The one novel I find myself returning 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, wondering what happened there.
It is a gripping story, a twisted Cinderella 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 its publication, there has been much feminist literary criticism exploring the novel's themes of power and privilege, whilst contemporary writers such as Susan Hill and Sally Beauman have attempted to follow up the mystery. Beauman's Rebecca's Tale was officially approved by the du Maurier estate, and has some wonderfully gothic moments. But whilst she does a good job exploring Rebecca's psychological wounds, even her characters acknowledge that Rebecca's story may have some inconsistencies.
Du Maurier's 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 eventually 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 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’. So, she makes Rebecca the archetypal ‘wicked woman’, an antenatal Medea character, who must die before she threatens the system of primogeniture, and the de Winter name.
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?
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 wickedness, these actions may also hint of someone who has experienced childhood trauma. We need to ask ourselves, who does that horse represent in that moment of sustained cruelty? What happened to Rebecca?
Not that this concerns Du Maurier. For her, signs of precocious sexuality and adolescent rage are the evidence she needs of Rebecca’s malevolence. 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.’
Sally Beauman delves deeper into Rebecca's story: she reveals a bohemian Edwardian childhood, a mother swept up by a theatrical life, the hint of make-up in a photograph of Rebecca aged twelve, and the reliance on stage door Johnnies for financial support. Following her mother's premature death, a 14-year-old Rebecca is claimed by her father, a notorious buccaneer and gambler known as 'Black Jack' Devlin, who keeps her in a gilded, cosseted cage. What remains only hinted at is the sexual abuse Rebecca endures: 'Daddy tried to saddle me: bit, curb and bridle ... a ring on my wedding finger, bells on my toes: I'll make such a fine lady of you, Becka he'd say.'
As soon as she can, Rebecca escapes. We have to imagine what path she takes next, for it is almost ten years before both du Maurier and Beauman pick up her story again, with Rebecca meeting Maximilian de Winter. We can picture her cutting her hair short, skippering a yacht around the Mediterranean. There are lovers, both men and women, and the complicity of strangers, but the shadow of her father looms large; relationships are complicated.
At night she is transformed, the satin evening gown, and a waft of cigarette smoke is her armour. Her acerbic wit and sharp intelligence draws people in, she uses that to keep them at bay. Whilst some see a ‘seductress’, this is survival behaviour. The reality is that Rebecca is unsure about her feelings. She wonders sometimes whether she has ever felt anything at all.
Max is ten years older than her, at first glance there is something of the benign father figure about him, his emotional unavailability familiar. They have both suffered trauma: for Max, there was a brutal boarding school childhood and then the trenches of the First World War. Within these deep wounds, there is the potential for a healing relationship, if communication and connection 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, but she loses. Years later, Maxim will recount how Rebecca told him ‘... things I shall never repeat to a living soul.’ He does not have the emotional capacity to hold her trauma. It‘s not that he doesn’t want to, he can’t. Part of him wants to reach out to her, to rescue her, but he feels persecuted by what he knows about her. His own wounds and constructed sense of masculinity are threatened by Rebecca's experience of sexual abuse, and so he retreats, emotionally and physically, and eventually he believes 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. 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.
This uneasy marriage is built out of the ancestral rubble that is Manderley. For Max, the ivy covered walls represent the sense of entombment he feels within their relationship. When Rebecca first sees Manderley’s faded, crumbling façade, she knows she has found home; a secure base and sanctuary. She senses the ghosts within its stones, and so she sets about 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.