• Richard Hughes

Rebecca: The Return To Manderley

Updated: 6 days ago

There is one novel I find myself coming back to again and again, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The opening dream sequence draws the reader into a lost Garden of Eden choked with malevolent ivy and twisted rhododendrons, from which the protagonists have been expelled and cannot return; and so we find ourselves looking up at the blackened walls of Manderley, curious about what has happened there and so the story begins.

It is a gripping novel, a coming of age tale in which the reader ends up colluding with the melodrama in such a way that they come to believe that murder and the cover up are somehow necessary and just.

The writer Daphne du Maurier was delighted with the 1940 movie adaptation, but even a transgressive director such as Alfred Hitchcock baulked at the idea of making Maximilian de Winter a murderer; in the film version, Max recounts how he was taunted by Rebecca and that she slips, hitting her head, a far more acceptable Hollywood death than being shot through the heart.

Since the book’s publication there has been plenty of feminist literary criticism exploring the themes of power and privilege, whilst contemporary writers such as Susan Hill and Sally Beauman have attempted to deliver subsequent narratives (unfortunately, not very successfully). Despite this, the one character whose story remains untold is that of Rebecca herself.

The novel drip feeds us insights about Rebecca, mostly from people who were obsessed by her or fail to love her for all her complexity and who would finally destroy her; their truth may be a little biased. This is the story of a woman who challenges societal norms, who conducts life by the adage ’I shall live as I please’, who enjoys sex and her body and will not be controlled by men or a conventional marriage.

Rebecca is generally objectified in the novel and described as having ‘... breeding, brains and beauty ... a cloud of dark hair against very white skin.’ Frank Crawley muses, ‘I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life.’ Whether she is dressed in riding habit or a black satin evening dress she turns heads; her perfume is of white azaleas. We are told she makes people laugh, ‘she had an amazing gift of being attractive to people: men, women, children, dogs.’

For Du Maurier, all of this was something to be suspicious of. She had grown up in a family where attractive women were referred to as ‘a menace’.

We learn from Rebecca’s maid Mrs Danvers that by the age of twelve, men were showing an interest in Rebecca. Her response, ‘I’m going to be a beauty, Danny?’ Of course with our contemporary eye, we would be concerned about the appropriateness of this. Who was guiding Rebecca? Who was making sure she was safe?

Not that this concerns Du Maurier; for the author, signs of precocious sexuality and incestuous trauma is the evidence she needs of Rebecca’s malevolence. She is the archetypal ‘wicked woman’, an antenatal Medea character and for this reason she must die before threatens the system of primogeniture and the de Winter name.

The metaphors of wickedness are subtle and deftly delivered. She is condemned with the observation, ’there was something about her eyes’. Ben, the local man who spies on her down at the beach house, describes her as having ‘eyes like a snake’. Manderley is the Garden of Eden; at the end of the novel on the drive back from London, the narrator dreams of Maxim ‘brushing Rebecca’s hair, winding it into a thick rope, twisting it like a snake, putting it around his neck.’

Who was Rebecca? I would like to attempt to demystify her and explore a more human story. Let us imagine that her mother was a society beauty, one of those American ‘Dollar Duchesses’ who came over to Europe to prop up the British aristocracy with their money, gaining status and crumbling stately home in the process; her father was an English peer with a minor baronetcy and significant horse racing debts. Her childhood is spent in the grand salons, carriages and ballrooms of Paris, London and Philadelphia where she is pampered and spoilt like an expensive china doll.

The death of her brother in the the Great War and her mother's drowning on the Lusitania leads to the family's sudden unravelling. Too free-spirited to be a 'deb' and lacking the frivolous charm of her contemporaries known as the 'Bright Young Things', Rebecca sets out on her own path. Cutting her hair short, she loses herself in the freedom and possibility of the 1920s where women could be racing drivers, explorers or radical writers. So far so Penny Vincenzi.

What remains untold is the trauma of Rebecca's childhood: her father's cruelty and relentless unwanted attention and a possessive yet competitive mother who turns a blind-eye by retreating into a world of seances and theosophy, abandoning Rebecca in the process.

Mrs Danvers recalls how a 16-year-old Rebecca disciplined her horse. ‘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?’

Rather than a clear cut case of nascent psychopathy, these actions may also hint at someone who is deeply traumatised. We need to ask ourselves, who does that horse represent in that moment of uncontrolled anger? What happened to Rebecca?

Her father casts a long shadow and relationships are not straight-forward. There are lovers, both men and women, and a short-lived first marriage which takes her across Europe to Athens, Constantinople and eventually Baghdad. .

When her path crosses with that of Maximilian de Winter, she is 27-years-old, rootless, divorced and disinherited. None of this holds her back. She is in her element skippering a yacht or striding around the archaeological ruins of Delos. At night she is transformed; the satin evening dress and a waft of cigarette smoke is her armour, her humour and intelligence draws people in, she uses that to keep them at a distance. Whilst some see a ‘seductress’, Rebecca is unsure about herself, at times shy and barely unable to look anyone in the eye.

Max is ten years older than her, at first glance there is something of the benign father figure about him, his emotional unavailability is something Rebecca recognises and is drawn to. They have both suffered trauma: for Max, there was a brutal childhood at boarding school and then the trenches of the First World War. Within these deep wounds, there is the potential for a healing relationship if vulnerability and communication are nurtured.

Five days after they are married, Rebecca tells Max the story of her childhood. For the first time in her life she feels ready to trust someone. She takes a risk with her vulnerability, but she loses. Years later, Maxim will recount how Rebeca told him ‘... things I shall never repeat to a living soul.’ He does not have the emotional depth to hold what he has heard. It is not that he does not want to, he can’t. He is psychologically cut off from what Rebecca shares with him, it is beyond his emotional comprehension and it triggers his own trauma. His constructed sense of masculinity is threatened by Rebecca's story and so he retreats, emotionally and physically, just like Rebecca's mother did, and eventually he has to destroy her to save himself.

Do not be fooled by Maxim’s later protestations that Rebecca is ‘vicious, damnable, rotten through and through ... that the marriage was a farce from the beginning ... that ‘she was incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency’ ... that ‘she was not even normal.’ He would say that wouldn’t he? What happens is straightforward: patriarchal superiority and a fragile male ego, leads to violence and a man murdering a woman.

The opposite of love is not hate it is fear and Maxim fears Rebecca. When the second Mrs de Winter breaks the Meissen figurine of Eros in the morning room, Max is relieved, it feels like a spell has been broken, but of course he will never be free of Rebecca.

Part of him wants to reach out to her, to rescue her, but he feels persecuted by what he knows about her.

This uneasy marriage is built out of the ancestral rubble that is Manderley. When Rebecca first sees its faded, crumbling facade, she knows she has found home, a secure base and sanctuary; she senses the ghosts within its stones and so she sets about lovingly rebuilding every part of the house, just as she tries to rebuild the relationship with Max. His inability to love her complexity, trauma and brilliance is what destroys both of them and so Manderley must eventually be destroyed too.

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