I am now the proud possessor of Virago’s 80thanniversary edition of Rebecca which has the most exquisite cover inspired by a scene in the novel where the second Mrs. de Winter comes across Rebecca’s azalea- scented handkerchief monogrammed with the letter ‘R’. The handkerchief design along with the ‘R’ was first hand stitched and embroidered on fabric and then photographed for the cover which was embellished with gold foil to give the appearance of gold threads.
First published in August of 1938, Rebecca has never been out of print and has had numerous avatars on stage and on screen including the suspenseful Alfred Hitchcock 1940 film adaptation. Written in the first person from the point of view of an unnamed narrator, Rebecca is a gothic romance, an intriguing murder mystery or a psychological thriller depending upon the reader’s perspective. According to Daphne du Maurier, it is primarily a study of jealousy. And the handkerchief scene itself could owe its existence to personal moments in Du Maurier’s life when she came across correspondence by her husband’s ex-fiancée, Jan Ricardo who signed the ‘R’ in her letters with a flourish.
Whatever genre the novel might belong to, there is no denying that right from the very first sentence, “ Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”, the reader is hooked and transported to this quasi dream-like, quasi menacing space which mirrors the sentiments of the highly imaginative narrator and her world of fantasy. Every time I read Rebecca, I discover something new about it that I had overlooked earlier.
When I first read Rebecca as a teenager, I considered it to be a traditional romantic story in the vein of Cinderella. A timid and innocent young girl of modest means while working as a lady’s companion to the insufferable Mrs. Van Hopper, is swept off her feet on a trip to Monte Carlo by the much older and worldly widower, Maximillan de Winter, with this unexpected marriage proposal:
“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.”
After a whirlwind courtship, she is whisked off to Manderley, a stately estate on the Cornish Coast replete with gardens and servants and, alas, the presence of the dead first wife Rebecca who despite her absence still haunts the mansion and its inhabitants and eventually the thoughts of the young narrator herself, bringing out her doubts and insecurities. And just like the Cinderella story, there is an evil stepmother in the background in the form of Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper who makes her life hell for she is still exceedingly loyal to the memory of her former employer whom she adored. The kind-hearted narrator eventually surmounts the obstacles in her path and wins the affection of her Prince Charming and they live happily ever after or so I thought when I was a starry-eyed youngster.
In my mid to late twenties, I thought of Rebecca more as a coming of age story where the narrator has to learn to forge her own identity. Maxim turns out to be a morose and distant Heathcliffesque character. Besides, the shadow of the first wife hangs over their marriage and the new wife feels like an imposter in her own home. How could this socially awkward and shy girl compete with a dead woman who was the epitome of beauty and grace and whose virtues were extolled by everyone?
I could fight with the living but I could not fight the dead. If there was some woman in London that Maxim loved, someone he wrote to, visited, dined with, slept with, I could fight her. We would stand on common ground. I should not be afraid. Anger and jealousy were things that could be conquered. One day the woman would grow old or tired or different, and Maxim would not love her anymore. But Rebecca would never grow old. Rebecca would always be the same. And she and I could not fight. She was too strong for me.hh
She can’t stand up to anyone including the servants despite being the mistress of the house and occupying a more superior position. I felt bad for this unassertive girl who has to deal with the stern and intimidating Mrs. Danvers. The second Mrs. de Winter is probably the literary character I could most identify with at that stage in my life. I have had to face quite a few forbidding Mrs. Danvers type people myself and I could relate to the plight of the insecure child- woman. I rooted for her and I wanted her to blossom into a more confident person and to make her place in the home and in the heart of her husband. She has such a weak sense of self that Du Maurier decided to keep her anonymous. This is an ingenious device to show that she pales in comparison to the charismatic Rebecca and that her identity is wrapped entirely into her husband’s name.
The narrator’s obsession with her predecessor grows and as we learn more about Rebecca, we discover that she was a manipulative woman of licentious behavior and a far cry from the perfect woman she was imagined to be. Interestingly, I didn’t pay too much attention to the murder mystery element of the story till I read it in my thirties. Was Rebecca’s death an accident, did she commit suicide or was she murdered?
Half way through the novel Maxim makes a stunning confession to his new wife. He is the one responsible for the murder of his ex-wife. One would think that she would be livid that he had committed a crime or even terrified that she is married to a murderer. Doesn’t she fear that she could be the next victim? But the silly girl is relieved to hear that he had never loved Rebecca. It dawned on me that the character I had once felt sorry for has no integrity or backbone. Along with the narrator, I had probably condoned the murder too when I read the book in my youth as I probably wanted her to be happy and secure in her husband’s love. I completely forgot that aspect of the story when I read it again at a later date. It is interesting how Du Maurier makes the readers complicit in the murder. Alfred Hitchcock made the murder an accident as he didn’t want to shock the audience by portraying the hero as the anti-hero. Although the film was excellent in its own way, much of the chilling impact of the book was lost by altering this detail.
I read Rebecca again last year and I realized that it is far from the love story I imagined it to be in my youth. Maybe I’m jaded with age but the Maxim I once found handsome and thrilling is a moody and controlling bully who infantilizes his wife and treats her much like he treats his pet dog, Jasper. Why does the narrator make him get away with the murder instead of reporting him? Perhaps it is not love but the fact that a submissive woman ends up gaining control over her domineering husband as she is the only one who knows his damning secret! What an amazingly brilliant book! I am now reading Rebecca from a feminist angle as a story of identity, gender roles and power struggles within a traditional heterosexual marriage. But there are so many ways to read this fascinating story which taps into our most primal emotions of love, fear, jealousy and obsession. There have been Freudian, Jungian, Lacanian and queer interpretations of the book. One could argue that the book is essentially about repressed sexuality. Isn’t it telling that the one character who asserts her sexual freedom poses a threat to the conventional patriarchy and is unceremoniously murdered and dumped?
END OF SPOILERS
In the end Rebecca’s ghost has been driven out. Or so believes the narrator. But there is an interesting scene where she looks at her reflection only to see Rebecca peering back at her from the mirror. Maybe she unconsciously wishes to be Rebecca herself. Rebecca appears to be the alter ego, the sexually alluring and exciting counterpart to the naive and inexperienced young woman. And even if Rebecca’s ghost has been exorcized for the narrator, it has not for the readers. We return again and again to the story and will never be free of its seductive grip. Even Rebecca’s boat is prophetically named “ Je reviens” or I’ll return as Sarah Perry points out in the introduction to the new Virago edition. And let’s not forget that the narrator herself had once cried out in despair, “ Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca”.
The anniversary edition cover is a fitting tribute to an exemplary writer. Now excuse me so I can go make a pot of English Breakfast and re -read Rebecca for the umpteenth time in this new stunning edition! I wonder what new insights I will have as I continue reading this cherished book throughout my life.