Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, Virago (80th Anniversary Edition), 448 pp, €18.20, ISBN: 978-0349010267
In an essay entitled “Romantic Love”, Daphne du Maurier wrote:
There is no such thing as romantic love. This is a statement of fact and I defy all those who hold a contrary opinion. Romantic love is an illusion.
Yet she has been classified, and dismissed, as a romantic novelist and her best-loved and most enduring work, Rebecca, as a romantic novel. Since its first publication in 1938 it has never gone out of print. As recently as 2013, du Maurier’s son, Christopher, claimed in an interview that it was still selling four thousand copies a month.
One reason for Rebecca’s success is that it tells a good story, in the classic, narrative-driven sense – the sort of story at which it has become quite fashionable to sneer. Another is that the reader is never entirely sure exactly what is going on beneath the thrilling surface. Like all unresolved questions, Rebecca’s powers of suggestion haunt us long after the book has been restored to its shelf.
Du Maurier said it was a novel about jealousy, and so it is. She also said that it was about the imbalance of power between a man and a woman in a marriage and yes, it is that too. Part bildungsroman, part psychological thriller, it is also a crime drama with its conventions turned inside out. Not “how will the criminal be identified, caught and punished?” but “will they get away with it and how?”
Rebecca does have romantic elements. Our young narrator certainly enters the story with a set of romantic expectations, but these are so swiftly and effectively dismantled that it’s safe to say that the novel is anti-romance.
When we meet our narrator she has a dreary life working as a companion to the ghastly Mrs Van Hopper in Monte Carlo. Mrs Van Hopper is a snob and a social climber, the kind of person who stubs out her cigarettes in the butter, in her face cream, among the lipstick and the tissues on her dressing-table. She would be a nightmare to work for. Maxim de Winter is staying in the same hotel. He is the owner of the fabulous Manderley house and estate in Cornwall, where his first wife – Rebecca – drowned, barely a year before. Maxim is wealthy, our narrator is not. She has no home and he has the home to end all homes. She is alone in the world – her parents are dead. At forty-two, he’s twice her age, old enough to be the father she adored. He’s kind to her and takes her out for drives in his expensive car, away from Mrs Van Hopper. No wonder she falls in love with him.
A conventional romance plot culminates in marriage – that’s it for the female protagonist, all over bar the shouting. But du Maurier briskly dispenses with the standard barriers and obstacles-to-be-overcome by the protagonist in order to prove herself worthy of the prize. Our narrator’s marriage to Maxim comes quickly. He saves her from a sudden departure with Mrs Van Hopper by offering her a choice: she can go to America with her employer or she can come to Manderley with him.
“Do you mean you want a secretary or something?”
“No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.”
Considering his proposal, our narrator reviews various chaste and fairly standard fantasies she has had about Maxim, such as nursing him through illness, applying eau-de-Cologne to his fevered brow. When she admits that she loves him, he laughs at her.
“So that’s settled, isn’t it? … Instead of being companion to Mrs Van Hopper you become mine, and your duties will be almost exactly the same. I also like new library books, and flowers in the drawing-room, and bezique after dinner. And someone to pour my tea. The only difference is that I don’t take Taxol, I prefer Eno’s, and you must never let me run out of my particular brand of tooth-paste.”
Seeing her distress, he softens, acknowledges the sort of proposal she might have expected, the sort of wedding she might have dreamed about but will never have.
“You forget,” he said, “I had that sort of wedding before.”
When he mentions bringing her home to Manderley, her imagination runs riot. The scenes she envisages are the staple of romantic fiction: flowers and balls and playing Lady Bountiful in the neighbourhood.
“Mrs de Winter. I would be Mrs de Winter.”
She would indeed. But here’s the catch: she is not the only Mrs de Winter and she’ll soon find out that the name, grand and all as it is, isn’t big enough for both of them. On some level, she knows this. On her first morning in Manderley she answers the telephone to a voice that says, “Mrs de Winter?”
“I am afraid you have made a mistake,” I said; “Mrs de Winter has been dead for over a year.”
Du Maurier was thirty when she began to work on an outline and draft scenes for Rebecca in a notebook (later published in The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories). She was living in Alexandria, where her husband, Boy (Tommy) Browning, an officer in the British army, was stationed. Two small daughters had been left behind in England with their nanny. Browning was busy and du Maurier was intensely homesick. She resented the duties, constraints and responsibilities of an officer’s wife when all she wanted to do was write. Oppressed by heat, boredom and homesickness, her mind turned to Cornwall and a house with which she had become obsessed years earlier.
Menabilly is a Georgian mansion on the south coast of Cornwall, built on the site of an earlier Elizabethan house. When du Maurier first came upon it (she was trespassing) it had been empty for years. She was immediately captivated, not only by its beauty but, crucially, by its loneliness. In an essay entitled “The House of Secrets” (1946), she describes her first encounter with the house that would come to dominate her fantasies and be transformed into both character and love-object in Rebecca and later in My Cousin Rachel.
The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. The house, like the world, was sleeping. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, or the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those darkened rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale, until someone should come to wake her … The house possessed me from that day, even as a mistress holds a lover. (The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories)
DU MAURIER was that “someone”. First she dreamed Menabilly back to life in fiction, as Manderley. Five years after Rebecca was published, she rescued it in fact. Securing a twenty-year lease for Menabilly, she restored and renovated the house at her own expense and lived there for the next twenty years before moving to the dower house, where she died. Living in the house she loved, she would write about it in terms that echo sentiments expressed by Maxim in the novel:
“It’s wrong,” I think, “to love a block of stone like this, as one loves a person.”
But all of that came later. In 1937, as she started work in her Rebecca Notebook, her fictional Manderley was empty and neglected, abandoned by its owners, as the real Menabilly was in her memory. Bored and homesick, she conjured secrets for this beautiful, lonely house from half-remembered stories she had heard about an owner who divorced a “very beautiful” first wife and married again, a much younger woman.
I wondered if she had been jealous of the first wife, as I would have been jealous if my Tommy had been married before he married me. He had been engaged once, that I knew, and the engagement had been broken off – perhaps she would have been better at dinners and cocktail parties than I could ever be.
Seeds began to drop. A beautiful home … a first wife … jealousy … a wreck, perhaps at sea, … something terrible would have to happen … I paced up and down the living room in Alexandria, notebook in hand, nibbling first my nails and then my pencil.
… If only we did not have to go out to dinner that night, I wanted to think. (My emphasis)
She began work on the novel by writing what she saw as an epilogue, the tragedy already in the past, the couple condemned to wander through a world of second-class hotels, enduring a homesickness so intense they can’t bear to talk about it. This draft “epilogue” found its way to the front of the finished novel, opening with one of the most famous first lines in English fiction: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
IN TERMS of the balance of power in a marriage, du Maurier loads the dice against our young narrator, who doesn’t even have a name.
She does, of course, have a name, but other than that it is a good name – whatever that means – we are never told what it is. She is Mrs de Winter to us. Du Maurier claims that she couldn’t think of one – but look how charged with meaning “Rebecca” is, even as those meanings change depending on who is recalling her at the time. So our young narrator has to borrow Rebecca’s cast off “Mrs de Winter”. She doesn’t wear it well. Its constant use, reinforced by her lack of a given name, reminds us, as well as the staff and other characters in the novel, that this she is a poor substitute for the original. The name “Mrs de Winter” is a hinge: it holds the story open so that the ghostly Rebecca can slip through and make her presence felt.
Not only is our narrator young; she also comes from a different world, a lower social class, than her husband. Recently rescued from the position of paid companion, she doesn’t have any authority with servants, doesn’t know how to talk to them or how to assert her will – if she has a will to assert. Passive in the extreme, she allows her days to drift by with no useful purpose. On her first morning in Manderley, with Maxim gone to the estate office after breakfast, she goes back up to her room for refuge but interrupts the housemaids at their work.
One was sweeping the floor, the other dusting the dressing-table. They looked at me in surprise. I quickly went out again. It could not be right, then, for me to go to my room at that hour in the morning. It was not expected of me. It broke the household routine.
No one has explained anything to her. She blunders about, looking for a place to go, something to do. The servants watch her stumble and drop things; they see her go through the wrong doors into the wrong rooms. She feels herself judged and found wanting.
Her mornings are spent in a room that is entirely expressive of Rebecca’s taste, Rebecca’s personality. Every piece of furniture, each ornament, has been chosen by her predecessor. Ticketed pigeonholes in the writing desk highlight Rebecca’s industry, in contrast with our narrator’s incompetence. The notepaper and envelopes evoke an image of Rebecca, writing letters in the striking handwriting our narrator recognises. The only person she can write to is Mrs Van Hopper and she does so, noticing for the first time “how cramped and unformed was my own hand-writing; without individuality, without style, uneducated even, the writing of an indifferent pupil taught in a second-rate school”.
Rebecca as an idea haunts every page of this novel, just as she haunts the house and grounds of Manderley and the marriage of her successor. But we never meet her in her own right, we only ever hear of her indirectly, third-hand, from people with a vested interest in influencing our perception one way or another. Initially she is a figment of our young narrator’s imagination: the ideal wife, beautiful, universally loved; perfect hostess, party-giver, style icon. Even Maxim acknowledges that Manderley’s grace and style are entirely due to Rebecca.
For the sake of the story, we are encouraged to believe that it is jealousy that makes Rebecca’s successor doubt herself and her marriage – du Maurier has said so. But it’s clear to a reader that her own sense of inferiority and insecurity are at fault. It is the convention of the perfect wife that oppresses the second Mrs de Winter, an ideal, rather than an actual, woman who makes her feel inadequate. Her real problem is her notion of what a wife should be and her belief that such a paragon could exist or ever had existed. Parentless and friendless, she doesn’t know how to cross the gap between what she is and what she thinks she should be.
Rebecca was written in the 1930s. The tyrannical ideal that the dead Rebecca represents has much in common with Virginia Woolf’s Angel in the House, an entity with the psychic power to destroy a woman’s autonomy and creativity, reinforcing as she did Victorian notions of the sort of creature a decent woman should be.
You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her – you may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House. I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it – in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all – I need not say it – she was pure. (“Professions for Women” )
Our narrator matches this description in self-effacement, but without the innate beauty, grace and assurance also required of the ideal wife, qualities Rebecca had in abundance. Rebecca is instantly recognisable to the reader as the impossible ideal, as present in Manderley as the Angel is present in Woolf’s writing room. Woolf has to kill her Angel so that she can write. Look back to Du Maurier’s account of dreaming up Rebecca:
… If only we did not have to go out to dinner that night, I wanted to think.
REBECCA is a chimera; she changes when seen from different perspectives. We never meet her on terms of her own. Of course it suits Maxim, who killed her, to give a negative impression of who she was: depraved, evil, manipulative. The more perceptive of his friends suspected her and the vulnerable Ben feared her but most people loved and admired her – including the servants, who would surely be the hardest to fool.
Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper – admittedly not the most reliable of witnesses – adored Rebecca. One of the novel’s most memorable scenes finds our young narrator in the bedroom that used to be Rebecca’s. “A guest again. An uninvited guest. I had strolled into my hostess’s bedroom by mistake. Those were her brushes on the dressing-table, that was her dressing-gown and slippers laid out upon the chair.”
Mrs Danvers, as obsessed with Rebecca as our narrator is, surprises her there. She has preserved this part of the house as a shrine to Rebecca, untouched since she died. For her, Rebecca is the lost love, stolen from her too soon. Her manner is creepily suggestive, even sexual:
She took hold of my arm, and walked me towards the bed. I could not resist her, I was like a dumb thing. The touch of her hand made me shudder. And her voice was low and intimate, a voice I hated and feared.
“That was her bed. It’s a beautiful bed, isn’t it? I keep the golden coverlet on it always, it was her favourite. Here is her nightdress inside the case. You’ve been touching it, haven’t you? This was the nightdress she was wearing for the last time, before she died. Would you like to touch it again?”
On and on it goes, this nightmare of fingering Rebecca’s clothes, of having Rebecca’s life spoken into her ear, comparisons made between her and Rebecca.
“She had little feet for her height. Put your hands inside the slippers. They are quite small and narrow, aren’t they?”
She forced the slippers over my hands, smiling all the while, watching my eyes.
In thrall – as we are – our young narrator can’t resist the older woman’s insinuations.
“Sometimes I wonder,” she whispered. “Sometimes I wonder if she comes back to Manderley and watches you and Mr de Winter together.”
THE SEXUAL dimension of the de Winter marriage is hidden from us, the matrimonial bedroom door kept firmly shut. Apart from our narrator’s response to Maxim’s proposal, there is no expression of love between them until they undergo their crisis; no sense of passion or of inhibitions shed, or an everyday self unmasked. There are hints that our narrator’s youth has restored Maxim’s vigour but these are few and far between. In a telling exchange, Maxim observes his wife as she daydreams and comments on the change in her expression:
“I don’t want you to look like you did just now. You had a twist to your mouth and a flash of knowledge in your eyes. Not the right sort of knowledge.”
I felt very curious, rather excited. “What do you mean, Maxim? What isn’t the right sort of knowledge?”
“Listen, my sweet. When you were a little girl, were you ever forbidden to read certain books, and did your father put those books under lock and key?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, then. A husband is not so very different from a father after all. There is a certain type of knowledge I prefer you not to have.”
In her husband’s eyes, the second Mrs de Winter is an embodiment of the virtuous, virginal innocent – Woolf’s pure Angel – while the first – Rebecca – is her equally stereotypical opposite: the vicious sexual predator.
Rebecca, as presented to us by the husband who killed her, is a manifestation of the worst fears of every man of his class and time: sexually avid, serially unfaithful and worst of all threatening to pollute the bloodline and undermine heredity by bearing another man’s child in her husband’s name, a crime that in pre-DNA-testing days could never be proven. A crime that, of all crimes, might even justify murder?
“I thought about Manderley too much,” he said. “I put Manderley first, before anything else. And it does not prosper, that sort of love. They don’t preach about it in the churches. Christ said nothing about stones, and bricks, and walls, the love that a man can bear for his plot of earth, his soil, his little kingdom. It does not come into the Christian creed.”
No, but passion for a house was something du Maurier understood and shared. Rebecca was her fifth novel, but it was her seventh book. She had already completed two of the many studies, fiction and non-fiction, that she would write about her illustrious and deeply interesting ancestors. She gives the second Mrs de Winter her own fascination with time and history, with ghostly remnants and historical traces. Not only does Rebecca’s successor feel her predecessor’s presence everywhere she goes, but she imagines other generations of people inhabiting the rooms of Manderley, leaving a room as she enters, walking in the woods ahead of her. She thinks a lot about time and how permeable the present might be to impressions of the past.
This all comes to a head when the de Winters host an extravagant costume ball to introduce our young narrator to the neighbourhood. At the suggestion of Mrs Danvers, her costume copies that in a portrait of Caroline de Winter, an unknown predecessor. When she puts on the pure white dress she feels that she has come into her own at last. As Caroline, she will surprise her husband. She has never felt so alive or so happy as she does impersonating this long-dead woman. She doesn’t know that Rebecca wore the identical costume and wig at the previous Manderley ball. Caroline, Rebecca and our narrator come to the ball together, in costume, as one woman, all dressed up in virginal white, ready to party. This fusion of three identities precipitates the first crisis of the novel. Maxim loses his temper and orders her to change, then punishes her with coldness and silence. Distraught, our narrator goes through the motions of hosting the party, convinced her marriage is over.
In the morning, she considers her position and understands that she went through the motions of being a hostess out of “a wretched tribute to convention”. She realises that she could endure the misery of a failed marriage only if the outside world doesn’t know. This unusual degree of self-knowledge gives her a measure of strength for the drama that unfolds as first Rebecca’s body is found and then Maxim confesses that he killed her.
It is only then, when she is stunned by what he has told her, that Maxim turns to her as a lover. At first she is too shocked to respond but slowly she wakes up to the moment. She sees her chance and takes it:
“We can’t lose each other now,” I said. “We’ve got to be together always, with no secrets, no shadows.”
Later that night they sit in the library.
We did not talk much. I sat on the floor at Maxim’s feet, my head against his knees. He ran his fingers through my hair. Different from his old abstracted way. It was not like stroking Jasper any more.
He has revealed himself and she hasn’t run away. She has come into her own, she is his wife. She will be loyal. She has power over him now, she will keep his secrets. She’ll stand by her man. She thinks she understands the bargain she has made.
I would never be a child again. It would not be I, I, I any longer; it would be we, it would be us. We would be together. We would face this trouble together, he and I … I was not young any more. I was not shy. I was not afraid. I would fight for Maxim. I would lie and perjure and swear, I would blaspheme and pray.
THE NEXT morning, Rebecca’s successor is transformed. She summons a maid to complain that the morning-room is not ready for a new day and responds to an apology with “Don’t let it happen again”’ as though she’d been born to give such orders. She asks for changes to the day’s menu. Mrs Danvers comes to question the order.
“If Mrs deWinter wanted anything changed she would ring me personally on the house telephone.”
“I’m afraid it does not concern me very much what Mrs de Winter used to do,” I said. “I am Mrs de Winter now … And if I choose to send a message … I shall do so.”
In effect she has woken up from the spell that Manderley has laid on her and is ready to enter its class-ridden world. The sign du Maurier gives us of her new, assured personhood is that Mrs de Winter now feels entitled to give orders and expect that they will be carried out.
Rebecca is a novel of two halves. We now move into a tense, fast-paced drama of legal enquiry, revelation, exposure, evasion, the twists and turns we expect of such a story. Again and again du Maurier plays with our expectations. Even the car chase, when it happens, sees the magistrate, if he’d only known it, in the same car as his proper prey, with the aggrieved relative/perceived villain in pursuit. Even here, the novel scores a point. Class bias and a sense of the right sort of people inclines the magistrate to sympathise with the de Winters rather than Rebecca’s sleazy, disreputable cousin who has guessed the truth but can’t prove it.
Maxim has convinced his young wife that Rebecca deserved to die although she, silly girl, doesn’t care. All that matters to her is that he loves her. A twenty-first century reader, less susceptible to his charms, needs more. Knowing what we know now about marital violence and wife-killing, we wonder how much his young wife understands. What illusion has she entered, what bargain has she actually made? For all its narrative drive and skill, for all our interest in the de Winters as they wriggle free of the law, there is something more than a little queasy in the ultimate reveal, where we learn that Rebecca was going to die anyway, that she wanted Maxim to kill her and provoked him.
She made him do it.
Du Maurier injects enough uncertainty and contradiction into her story to arouse the suspicions of an attentive reader. She allows Maxim to get away with murder – he is spared scandal, prison, a trial and the hangman’s noose – but the de Winters must be punished and they are. Manderley is detroyed by fire and they are condemned to live in exile.
The second Mrs de Winter has come full circle. Her life now is the one that Maxim described, mocking her, when he proposed to her. She is his companion. They move from second-rate hotel to second-rate hotel, down a notch on the social scale from where they were in the beginning, so as not to meet anyone they know. Grief for Manderley and the world they lost has ruined them.
IN A passion of grief during an encounter with the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca’s room, Mrs Danvers reveals a glimpse of Rebecca that we don’t see anywhere else: her rebellious strength, her energy, her cruelty, her should-have-been-a-boyness. And when she was finally defeated,
“It wasn’t a man, it wasn’t a woman. The sea got her. The sea was too strong for her. The sea got her in the end (…) You’ll never get the better of her. She’s still mistress here, even if she is dead. She’s the real Mrs de Winter, not you. It’s you that’s the shadow and the ghost. It’s you that’s forgotten and not wanted and pushed aside.”
And so it is. The novel ends. The de Winters are in exile and Manderley has gone. It is Rebecca, the unsolved mystery, who lives on in our minds with an unanswered, unanswerable question: who was she?
Lia Mills writes novels, short stories, essays. Her latest novel, Fallen, is published by Penguin.