A somewhat forgotten book today, it was interesting for me to discover that Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, was one of the most successful books of the twentieth century, has been translated into many languages and has never been out of print. It has also been adapted into three film versions, most famously in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 version, starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson – a film version that du Maurier reportedly liked. She wrote many other books, several of which were also adapted into movies, but she would always be associated with Rebecca.
However, I might not have heard of Rebecca if I hadn’t watched the movie. I saw the Masterpiece Theater version from 1997 with Charles Dance and Emilia Fox and then I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s version, which I especially have grown to appreciate. It might possibly be my favorite Hitchcock and it is not a typical Hitchcock film. The accuracy is mostly owing to producer David O. Selznick, who believed that if a book were good, it ought to be adapted faithfully. Hitchcock, however, did not like to adhere to his source material; he preferred to use a book or short story as an inspirational spring board for his own vision. He did that with du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn in 1939 and du Maurier was not pleased. But when I began reading Rebecca, I was amazed at how closely the movie follows the book, in spirit, character, events and dialogue.
Of course, the first thing that happened when I sat down and opened the book was that I could hear Joan Fontaine’s voice narrating the opening words, just as she did at the opening of the film, and I could see Hitchcock’s opening scene and it took me forever to get off the first page because I was so busy seeing and hearing the movie. However, once I got going, my reading was much smoother.
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…
The book is narrated in the first person. We never find out the narrator’s first name or maiden name, but know her only as “I,” and Mrs. de Winter. But she is actually the second Mrs. de Winter. The first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, was drowned ten months earlier.
She meets Maxim de Winter at a resort in Monte Carlo, where she is a paid companion to a Mrs. Van Hopper. She falls completely and rather desperately in love with him and, like a fairytale, is amazed when he asks her to marry him. But she is not sure if he loves her. She has heard repeatedly about his first wife, Rebecca de Winter, who he is said to have adored.
And when she comes to Manderley, she instantly feels how inadequate she is to the task of being mistress of the house. She feels that people are comparing her to Rebecca and she can see all around her evidence of Rebecca, at her desk, in the west wing of the house that has been shut up. People mention Rebecca frequently, except Maxim, and she hears about her from both the servants and the neighbors; how beautiful Rebecca was, how accomplished she was at all things. Rebecca becomes a constant ghost in the house that the narrator is comparing herself to and she believes Maxim is comparing them, too.
One of the great characters in the book is Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper. She was played in Hitchcock’s movie by Judith Anderson, who also would be known for playing Lady Macbeth several times, which gives one an idea of what kind of a person Mrs. Danvers is. She is part malign and chilling presence, always prepared to cow Mrs. de Winter and demonstrate how little she has a place in Manderley, and part tragic and pathetic figure who worshipped Rebecca and has been devastated by her loss. She is, from the beginning, an implacable enemy to Mrs. de Winter.
The book is an interesting combination of genres. It is part ghost story, part gothic romance and part psychological study of insecurity and jealousy. Her son, Christian, has said that du Maurier maintained that she was not writing a romance novel, but “a study in jealousy.” The ghost element comes in how Rebecca is, essentially, haunting the house, but she is haunting it in people’s memories and in their minds. The new Mrs. de Winter becomes so obsessed with Rebecca that at one point it completely skews how she is understanding the behavior of others, especially her husband. She becomes convinced that he regrets marrying her and is still grieving for Rebecca.
It is gothic in the mystery regarding Maxim and Rebecca and in the suspense and setting at Manderley, with the sea and the dark woods and the fog and rain and storms. Maxim also strikes me as a classic gothic hero; elegant, impatient, masterful in his treatment of people, and brooding.
But as Daphne du Maurier maintained, it was mostly about jealousy. I think that is a significant reason why the book has an enduring appeal; it taps into something that all people understand. We all know what it’s like to look at another person and think how inadequate we are in comparison to them. It is a story about insecurity and the narrator blames herself, several times, for her own timidity. It prevents her from understanding, both because she is too timid to ask and because her insecurity is distorting her understanding of things.
Daphne du Maurier does a remarkable job of portraying the inner life of Mrs. de Winter. Many people believe that it was partially autobiographical, but whatever the reason, it is almost painful to read at times, because the emotions are very recognizable: the shyness, awkwardness, discomfort with people and the role that she is expected to play as mistress of Manderley. There is the mortification she feels when she accidentally breaks a china cupid and, like a guilty child, tries to hide it only to have Mrs. Danvers accuse another servant so that Mrs. de Winter has to confess it. She is clumsy, her clothes are not chic, her manner shrinking and all the while the servants are looking on. And like many shy people who think inside themselves a lot, she has a tremendous imagination. She is constantly imagining how something is going to turn out or what a group of people are talking about and she draws on experience, expectation and the things she’s read to fill out her inner fantasy. When she believes that Maxim is going to jail, her imagination kicks into gear and she has it all figured out from when they take him away to the last time she will see him before he is executed. The irony is that her flights of imagination are almost always wrong.
Although du Maurier called it a study of jealousy, the book is also an expression of du Maurier’s own love affair with one particular estate called Menabilly, in Cornwall. She first had a sight of it while she was vacationing with her sister and would frequently come back to trespass on the land, once even slipping through a window to wander around the now shut-up house. Later, she received permission to walk on the land and even later rented the place.
Her love of the place is very central to the book. Maxim loves his home and lovingly describes the various scents of the flowers and the gardens and one particular valley and his love plays a central role in his story and is the cause of several of his decisions, unwise ones, that drive the plot.
It’s an interesting book in that a character who is dead should play such an important part of the story. In fact, much of the story is past by the time the book begins. Rebecca was never much admired by the critics, but du Maurier felt that they had missed the point. They took it at face value and didn’t look at it more closely. Most books celebrate, or at least are about, bold and impetuous characters and I’ve never particularly identified with them. Rebecca goes a little farther. It gives a wonderful portrayal of the inner life of a shy and insecure person and how they view the world.