A Woman Against the Ghost of Another: Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”

By Rachana Bhattacharjee (43), Section B, Eng(H) IIIrd yr.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Thus the novel begins, with this lyrical line made of six successive iambic syllables; a novel that twists and turns through the thickets of the remnants of Maximillian de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca. This essay attempts to look beyond the veil of words in the narrative, slither through the cracks of the world that Manderley inhabits and unearth the hidden hierarchies of gender, sexuality and class, within its historic and intertextual moorings. It attempts to unmask the many ghosts that loom above the nameless narrator in Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca, which immediately wisped its way into the canon of popular classics. I argue that Rebecca is a Female Gothic romance worth reading.

Rebecca is one of the 20th century’s greatest additions to the tradition of the Female Gothic romance, written, as Daphne du Maurier herself admitted, as homage to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which in turn was the successor of Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 novel The Mysteries of Udolpho and all of this going back to the tale of the Bluebeard’s Chamber.

Our narrator in Rebecca cleverly introduces Manderley – which sounds uncannily like Pemberley, and its resonances with the Elizabeth Bennet and William Darcy romance cannot be denied – through a flashback. She drifts through the thick overgrown woods ahead of the mansion until she is faced with the burnt down mansion itself, which, slowly, then, bathed in moonlight, transforms into the old and functioning Manderley again. And so right in the beginning the reader gets the sense of having entered the space of dreams and fairy tales. Stock fairy tale features such as tangled woods, mysterious disused house and youthful trespasser (for example, Goldilocks, Hansel and Gretel and The Sleeping Beauty, the last one being mentioned in Du Maurier’s “House of Secrets” from “The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories”, a sort of diary, written in 1981, looking back on her young writer’s life) hold the narrative together along with elements of the traditional gothic such as the stormy weather, nightmarish feeling, decaying mansion, foreboding and premonition, offloading personal emotions onto the environment, etc.

But much as these elements of fantasy make up the narrative, the mode of narration is also realist with the specific attention to detail, placing of the events in an accurate historical context and so on. The novel draws on typical nineteenth century plotlines such as the Elizabeth-Darcy kind of romantic love between the young narrator and the much older Maxim de Winter who is attracted to her wit and dishabille, and has the mistresship of Manderley to offer her. In this respect, however, the strong echoes of Jane Eyre certainly do not go unnoticed. The Jane-Rochester relationship is mirrored by the narrator-Maxim relationship. In fact, the idea of gravitating towards such marriages due to the advantages of getting the opportunity to be mistress of a house and holding power over the servants, thus escaping one’s own position as an “in-between” employee, is a prospect commonly much looked forward to in these stories. The socio-economic status of middle class educated women had not much changed between the 1840s and the 1930s.

Moreover, Mrs. Danvers, just as Bertha Mason tore Jane Eyre’s bridal veil, makes repeated attempts to break the marriage between the narrator and Mr. de Winter, ultimately setting Manderley on fire, just as Bertha Mason had done almost a century ago. Mrs. Danvers is “someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton’s frame…”,(Rebecca) the relic of the dead Rebecca, her legacy of rebellion against patriarchal oppression. Rebecca is the Bertha Mason figure, described as “rotten through and through” and “not even normal” by Maxim because she is “promiscuous”, because she defied the prescribed norms of domesticity and dared to laugh at them. Rebecca is also the Blanche Ingram figure for all the perfection with which she presents herself to the world outside. She appears the sophisticated woman, the ‘angel-in-the-house’, the woman with “beauty, brains and breeding”, who knew just what to say to any person. She is aware of what the hetero-normative society wants to see in her. And it is in this point that I believe du Maurier has transcended Charlotte Bronte, in that she has deconstructed the figure of the “vamp” while Bronte seems to have believed that the madwoman must be kept in the attic. Du Maurier has not simply usurped the tale of Jane Eyre, as a certain group of critics argue.

 Even physically, Rebecca is white skinned and adorned with a cloud of black hair, tall and slim; a replica of Bertha Mason and Blanche Ingram. Her physical description also resembles “the vampire”, historically one who ventured into the forbidden and posed a threat to the normative: Rebecca threatens the very existence of Maxim de Winter even after her death and sucks the life out of Maxim’s second wife, our young narrator. Rebecca has imprinted herself into every household article and memory while the narrator remains nameless. She, with her status as a bourgeois wife, is dwarfed by Rebecca’s tall presence. However, Rebecca’s dominance really hinges on the narrator’s submissiveness. She is almost driven to suicide by Mrs. Danvers so long as she is afraid of Rebecca’s image and the power it represents. Her attempt to enter the de Winter line through an imitation of Maxim’s ancestor Caroline de Winter’s ball gown only serves to all but breathe Rebecca to life and entirely efface her own identity, making her a living ‘simulacrum’, if one were to use Baudrillard’s concept (because the Rebecca whom she has copied is a figment of her imagination). Ironically, Rebecca’s dead body is discovered and raised from the ocean floor the very next morning. But, the moment she is set free by Maxim’s confession, Rebecca loses all power over her or anything else. Her transformation is Cinderella like, where she suddenly gains the strength to push Mrs. Danvers into the background, and with her the legacy of Rebecca, through her new found love. Nonetheless, even after this transformation, the narrator is someone who will live for her husband and him alone, a stark contrast to Rebecca. However, the question of whether she is truly “happy” with Maxim remains ambiguous because in the beginning she almost confesses that they cannot ever be happy but immediately bites her tongue and retracts her statement. As reassured by Frank, Maxim’s best friend, although unaccomplished, she is the true “angel”.

Not only through symbolism of Cinderella and Bertha Mason, but also through the character of Favell, the theme of jealousy due to sexual and class structures is played out in the novel. Favell reveals a note that Rebecca sent him on the night of her death inviting him over to her cottage on the cove that very night, thus allowing him to make an accusation of murder against Maxim and clearing Rebecca’s name of the charge of suicide. In the investigation that follows, he summons Mrs. Danvers as witness who then reveals the private conversations she had with Rebecca. Rebecca was beyond any relationship with men, she says; and critics have suggested this to be a hint towards a possible homosexuality associated with these two characters, thus another cause of her jealousy towards the new bride. Besides, Favell, in an attempt to play with Maxim’s temper, says: “All married men with lovely wives are jealous aren’t they? And some of them just can’t help playing Othello.” (Rebecca) If Maxim, in his act of murder can be seen as Othello, then Rebecca becomes Desdemona. But, as is uncovered later, Rebecca also played Iago in goading Maxim to shoot her.

Beyond the intertwining of class, gender and sexuality, as is intermingled the twisted branches of the thick forest of Manderley with the red rhododendron bushes, lies the historicity of the times that is woven into the narrative. The narrative is set in the countryside, certainly to further the gothic elements, but also as an opposition to the vision of the city as overcrowded and dismal, unlike Virginia Woolf’s bright and happy view of London. A constant dealing with the emerging concept of “modern” can also be felt in the novel. As Rita Felski has argued, the cityscape has been traditionally seen as masculine and the country as feminine because the feminine spaces have been considered refuge from the injuries of modernity. (Giles, 37) However, as Tania Modlesky points out, this novel is one of the best haunted house stories of the modern times and the gothic, here, “is used as a means to depict women’s confusion in a patriarchal world” (Johnson, 33). Not only so, but the confusion that arises out of having to negotiate the multiple roles in society that industrialisation and modernity has forced onto women is also dealt with within the domestic space, proving that this space isn’t any “refuge” from the “injuries of modernity”. Max is alienated and the young Mrs. de Winter is dehumanized, highlighting the typical features of modernist literature, following the tradition of Eliot.

And thus the narrative which follows the inner struggles of a young bride and Maxim de Winter is also one that is anchored on the shores of the historical, socio-economic and cultural England. The story is a fairy tale, a gothic tale, a romance, a realist narrative, a modernist story and even autobiographical, drawn from du Maurier’s own trespassing sprees into their later to be countryside home in Cornwall, called Menabilly. Our narrator is shadowed by the ghosts of, not only Rebecca but, all those in this tradition who came before Rebecca. Born of the Victorian tradition, sitting on the modernist tradition of the inter-war years in England and looking on to the post-structuralist, deconstructive and post-modernist traditions, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a complex novel that has earned recognition both in the scholarly and the popular world.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  • Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. Great Britain, 1938.
  • Johnson, David. The Popular and the Canonical: Debating Twentieth Century Literature 1940-2000. Psychology press, 2005.
  • Auerbach, Nina. Daphne du Maurier, Haunted Heiress. University of Pennsylvania Press, Pennsylvania; 2002.
  • Du Maurier, Daphne. The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories. Hachette, UK; 2012.
  • Giles, Judy. ‘A Little Strain with Servants’: Gender, Modernity and Domesticity in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Celia Fremlin’s The Seven Chars of Chelsea. York, UK.
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