Review of Rebecca - Ann WillmoreWhen Daphne du Maurier was a child she went to stay at a house called Milton, near Peterborough. It was a huge house and very grand with a vast entrance hall, many rooms and a commanding housekeeper. This was a house with numerous staff, where even the children would be waited on at breakfast by the butler. Daphne liked the house, feeling at home there and held it in her memory.
As a young adult Daphne discovered Menabilly, the home of the Rashleigh family, situated just outside Fowey in Cornwall. It was a large house hidden away down a long driveway with vast grounds surrounded by woodland and a pathway leading down to a cottage nestled beside the sea with two beaches sheltered in a little cove. Daphne would visit the house often, trespassing in the grounds. The house was empty and neglected but she loved it. Much later Daphne was to live at Menabilly and do much of her writing there and her love for Menabilly was to last her a lifetime.
It was a combination of these two houses that became Manderley, the house at the centre of Daphne du Mauriers novel Rebecca, which opens with the famous lines:
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me”.
Daphne started to write Rebecca in the late summer of 1937. Her husband, Tommy had been posted to Egypt as commanding officer of the 2nd battalion of the Grenadier Guards and she had left her two little girls Tessa and Flavia in England with their nanny while she accompanied him. This enforced separation from her beloved Cornwall must have caused Daphne to turn her thoughts to writing a novel set in that area and although she could not know it at the time, she was writing the book that was to become her most famous work. The book was completed when Tommy was posted back to Aldershot and the family were reunited in a house called Greyfriars near Fleet in Hampshire. Victor Gollancz published Rebecca in April 1938.
The central character of Rebecca is the second wife of Maxim de Winter. The novel begins with her reflecting on a dream she has had about Manderley and as she remembers her dream the story unfolds. The character is never named but she tells the story in the first person and is traditionally referred to as the narrator.
The story begins in Monte Carlo where a rich American woman called Mrs Van Hopper is staying with her paid companion, the young and inexperienced narrator. Mrs Van Hopper discovers that Maxim de Winter is staying at the same hotel and is eager to meet him, as an air of mystery and sadness is said to surround him since the recent death of his wife Rebecca. To Mrs Van Hopper’s delight she gets the opportunity to invite Maxim to join her and chatters away in her crass manner while he remains icily polite and the narrator remains quietly in the background.
Mrs Van Hopper becomes indisposed and while she is confined to her room Maxim and the narrator get to know one another. The narrator thinks Maxim is wonderful but his is twice her age and much more experienced in life than her and despite the fact that they go out together every day and spend a lot of time together she thinks Maxim is just being kind to her. When Mrs Van Hopper suddenly decides to leave Monte Carlo the narrator is distraught at the thought of never seeing Maxim again, but Maxim asks the narrator to marry him and she accepts. Mrs Van Hopper is very disparaging of their relationship and tells the narrator that Maxim is only marrying her because he is lonely and that he has not got over the death of Rebecca.
Once married Maxim takes the narrator home to Manderley his country estate in Cornwall. As they motor down the long drive towards the house the narrator feels anxious at the prospect of what the future holds. Maxim and the narrators arrival is greeted by the entire staff of the house and estate and the narrator feels nervous as she is introduced to Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper. Mrs Danvers is a frightening looking woman with hollow eyes.
On the first day at Manderley Maxims sister Beatrice, her husband Giles along with Maxims estate manager Frank Crawley come to lunch so that they can be introduced to Maxims new wife. Beatrice is a very blunt and plain speaking woman and after lunch she tells the narrator that Mrs Danvers worshiped Rebecca. That afternoon, when the visitors have gone, Maxim takes the narrator and his dog Jasper for a walk through the grounds and down to the bay where there are two beaches. On the further beach is an old boathouse and Jasper runs to it with the narrator following but Maxim gets angry and calls them away, marring what had started as a happy afternoon.
Once Maxim has calmed down he explains briefly that if the narrator had his memories of the boathouse and the beach and the bay she would not want to go there either. The narrator knows that Rebecca was drowned in a boating accident in the bay, and Maxim tells her that he identified her body when it was found about two months later, forty miles up the coast but Maxim is very upset and does not want to talk about it any more. A few days later the narrator approaches the subject of Rebecca with Frank Crawley who tells her that Rebecca was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen.
Living at Manderley proves to be difficult for the narrator partly because there are reminders of Rebecca everywhere but also because she is unfamiliar with such grandeur. She is unable to give instructions to the staff effectively and she finds Maxim distant once he is back at work running the estate with Frank. Mrs Danvers runs the household as she did when Rebecca was mistress and although faultless as a housekeeper she makes her contempt for the narrator obvious at every opportunity. It is clear that Rebecca loved the lifestyle that the narrator is struggling with.
A few days later Maxim goes to London on business leaving the narrator at Manderley. While he is away a man called Jack Favell visits Mrs Danvers. He is introduced to the narrator as Rebecca’s cousin. Jack chats to the narrator in a rather over familiar manner but when he leaves he asks her not to mention the visit to Maxim.
Maxim and the narrator have a suite of rooms in the East Wing of the house overlooking the rose garden but Rebecca and Maxim’s rooms were in the West Wing overlooking the sea. When Jack has gone the narrator ventures into the West Wing of the house to see what it is like. Mrs Danvers suddenly appears and offers to show the narrator Rebecca’s room. The room is just as it would have been when Rebecca was alive. All her clothes are in the wardrobe, her hairbrushes are on the dressing table, even her nightdress is on the bed and everything is exquisitely beautiful. Mrs Danvers talks about Rebecca with loving devotion and describes the night that Rebecca went out sailing and never returned leaving Maxim distraught.
The narrator is distressed by how powerfully Rebecca’s presence is felt in and around Manderley even though she has been dead for over a year. And how everyone seems to want to tell her how wonderful Rebecca was except Maxim who can hardly bear to mention Rebecca’s name.
Traditionally a fancy dress ball is held at Manderley every year and it is agreed that the tradition should continue so that Maxim can show off his bride to the county. The narrator cannot make up her mind what to wear. Surprisingly Mrs Danvers steps in to help and suggests that she copies the costume from a painting of Caroline de Winter, one of Maxim’s ancestors. The narrator keeps her costume a secret and despite much teasing from Maxim, who suggests that she should dress as Alice in Wonderland, she will not be drawn into telling anyone except her maid.
On the evening of the ball the narrator’s maid helps her to dress and transformed into Caroline de Winter she looks absolutely beautiful as she steps out of her bedroom and down the stairs to where Maxim, Beatrice, Giles and Frank are waiting. But as she steps forward a look of horror crosses all their faces and Maxim starts shouting at her. The narrator tries to explain that she has copied the painting, but by now Maxim is shaking with rage and tells her to go and get changed. The narrator turns and runs back to her room, tears filling her eyes and as she runs she sees Mrs Danvers standing in the shadows with a look of triumph on her evil face.
Soon afterwards Beatrice comes to the narrators room. She explains that Maxim thought that the narrator had chosen the costume deliberately because it is identical to the costume Rebecca wore to her last ball. Later, when she has calmed down a little, the narrator changes into an ordinary evening gown and takes her place at Maxim’s side for the rest of the evening, but there is a tension between them and the narrator fears that she has lost Maxim completely.
The next morning all thoughts of the ball have to be put to one side when a ship hits the rocks in the bay. Maxim and Frank go to help and all the crew from the ship are rescued, but a diver is sent down to check the damage to the ships hull and while he is under water he discovers a little sailing boat on the seabed. Plans swing into place to raise the sailing boat and when it surfaces a body is discovered on the floor of the cabin that is later identified as Rebecca.
The narrator has believed for a long time that Maxim’s love for Rebecca is what is causing him to be so distant with her and she is desperately worried at how Maxim will react to the discovery of Rebecca’s body. However she is not prepared for what he is about to tell her. Instead of being saddened by the sharp reminder of Rebecca’s death he is angry that her body has been found and finally he is ready to really talk to his young wife.
He tells the narrator that he had never loved Rebecca and that they had lived a lie from the first, with her playing the part of the mistress of Manderley while she carried on numerous liaisons with other men, both at her flat in London and at Manderley. She had tried to involve Giles and Frank but much of her time had been spent with Jack Favell, who she met at night in the boathouse. Maxim explained that he had gone along with her to maintain the pretence of a successful marriage to preserve the good name of Manderley, the home he loved, but eventually the situation had become unbearable and one night when Rebecca had returned from London and gone straight down to the boathouse, Maxim had taken his gun and followed her expecting to catch her with Jack Favell. Maxim had been surprised to find Rebecca alone, but she had taunted him saying that if she were pregnant he would not be sure who the father of her child was. This was too much for Maxim and he shot Rebecca, then carried her body out to her boat, which he took out to sea and sank by driving three holes into the bottom of the boat. No one had suspected anything and later Maxim had identified the body of a woman, though he knew it could not be Rebecca and his guilt at what he had done had been interpreted as grief by everyone.
Although the situation is grave the narrator feels that she and Maxim can cope with anything now that she knows that Maxim did not love Rebecca. An inquest takes place attended by Colonel Julyan, the local Justice of the Peace. Problems arise when William Tabb, the boat builder, says that Rebecca was an excellent sailor and that the boat would not have sunk but for the holes that had been deliberately driven through the bottom of it. However, there seems to be no motive for foul play and eventually a verdict of suicide is given.
Later that evening Maxim and Frank bury Rebecca at a private funeral in the chapel on the Manderley estate. While they are out Jack Favell arrives a little worse for drink and demands to see Maxim. The narrator feels it is best to invite him in and they wait together for Maxim. When Maxim and Frank return Jack Favell says he has a letter that Rebecca wrote to him on the day she died, asking him to meet her at the boathouse that night. He claims that she could not have intended to commit suicide and says that if he makes it known that he has such a letter, it could make things difficult for Maxim. Jack Favell is not a rich man and this is clearly developing into an attempt at blackmail. Maxim will have none of it and calls Jack’s bluff by telephoning Colonel Julyan and asking him to come over.
When Colonel Julyan arrives Jack shows him the letter and the discussion rapidly develops into a heated argument during which Jack says that Rebecca was his lover and that they were going to be married. He then goes a step further and actually accuses Maxim of murdering Rebecca. Colonel Julyan tries to calm the situation down and points out that there is no real proof that Jack and Rebecca were involved with one another. Jack insists that Mrs Danvers be summoned, but instead of supporting Jacks story she says that Rebecca did not love Maxim or Jack and just played with their affections to amuse herself.
Colonel Julyan asks Mrs Danvers if she can think of a reason why Rebecca would have killed herself, but Mrs Danvers is emphatic that Rebecca would never have done such a thing. He then asks what Rebecca had been doing in London on the day she died. With the help of Rebecca’s appointments diary the group discover that Rebecca had made an appointment with a man called Baker. This person is unknown to everyone, but there is a telephone number in the diary and Colonel Julyan rings the number and finds out that the number relates to a Dr Bakers consulting rooms. It is agreed that Maxim, the narrator, Colonel Julyan and Jack Favell will travel to London the next day and try to speak to Dr Baker in the hope that he can throw some light on what happened that day.
Dr Baker certainly does have some answers for the group when they gather in his home the following day. He tells them that Rebecca had seen him on a previous occasion and he had taken X-rays and that she had returned on the day in question for the results. It was bad news and he had told her that she had an inoperable growth and that there was nothing he could do for her other than offer her painkillers. Maxim thanks Dr Baker and they all leave. Jack Favell looks grey and shaken, he had no idea about Rebecca and now there is a suicide motive he has lost his hold over Maxim.
The small group part company and Maxim and the narrator go for a meal. They are free of Rebecca and can begin their life together at last. Later they set off on the long journey home to Cornwall. They drive through the night and it is about two thirty in the morning as they approach Manderley and see the sky lighting up like the first red streaks of sunrise, little by little spreading across the sky. But this is not the sunrise it is flames and Manderley is burning.
In the Christian Science Monitor, September 14th 1938 page 12, V S Pritchett reviewed Rebecca for the American public. He said that it had received fabulous reviews in England, reading almost like advertising copy. He then went on to say that it would be absurd to make a fuss about Rebecca, which would be here today and gone tomorrow like the rest of publicity’s masterpieces. How wrong he was, Rebecca became the most famous of all Daphne du Maurier’s novels and is still the one that she is best remembered for. Daphne could never understand its popularity saying that it was simply a study in jealousy.
Rebecca has been variously described, firstly as an example of the Cinderella story but with the central character being helped from rags to riches by the older man who marries her rather than the more traditional help of a fairy godmother. Rebecca has also been described as the first major gothic romance in the 20th century. It certainly contains all the elements of the great gothic novel and had often been compared to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, with the house so strongly influenced by the previous occupant, the brooding hero in the shape of Maxim, the mad woman in the shape of Mrs Danvers, the growing tension, and finally the house destroyed by fire.
There is another school of thought that believes the Rebecca, Maxim, narrator triangle is a reproduction of the relationship between Daphne du Maurier and her father and mother or perhaps Daphne, her husband Tommy and his previous fiancée. The love that Daphne and her father Gerald had for one another is well documented, as is the less comfortable relationship that Daphne had with her mother. It has been suggested that the younger woman’s struggle to feel secure in the older mans love because of the influence of the more sophisticated and successful Rebecca comes from the relationship Daphne had with her parents. Another similar suggestion comes from the fact that Tommy had been engaged to a very beautiful and self-assured woman before he knew Daphne and although this relationship was called off, Daphne was consumed with jealousy and doubted that Tommy could love her as much as he had loved the other woman. It seems likely that this woman may well have been developed to create the character of Rebecca. Either way there can be little doubt that the nameless second Mrs de Winter is none other than Daphne du Maurier herself.
Over the years many people have asked why the second Mrs de Winter does not have a name. Daphne du Maurier’s reply to this was that she could not think of one and it became a challenge in technique to write the whole story without naming her. It proved to be a very effective way of making the character appear to be a lesser person than Rebecca, so that she is less confidant, less capable, less attractive to Maxim, not even a significant enough person to be named.
In 1939 Daphne du Maurier adapted Rebecca for the stage and the play, like the novel, has retained its popularity ever since. The story does leave one with lots of unanswered questions and there have been a number of attempts to write sequels to Rebecca. In 1993 Susan Hill wrote Mrs de Winter, which continues the story to quite a successful conclusion and in 2001 Sally Beauman wrote Rebecca’s Tale, which moves the story on twenty years and then looks back at what happened with interesting results and without spoiling any of the tension of the original novel. Undoubtedly the interest in Rebecca will continue for a long time to come.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (Gollancz 1938, Doubleday 1938)
© A. Willmore 2002.