cools.

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