Rebecca in 5 Bites
1. If you think about opening a story with a dream, think again. Daphne du Maurier’s opening of Rebecca has it down to perfection. Mrs de Winter the second’s dream of Manderley combines the surrealism of the dreamscape with a carefully crafted sensory exploration of the wild encroaching on civilisation. The descriptions of the garden are lush and sensuous but uncomfortably so – Nature is ‘stealthy’ with ‘long tenacious fingers’. Trees are ‘squat’ and ‘tortured’ and and alien trees have ‘thrust themselves out of the quiet earth.’ Images of sexuality are abundant – but also claustrophobic, ‘A lilac had mated with a copper beech, and to bind them yet more closely to one another the malevolent ivy, always an enemy to grace, had thrown her tendrils about the pair and made them prisoners.’
All of this ungovernable nature foreshadows revelations about Rebecca, the first Mrs de Winter who has so successfully left her mark on Manderley that the nameless and timorous Mrs de Winter is unable to erase her predecessor. Just as the opening scene is a dark enchantment, so will we be in Rebecca’s thrall, as she haunts Manderley still.
2. So, is it a book about real estate? ‘There was our Manderley, ‘ the second Mrs de Winter declares, recollecting her dream, ‘our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the grey stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and the terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, not the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.’ Has it even been Mrs De Winter the second’s Manderley?
I think one of the reasons for the continued popularity and relevance of Rebecca is that in an era of marriage breakdowns, serial monogamy and people choosing more experimental forms of relationships like polygamous ‘constellations’ – not to mention rising mortgage rates and rental costs – it’s not uncommon for a partner to move into an ex’s domain. Rebecca is a cautionary tale for those of us who have done exactly that. And, of course, there’s the other factor that Rebecca was extremely good at curating a lifestyle. These days there’s little doubt she would be an influencer, adept at creating a vivid and desirable social media presence. As it is, she has occupied this position in the more restricted circles of Manderley, famous for her parties, her charm and for effortlessly managing everything that so irritatingly defeats the second Mrs de Winter.
3. Fascination – the novel is all about seduction – but who is being seduced and by whom? Max de Winter and the narrator’s marriage appears sexless. Oh, she tells us about her passion, but it sounds more like the distant admiration a school girl has for an older, more experienced brother or cousin, ‘I would sit with his map upon my lap, the wind blowing my dull, lanky hair, happy in his silence yet eager for his words.’ She bites her nails. She cries like a child. She is clumsy, self-doubting and very young. To be sure, du Maurier has her reflect that in Venice, on their honeymoon, Max was both a lover and a friend. But the reader doesn’t see that. We see the over-burdened Max de Winter, bent under the weight of real estate and memory.
No, the real seduction in the novel is between the Mrs de Winters – the ghost of Rebecca as the narrator imagines her, vivid, sophisticated and knowing. When the narrator sneaks into Rebecca’s old quarters, as furtive as a child, she discovers the rooms have been left as they were when Rebecca was alive, her thin, apricot night-dress still creased and fragrant with the scent of white azaleas. Of course, she should have those rooms exterminated, burnt the clothes or sent them to the op shop. She should have fired the odious Mrs Danvers and read some useful self-help books on household management but – and this is a problem – Mrs de Winter the second is a curiously passive victim.
4. The plot. Melodramatic? Yes. And, you do know the ending right from the start. Unbelievable? Yes. But, like a fairystory, it holds the reader. We’re as mesmerised as the narrator, in watching the events of her unhappy life unfold in an intricate series of betrayals and missteps.
5. The narrator. Look, seriously – you just want to shake her. Show some backbone! Stop mooning! Wash that hair and for heaven’s sake, book a manicure. There are, of course, signs of her goodness. The honest Frank likes her. Ben, the innocent idiot savant, declares she has ‘angel eyes’. The villainous Mrs Danvers hates her. I do think it’s interesting that she only comes into her own when Max de Winter is effectively emasculated. (Shades of Jane….) And why the hell hasn’t she a name? Agatha Christie apparently wrote to Daphne du Maurier and begged du Maurier to tell her the narrator’s name but du Maurier was not forthcoming. Staying nameless, she subjugates herself even further to her husband’s power.
Like Jane Eyre, the narrator considers herself plain and awkward. Unlike Jane she has never flirted and, despite her protestations, exhibits as much passion as a goldfish. In the end, though, do we feel sorry for her? She’s been out of depth from the get-go, socially climbing without any of the correct equipment and destined to be duped and disappointed. Instead of her wild dreams of becoming Manderley’s mistress, she’s now resident in a series of lack-lustre hotels, playing companion to the increasingly irritable Max de Winter (who, let’s face, deserves his fate!). On the other hand, do we feel for sorry for a woman who is prepared to forgive her husband for what is surely unforgivable?
It is not a romantic novel – it’s unsettling and nightmarish. Rebecca is punished for her sexual appetite, Max de Winter is exiled from his dream of Eden and the narrator settles back into a life that resembles her old life, only with a demanding, peevish husband rather than a demanding, peevish employer. Daphne du Maurier was thirty years old when she wrote Rebecca. She was unhappily married, jealous of her husband whose love letters to another woman she had discovered. She was also sexually conflicted – she famously fell in love with the wife of her US publisher and, later, with the actor, Gertrude Lawrence. Reading Rebecca you can see how she uses the novel, in part, to play out the complexity of her own emotional and sexual intensities.
Have you read Rebecca – and if so, what do you think the twenty-first century reader takes away from this intriguing novel?