Warning: Spoilers for the novel lie ahead.
And so, Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca begins. No fanfare, just a simple statement to draw you into the story. Narrator to reader, right away.
It’s hard to know where to begin about Rebecca. It’s definitely within the tradition of the great gothic works which popped up like Monsoon frogs all throughout the 19th century. However, once you snap shut your Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, you can go about your day unfrazzled. Not so with Rebecca, which sticks with the reader even after they’ve finished it.
The synopsis is simple enough; it’s your standard rich-man-marries-poor-girl premise. Maxim de Winter is a recent widower who, rather impulsively proposes to our young and naïve protagonist when they meet by chance in Monte Carlo. It’s a meet-cute that isn’t saccharine, but also a little suspicious, considering the former Mrs. de Winter died a year prior to her husband going wife-hunting again. His new squeeze – our protagonist – is an orphan who has been working as a lady’s maid, all that time barely daring to hope for anything else in her life. Little surprise, then, that she is swept off her feet by the aforementioned Mr. de Winter. Overjoyed at first, it is only when she arrives at her new husband’s sprawling estate, Manderley, that she realizes what she has got herself into.
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’
Maxim de Winter’s wife is only briefly mentioned at the beginning of the book, but she’s central to this story, even though she’s dead.
How so, you ask?
Well, dear reader, that question just happens to be the perfect segue into the most interesting aspect of Rebecca: the haunting nature of memories.
The Persistence of Memory
Rebecca focuses heavily on the evocative power of memory. This is also possibly where it splits off from its gothic roots, and explores new territory. Because, you see, the plot of Rebecca may have many similarities to Jane Eyre – as many critics claim – but it does not have your concrete madwoman in the attic. Here, the proverbial madwoman does hang around, but she’s far more of an abstraction. The novel also goes beyond the narrow confines of gender issues, in my opinion. Instead, it digs its heels into the modernist sensibility with its exploration of memory. Rebecca makes you wonder at how tangible memory can be for some, and it asks the reader which alternative would be worse: holding on to your past, or trying to erase it completely.
It also explores the intriguing question of what comprises a haunting. Does a house need a physical ghost sauntering about in it to make it haunted? Or can memories of the dead persist so strongly that it’s like they’re still around?
Okay, stay with me. I’ll explain.
Rebecca, whom the novel is named after, is the Mr. de Winter’s late wife. She’s reported to have been extremely beautiful, extremely accomplished, and extremely efficient at running Manderley, the estate. All the extremelies that our current heroine is not. So, the bar is pretty high, and difficult enough to reach without being constantly reminded of just how out of place she feels with high culture and aristocratic life.
We have the trope, if you wish, of the creepy servant, who seems to know something, but doesn’t let it slip. Mrs. Danvers is probably the originator for the cliché of ‘the butler did it’, given her antagonistic appearance and habits. She is the top of the pecking order of domestic help around Manderley. She also takes a strong dislike to the protagonist when she arrives for no reason other than that she is not the former Mr. de Winter, that she is not her beloved Rebecca.
Besides, there’s something very odd about the affection that Mrs. Danvers has for her former mistress; it is a far deeper fondness than anyone should possess for their employer. It borders on worship. We find out later that she was Rebecca’s nanny when the latter was a child, but even that should not warrant so blind a bond. We’ll come back to this later, but in the meantime, consider this excerpt. Rebecca may be dead, but Mrs. Danvers keeps her lady’s room in impeccable order, as if waiting for her to return:
‘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?’ She took the nightdress from the case and held it before me. ‘Feel it, hold it,’ she said, ‘how soft and light it is, isn’t it? I haven’t washed it since she wore it for the last time. I put it out like this, and the dressing-gown and slippers, just as I put them out for her the night she never came back, the night she was drowned.’’
And if Mrs. Danvers keeps Rebecca’s memory alive, Maxim de Winter does everything in his power to suppress it, which only succeeds in exacerbating the problem. He seeks, at first, to cover Rebecca’s memory with his new wife’s – a palimpsest of women, if I may. On reading the book one can argue that he’s worse, if not as bad as, Mrs. Danvers in helping the protagonist understand his actions as a person and how she can fit into her new role. He bluebeards his way into their marriage, and doesn’t tell her anything about his relationship with Rebecca. He’s also ominously silent about her death. For the majority of the novel, it’s not even clear to the reader if he loves his new wife, or marries her, as the protagonist’s former employer suggests, out of loneliness. When the protagonist voices this concern after he proposes to her, he replies with, ‘‘I’m afraid I think rather differently from you. All memories are bitter, and I prefer to ignore them. Something happened a year ago that altered my whole life, and I want to forget every phase in my existence up to that time.’’
But that’s not all of it, for the former Mrs. de Winter hangs around more than in mentions alone. There are tangible objects, scattered like motifs through the book, that remind everyone constantly of her. The protagonist comes upon touchstone after touchstone of memory. There was the book of poems with Rebecca’s dedication to Maxim de Winter on the title page, which our protagonist promptly cut out and burned – but the memory of it didn’t go away, oh, no. Then there are the writing materials at the desk, and the forest of azaleas, which Rebecca planted herself. On and on, the instances come,and the house is run and kept in much the same way as it used to be under Rebecca de Winter – as if she is still around and exerting her influence on Manderley – all to the point that the protagonist dresses up the same way that Rebecca used to for the annual Manderley Ball.
Rebecca ran the estate, we are told, and it is not surprising that she put in a variety of features that appealed to her. But the unease factors in when the reader realizes that Manderley is replete with these, and that it is impossible to live there without being constantly reminded of her, whether intentional or not. Maxim laments to his new wife:
‘‘The gardens, the shrubs, even the azaleas in the Happy Valley; do you think they existed when my father was alive? God, the place was a wilderness; lovely, yes, wild and lonely with a beauty of its own, yes, but crying out for skill and care and the money that he would never give to it, that I would not have thought of giving to it – but for Rebecca. Half the stuff you see here in the rooms was never here originally. The drawing-room as it is today, the morning-room – that’s all Rebecca. Those chairs that Frith points out so proudly to the visitors on the public day, and that panel of tapestry – Rebecca again.’‘
A Sensuous Cornucopia
This book is beautiful to read. Daphne du Maurier draws the reader in not only with her plot, but with her use of language and her descriptions. If you, like me, are a fan of descriptive writing, this is a book for you. For instance, here’s an extract when the protagonist and her husband take a walk to the ‘Happy Valley’, a grove of azaleas planted by Rebecca.
‘The sky, now overcast and sullen, so changed from the early afternoon, and the steady insistent rain could not disturb the soft quietude of the valley; the rain and the rivulet mingled with one another, and the liquid note of the blackbird fell upon the damp air in harmony with them both. I brushed the dripping heads of azaleas as I passed, so close they grew together, bordering the path. Little drops of water fell on to my hands from the soaked petals. There were petals at my feet too, brown and sodden, bearing their scent upon them still, and a richer, older scent as well, the smell of deep moss and bitter earth, the stems of bracken, and the twisted buried roots of trees. I held Maxim’s hand and I had not spoken.’
The characters in the novel are remarkably well-formed, including the protagonist, who is also the narrator. This is surprising, considering she is unnamed, and manages to stay so throughout the novel. I can’t say that she doesn’t have a story arc, though, because she does, and a pretty good one at that. She goes from passive, naive girl to assertive and self-assured woman.
How Daphne du Maurier managed this feat without letting her name slip once is beyond me, but it eerily suits the narrative when you consider that the protagonist is expected to take on the role of Rebecca rather than have her own identity at Manderley.
Maxim de Winter can’t be depended upon as a very reliable narrator of his side of the story, but the other characters back him up to an extent. We find out that he killed Rebecca, but we don’t yet know if their altercation at the beach hut went the way he described it, him being the only one who witnessed it.
The Eerie Bits
It would be easy for readers to say dismissively, ‘Sure, it’s a book about memory, then. Where’s the gothic in it?’
You see, the influence of memory can be uncanny and sinister. Daphne du Maurier is a veteran with the uncanny, and she doesn’t waste this fact. She has a way of presenting a scene to the reader and tweaking it so it is just a bit off in a manner you can’t quite put your finger upon. Here’s a snippet of that: In this scene, our protagonist reminisces about Manderley after it burns down, and wonders what it might be like now, and she acknowledges that it probably wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for your neighbourhood tramp to stray into the estate. ‘There might linger there still a certain atmosphere of stress’, she thinks. ‘That corner in the drive, too, where the trees encroach upon the gravel, is not a place in which to pause, not after the sun has set. When the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress, and when they shiver suddenly, and fall, and scatter away along the ground, they might be the patter, patter, of a woman’s hurrying footstep, and the mark in the gravel the imprint of a high-heeled satin shoe.’
Creating a feeling of the uncanny in readers is an art. It’s not easy, and it makes all the difference between the jump-scare brand of horror and the deeper kind that unsettles you for days. Rebecca makes use of the latter kind, as a novel, and does a very good job with it.
Here’s a good time to discuss Mrs. Danvers. The narrator describes her face as skull-like, with high cheekbones and sunken eyes. Rude enough, but perhaps warranted when we find watch how she treats our protagonist, encouraging her later in the story to jump to her death from Rebecca’s room. There’s definitely something odd about the woman, but what strikes the reader the most is her blind worship of Rebecca. To say that the former Mrs. de Winter was merely spoiled growing up would be an understatement. If we are to go by what Mrs. Danvers says, Rebecca’s character borders on the malevolent.
‘‘She did what she liked, she lived as she liked. She had the strength of a little lion too. I remember her at sixteen getting up on one of her father’s horses, a big brute of an animal too, that the groom said was too hot for her to ride. She stuck to him, all right. I can see her now, with her hair flying out behind her, slashing at him, drawing blood, digging the spurs into his side, and when she got off his back he was trembling all over, full of froth and blood. “That will teach him, won’t it, Danny?” she said, and walked off to wash her hands as cool as you please.’’
Several critics (obviously, mostly feminist) have suggested that Rebecca is misunderstood. That’s a valid assertion, considering that all the information we learn about her comes from either Maxim or his close friends. However, I do think that this passage stands out as proof that she had some deeper issues, since it comes from Mrs. Danvers. Most youngsters would not treat a horse in this brutal a manner without qualms.
This is a possible idea for a longer opinion post. Rebecca is a morally grey figure, and a very interesting one to discuss. Let me know in the comments if that’s something you’d like to read.
Do I think Rebecca de Winter is unhinged? No. Do I think she’s malevolent? Perhaps, to an extent. There’s a lot of supportive arguments in the text to point to this. Do I think the malevolence she had helped her linger around the estate the way she did?
There are subtle moments all over the text where something intangible and otherworldly is suggested, like when Mrs. Danvers suggests that Rebecca’s ghost still inhabits Manderley in a chilling exchange with the narrator.
‘‘It’s not only this room,’ she said. ‘It’s in many rooms in the house. In the morning-room, in the hall, even in the little flower-room. I feel her everywhere. You do too, don’t you?’ She stared at me curiously. Her voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Sometimes, when I walk along the corridor here, I fancy I hear her just behind me. That quick, light footstep. I could not mistake it anywhere. And in the minstrels’ gallery above the hall. I’ve seen her leaning there, in the evenings in the old days, looking down at the hall below and calling to the dogs. I can fancy her there now from time to time. It’s almost as though I catch the sound of her dress sweeping the stairs as she comes down to dinner.’ She paused. She went on looking at me, watching my eyes. ‘Do you think she can see us, talking to one another now?’ she said slowly. ‘Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?’’
It isn’t clear whether she says this to frighten the narrator, our protagonist, or if she really believes that her former mistress walks around the old house. Either way, the perceived presence of the former Mrs. de Winter is unsettling. It’s the subtle, oblique suggestions like this, that du Maurier uses, that give the novel its gothic undertone. Take the example, if you will, of this passage, with the new Mrs. de Winter trying to find her way to the Ball and its guests.
‘It would not be quiet like this any more. A board creaked in the gallery. I swung round, looking at the gallery behind me. There was nobody there. The gallery was empty, just as it had been before. A current of air blew in my face though, somebody must have left a window open in one of the passages. The hum of voices continued in the dining-room. I wondered why the board creaked when I had not moved at all. The warmth of the night perhaps, a swelling somewhere in the old wood. The draught still blew in my face though. A piece of music on one of the stands fluttered to the floor. I looked towards the archway above the stairs. The draught was coming from there.‘
There is the palpable sense of something-not-quite-right in that paragraph. The reader is not shown anything to alarm him or her, but light hints are dropped. Your mind is left to fill in the missing pieces, which is much scarier than any jumpscare.
In conclusion, Rebecca is a beautiful book. Even in its creepiness, its decidedly unheimlich character, there is beauty, such as when Manderley is burning down, and to the protagonist, the flames looked ‘as though the dawn was breaking over there, beyond those hills’.