Rebecca: The Return To Manderley
Updated: Jun 28
One novel I come back to again and again is 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 thrilled 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 alternative narratives. 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 could not 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 gown 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 brilliantly aimed. 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? Let us imagine that her mother was a society beauty, one of those American ‘Dollar Duchesses’, her father, an English peer with a minor baronetcy and significant horse racing debts. Her childhood was spent between Paris, London and Philadelphia. We know her mother dies when Rebecca is still a child, what remains untold is how her mother suffered at the hands of a brutal, controlling husband. After his wife's death, the focus of his obsession becomes Rebecca.
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 both psychologically and emotionally. We need to ask ourselves, who does that horse represent in that moment of uncontrolled anger? What happened to Rebecca?
The Great War and the death of her eldest brother at the Battle of Verdun turns everything upside down, but it is also the opportunity Rebecca needs to escape her father’s control; she cuts her hair short and loses herself in the freedom and possibility of the 1920s, a place where women can be racing drivers, explorers or radical writers. Too free-spirited to be a 'deb' and lacking the frivolous charm of those contemporaries known as the 'Bright Young Things', she sets out on her own path. There are transgressive lovers, mentors and a short-lived first marriage which takes her across Europe to Athens, Constantinople and eventually Baghdad.
Her father casts a long shadow and there is one final confrontation. With his death, she is finally able to come back to London and it is here that she is first introduced to Maximilian de Winter. Now 27-years-old, Rebecca is wordly and well-travelled; a skilled yachtswoman and an adventurer. The evening gowns and exquisite taste, on display in her Old Church Street townhouse are her armour, her 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, 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 her story. 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.
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? 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 be eventually be destroyed too.