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A new look at the inspiration for that illusive character: Echoes of Rebecca – by Chris Main.

Recently I introduced Chris Main to you when he shared with us his thoughts on the new Netflix film of Rebecca, (see DduM website news page 31st October 2020).  Today we bring you a full-length article that he has written for us.  In this thought-provoking and insightful piece, Chris looks at the novel Rebecca from the point of view of the inspiration for Rebecca herself. 


As we all watch the new Netflix film version of Rebecca, released last month, some may be drawn again to wonder about the unseen title character.

In her 'Afterword' to the Virago paperback edition, Sally Beauman writes:

"Long after the book has been closed, which character reverberates in the memory? Rebecca. And which of the two women are readers drawn to, which of these polar opposite fascinates and attracts? Rebecca again, I would say - certainly for modern readers." [1]

That was certainly true for Sally because in 2001 she wrote Rebecca's Tale, in which she gives us her version of Rebecca's back story. Much earlier, in 1976, Antonia Fraser wrote a short piece for Harpers and Queen called Rebecca's Story, covering similar ground, to which Daphne was invited to respond. This exchange is reprinted in The Daphne Du Maurier Companion (Virago). Both Sally and Antonia start from the premise that Rebecca was not the demonic figure painted in the novel. In her amusing response to Rebecca's Story, Daphne wonders how she had got it all so wrong! 

Part of our desire to know more about Rebecca is how little Daphne tells us. We are taken on a journey of discovery by the narrator in trying to understand the nature of the force that is blighting her marriage and her life. She finds it hard going – nobody really wants to talk. When Maxim finally opens up after Rebecca's body is discovered, the story starts on the honeymoon and ends with her murder. We learn nothing about how they met and what he saw in her in the first place. Earlier, Maxim comments that Rebecca knew a lot about china and Frank Crawley thinks she was the most beautiful creature he ever saw – not much to go on. On a furtive visit to the dead woman's bedroom, we get our first detail on Rebecca's appearance from Mrs Danvers:

"She had a beautiful figure…She was every bit as tall as me. But lying there in bed she looked quite a slip of a thing, with her mass of dark hair, standing out from her face like a halo." [2]

It is not until after the fateful Manderley Ball that Mrs Danvers breathlessly gives us some rather creepy memories of Rebecca's younger years and her outlook on life, as she tries to persuade her successor to leap from an upstairs window. From these outpourings emerges the picture of a rather obnoxious young girl, who was so spirited she should have been born a boy – something her Father had often told Daphne. Rebecca grows up into a bewitching but callous and amoral woman who hated men but revelled in exploiting them for amusement and financial support. To put the icing on this unappetising cake, she is cruel to animals, which is the last straw for we British! Daphne was never afraid to make her characters extreme – read The Progress of Julius or The Little Photographer. Yet everyone loved Rebecca even if, deep down, they knew she was bad.

From where did this terrible creature emerge? Daphne often described the way in which stories and characters developed in her mind over time – a process she called 'brewing'. She described this process as something very personal and private – she had no wish to explain and would deflect questions – often by giving a simplistic answer. In the case of Rebecca, the simplistic answer was 'Jan Ricardo'. Jan was her husband's former fiancιe, and Daphne had found some of her letters in a bureau drawer in the early years of their marriage. Jan's elegant handwriting struck Daphne, and she knew that she was dark-haired, beautiful and sophisticated. Her jealous reaction triggered the idea of the contrast between Maxim's two wives. In this straightforward version then, Jan is Rebecca, and the nameless second wife is Daphne. Alfred Hitchcock was so irritated by her missing first name that he took to referring to the character as 'Daphne De Winter' on the set of the 1940 movie.

Most commentators think it is a bit more complex than that, and it is a popular idea that in fact, the two wives represent two different sides of Daphne's own character. Rebecca is her free spirit – the Daphne who sailed her own yacht, the Marie-Louise, in Carlyon Bay and rode with Foy Quiller-Couch on Bodmin Moor; the Daphne who seduced her teacher in finishing school and toyed with the affections of the actor Carol Reed and the millionaire Otto Kahn. The second Mrs de Winter is the Daphne who felt so ill at ease as the Commanding Officer's wife, hated the round of cocktail parties and superficial socialising in Alexandria, and was berated by her husband for her poor performance in running the household.

This interpretation obviously makes sense, but as I have read books about Daphne and novels that influenced her, I have found other echoes of Rebecca, which may have been supporting ingredients in the brew. See what you think!

When we talk about Daphne's influences, all roads lead back to her Grandfather, George. Daphne worshipped the memory of George and considered him the root of her own creativity. His three novels, Peter Ibbetson, Trilby and The Martian, would have been among the first she read, and his own favourite books were introduced to the three granddaughters by their father, Gerald. George loved the novels of Alexander Dumas – and this is reflected in the choice of the name 'Porthos' for Peter Ibbetson's dog – something later copied by J.M. Barrie. Recalling the games of make-believe the three sisters played in childhood, Angela tells us:

"Later on I suppose we became identified with people in books. I'm sure we were the three musketeers, poor Jeanne becoming Aramis, I fancy. I was Athos and Daphne was D'Artagnan. We could find no Porthos".[3]

So, Daphne was familiar with these stories from a young age. In The Three Musketeers, I am struck by the character of Milady De Winter. When you consider this character, she could so easily be the 'my lady' Mrs Danvers is describing. Both Milady and Rebecca were beautiful and seductive – but cruel and manipulative. Both have 'strength apparently above that of a woman' [4], combined with amorality; dangerous but irresistible. Both have the same capacity to inspire love and hate.

This woman exercised over him [D'Artagnan] an unaccountable power; he hated and adored her at the same time. He would not have believed that two sentiments so opposite could dwell in the same heart, and by their union constitute a passion so strange as it were, diabolical.[4]

Many people have questioned why Daphne chose the name 'De Winter' – it is certainly not Cornish! Ideas have been put forward that it expresses Maxim's coldness – but perhaps the name was chosen for her, not him. Is Rebecca a kind of reincarnation of Milady De Winter – a French woman who pretended to be English? Having been executed by men for the crime of behaving like one, Milady returns, only to experience the same fate! In Rebecca's Tale, Sally Beauman picks up on the idea of Rebecca having French ancestry.

As to the name Rebecca, Daphne had created a similar character for her very early short story The Doll.

"Rebecca – Rebecca, when I think of you with your pale earnest face, your great wide fanatical eyes like a saint, the narrow mouth that hid your teeth, sharp and white as ivory, and your halo of savage hair, electric, dark, uncontrolled – there has never been anyone more beautiful.

She left early that day, and I crossed the room to ask Olga about her. I was in an agony of impatience to know everything. Olga could tell me little. "She comes from Hungary," she said, "no one knows who were her parents, Jewish, I imagine".[5]

Daphne used the same imagery of the 'halo' of dark hair. Rebecca may have a halo, but she is no angel. This image of the dark-haired beauty of Jewish ancestry was familiar to Daphne from her Grandfather's work. George considered himself a connoisseur of female beauty and would often discuss the relative merits of different colouring and complexion.

For George, Rebecca is a character in Sir Walter Scott's 1819 classic novel, Ivanhoe. This tale of swashbuckling knights of the middle ages features two beautiful woman – Rowena – a noble lady with fair hair, and Rebecca of York, a beautiful dark-haired Jewess of more humble background.

The figure of Rebecca might indeed have compared with the proudest beauties of England, even though it had been judged by as shrewd a connoisseur as Prince John. Her form was exquisitely symmetrical, and was shown to advantage by a sort of Eastern dress, which she wore according to the fashion of the females of her nation. Her turban of yellow silk suited well with the darkness of her complexion. The brilliancy of her eyes, the superb arch of her eyebrows, her well-formed aquiline nose, her teeth as white as pearl, and the profusion of her sable tresses, which, each arranged in its own little spiral of twisted curls, fell down upon as much of a lovely neck and bosom as a simarre of the richest Persian silk, exhibiting flowers in their natural colours embossed upon a purple ground, permitted to be visible—all these constituted a combination of loveliness, which yielded not to the most beautiful of the maidens who surrounded her.[6]

In 1850, William Makepeace Thackeray (author of Vanity Fair), wrote a kind of tongue in cheek re-write of the story, in which he questions Ivanhoe's choice of Rowena as his bride and the disappearance of Rebecca from the story. In Rebecca and Rowena, Ivanhoe chooses Rebecca instead – in Thackeray's view much the more interesting of the two.

"Thus I would desire that the biographies of many of our most illustrious personages of romance should be continued by fitting hands, and that they should be heard of, until at least a decent age. My dear Rebecca, daughter of Isaac of York, has always, in my mind, been one of these; nor can I ever believe that such a woman, so admirable, so tender, so heroic, so beautiful, could disappear altogether before such another woman as Rowena, that vapid flaxen-headed creature, who is, in my humble opinion, unworthy of Ivanhoe, and unworthy of her place as heroine. Had both of them got their rights, it ever seemed to me that Rebecca would have had the husband, and Rowena would have gone off to a convent and shut herself up, where I, for one, would never had taken the trouble of inquiring for her."[7]

George was friendly with Thackeray, having previously provided illustrations for his 'Esmond' novel. Picking up on the comparison of these two contrasting women, in his last novel The Martian, George's alter-ego, Barty Josselin is wrestling with the choice between the fair-haired Julia and the dark-haired Leah Gibson. The two are cast in an opera, as Barty watches on:

He could see that Leah and Julia often looked at each other, he could also see, during the intervals, how many double-barrelled opera-glasses were levelled at both; it was impossible to say which of these two lovely women was the loveliest; probably the most votes would be have been for Julia, the fair-haired one, the prima donna assoluta, the soprano, the Rowena, who always gets the biggest salary and most of the applause. The brunette, the contralto, the Rebecca, dazzles less, but touches the heart all the more deeply, perhaps; anyhow Barty had no doubt as to which of these two voices was the voice for him.[8]

Describing Leah (the alto-ego of George's wife Emma Whitewick), Barty observes:

… after five minutes I came to the conclusion that Miss Gibson is as beautiful as it is possible for a dark beauty to be, and as nice as she looks. In Leah the high Sephardic Jewish type was more marked than in Mrs Gibson. I find myself dreaming of Rebecca of York, as I used to dream of her in the English class at Brossard's, where I so pitied poor Ivanhoe for his misplaced constancy.[8]

Our last echo comes from Jane Eyre – often cited as a source for Rebecca. There are key differences though, an obvious one being that in Charlotte Bronte's novel, the existence of the first wife is unknown for most of the story. The contrasting women, the Rebecca and the Rowena, are Jane and her rival for Mr Rochester's affection, Blanche Ingram. The Ingram family is impoverished, but there is a beautiful daughter. The hope is that the family's plight might be remedied by marrying Blanche to the wealthy Mr Rochester. Antonia Fraser picks up on this plotline in Rebecca's Story.  Before the Ingrams arrive at Thornfield for a visit, the Housekeeper, Mrs Fairfax, describes Blanche to Jane:

Tall, fine bust, sloping shoulders; long, graceful neck: olive complexion, dark and clear; noble features; eyes rather like Mr Rochester's: large and black, and as brilliant as her jewels.  And then she had such a fine head of hair; raven-black and so becomingly arranged: a crown of thick plaits behind, and in front the longest, the glossiest curls I ever saw. [9]

Blanche is an accomplished horsewoman and dazzles the company with her fine singing. Jane finds the Housekeeper's description accurate enough, but also notes:

She laughed continually; her laugh was satirical, and so was the habitual expression of her arched and haughty lip.[9]

The arrival of Blanche sends Jane into a tailspin of handwringing about her own inadequacy and how she could have been so stupid as to imagine there could ever be anything between herself and Mr Rochester. In Rebecca, when Mrs De Winter first explores her predecessor's bedroom, she is similarly intimidated.

How white and thin my face looked in the glass, my hair hanging lank and straight. Did I always look like this? Surely I had more colour as a rule? The reflection stared back at me, sallow and plain.[2]

Despite the obvious charms of Blanche, Mr Rochester is not tempted and prefers the more modest and worthy Jane. This assessment is echoed by Frank Crawley as he tries to reassure the new Mrs De Winter.

"…I should say that kindness, and sincerity, and – if I may say so – modesty are worth far more to a man, to a husband, than all the wit and beauty in the world."[2]

Before she began to write Rebecca in Alexandria in the late summer of 1937, Daphne had returned to London to give birth to Flavia, her second child. She had rented an apartment at Queen Anne Mansions in St James' Park, and she moved in on April 1st. The plan was for Angela to stay with her for two weeks until her due date when a nurse would take over. The following day, the sisters went for a drive in Angela's Morris 8 with its limited suspension, and the baby duly arrived that same day. Four days later, on April 6th, a few miles across London in Marylebone, Jan Ricardo was married to Ian Constable Maxwell, who came from a well-connected family related to the Duke of Norfolk amongst others. This was a big society occasion, and Angela was among the guests. The wedding was notable enough to be included in that week's Gaumont newsreel. No doubt Angela gave Daphne a full report as she recovered at the apartment. Perhaps this brought Jan's letters back to her mind, and the idea of the contrast between the 'Rebecca' character and the role to which she found herself condemned in Alexandria came into sharper focus. Jan was a very suitable person on which to 'peg' all these ingredients. She had Sephardic Jewish ancestry, she was dark, beautiful and glamourous. She had a confident, flamboyant hand - and she had been engaged to Daphne's husband.

Whether any of these literary echoes were ingredients for the character of Rebecca, I cannot say for sure. But like all artists, Daphne absorbed many influences at a young age, and these things remain in the subconscious to make an appearance later. I think that possibly Milady De Winter, Rebecca of York, Leah Gibson and Blanche Ingram provided a little additional flavouring for the heady brew of Rebecca De Winter, which had begun long before Daphne, the frustrated officer's wife, stumbled upon the love letters of Jan Ricardo.

[1] Sally Beauman – Afterword to Rebecca, Virago paperback edition
[2] Daphne du Maurier - Rebecca
[3] Angela Du Maurier – Old Maids Remember
[4] Alexander Dumas – The Three Musketeers
[5] Daphne du Maurier – The Doll – The Doll Short Stories
[6] Sir Walter Scott – Ivanhoe
[7] William Makepeace Thackeray – Rebecca and Rowena
[8] George du Maurier – The Martian
[9] Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre

© Chris Main 2020

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