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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier— the identity puzzle

Cover of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, her fifth and most famous novel

I hesitated about reading Rebecca for many years. The plot was so familiar from all the times I’ve watched the Hitchcock film version that I wondered if the book itself would offer anything I didn’t already know.

My concerns were unfounded. The text does have all the drama, suspense and atmosphere of the Hitchcock adaptation but it’s far more nuanced and thought-provoking than I had anticipated.

Now I’m going to take a gamble that most of you all know the key elements of the story and its memorable opening line. Repeat after me ….. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” So I’m not going to waste time on a detailed synopsis.

Suffice to say this is the story of a naive, lonely girl swept off her feet by a wealthy Englishman, Maxim de Winter. After a whirlwind courtship, she becomes mistress of his grand country manor house, a role for which she feels completely unprepared.

Her feelings of inadequacy are exacerbated by the constance presence of her predecessor’s spirit. In every corner of Manderley, there are reminders of the first Mrs de Winter, the beautiful, vivacious Rebecca. She’s the very opposite of the new bride in appearance, manner and behaviour. The young girl becomes increasingly obsessed with Rebecca, an obsession fuelled by the housekeeper Mrs Danvers who treats the house as a shrine to her former mistress.

Before the novel finishes, the truth of Rebecca’s life and death is revealed amid plenty of melodramatic flourishes. We get a disastrous costumed ball, a storm; a sunken yacht; a body; betrayals and lies and a catastrophic fire.

Hitchcock and Ben Wheatley who directed the 2020 version with Lily James in the key role, both stay faithful to the romance, Gothic and psychological aspects of the novel for the most part. But they only lightly touch on two elements that make Rebecca a much more disturbing and darker novel than it appears at first glance.

The Identity question

The question of identity for example is more evident in the book. The woman who narrates the story is never named. She’s referred to simply as “the Girl” before her marriage and then as Mrs de Winter — all we learn of her is that she has “a lovely and unusual name”. But we never get to discover what that name is. She has no identity of her own, only that conferred on her by other people.

Her identity becomes further lost as her obsession with her predecessor takes hold. Rebecca, she comes to believe, is her rival; a woman who is everything she is not: glamorous, sophisticated; the perfect hostess; perfect chatelaine and perfect wife. Where the second nameless wife is a drab, shadowy figure who moves around Manderley as if a ghost; Rebecca is flesh and blood, a woman whose scent lingers in the room and whose name is part of the fabric of the house from its furnishings and routines to her headed notepaper and hairbrush.

We’re led to accept the narrator’s version of herself as Rebecca’s opposite yet du Maurier repeatedly shows them as mirrors or alter egos of each other. In one of the important scenes in the book, the second Mrs de Winter wears the exact same costume her predecessor had worn to the Manderley Ball.

We see this mirroring more frequently as the story progresses, culminating in a dream sequence in the final chapters where the narrator goes to the mirror and sees Rebecca’s face, not her own.

it was very pale, very lovely, framed in a cloud of dark hair. The eyes narrowed and smiled. The lips parted. The face in the glass stared back at me and laughed.

The person who was once “the Girl” has disappeared by the end of the book, subsumed by the stronger personality. No wonder Daphne Du Maurier thought her novel was  a “rather grim” and “unpleasant” tale .

The marriage question

Publishers played up the romance dimension of Rebecca when it was released in 1938, describing it as “an exquisite love story” when it was released in 1938. It does have a certain fairy tale quality I suppose — the lowly paid lady’s companion given an entry ticket to wealth and status through marriage with a handsome widower.

But I didn’t find much evidence of love in this novel. Max de Winter is true to his name; cold and somewhat distant. His proposal — “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” — comes across more like a convenient arrangement than a proclamation of deep affection. if she was dreaming of a blissful, loving life together, she’s in for a rude awakening. The only time Maxim declares his love is after his confession that he killed his first wife. The ensuing passionate embrace is so unusual is so unusual that the narrator remarks on it with a sense of wonder; “He had not kissed me like this before,” she recalls.

Until then Maxim has paid scant attention to helping his bride settle into her new role. Almost as soon as she’s crossed the threshold of Manderley, he abandons her so he can discuss business with his estate manager Though he knows she has no experience of running any kind of house, let alone one with the history and status of Manderley, he never explains how she should manage servants, choose menus or spend her time. He simply leaves her adrift, and vulnerable to the machinations of Mrs Danvers.

Does she ask for his help like any sensible woman? No. Does she complain? Once, but then only about the fact she feels treated like a plaything. Yet that’s exactly how she does act for much of the novel.

I wish you would not treat me as if I was six,’ I said.
‘How do you want to be treated?’
‘Like other men treat their wives’
‘Knock you about, you mean?’
‘Don’t be absurd. Why must you make a joke of everything? .. You’re playing with me all the time just as if I was a silly little girl.’.

By the end of the book we’re led to believe she’s undergone a transformation. No longer the eager, guache person who crossed the threshold of Manderley, but a new confident woman, secure in her knowledge of Maxim’s love. The final paragraphs could I suppose be seen as a happy ever conclusion with the two of them living “in unison” now that Rebecca’s power is vanquished.

Yet their life together seems bleak and monotonous.

They live in a small hotel somewhere in Europe, viewing the world from a balcony and avoiding places where they might encounter people from the past. Their days follow a settled routine; afternoon tea; the cricket Test Match scores and judiciously chosen snippets from days-old magazines. It’s the life you might imagine adopted by an elderly retired couple though the narrator is still only in her mid twenties and her husband is about 45.

We do know however that this is a woman much given to dreaming. Whole pages of the novel are devoted to her fancies and imaginations. So is this professed peaceful, harmonious life another of her fancies or is she maybe putting the best possible spin on it? Are they in exile out of choice or because there is still a whiff of scandal hanging over Maxim?

I ‘m still wrestling with answers to those questions though I’m inclined to believe Daphne du Maurier when she wrote to her publisher Victor Gollancz that “It’s a bit on the gloomy side”. She wrote Rebecca at a time of unhappiness in her own life and that atmosphere is what I sense most in the final scene.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: Footnotes

First published in 1938, Daphne du Maurier’s fifth novel was to become her most famous. Critics dismissed it as merely a “gothic romance” but the reading public disagreed and the book became an immediate and an overwhelming commercial success. In the 80 plus years since its first appearance, it has never been out of print, its popularity swelled by Hitchcock’s film version and multiple stage, radio adaptations.

if you’re interested in discovering more about the different layers of meaning in the book, The British Library has some good articles here

It’s one of the books on my second Classics Club list..

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