“‘No one got the better of her, never, never….'” – discussing Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca

March 16, 2011 at 3:24 am (Book clubs, Book review, books)

[The following post contains spoilers.]

Last Tuesday night, the Usual Suspects hit the ground running and never slowed down until the end. Ellen, our leader, provided background on the life of Daphne Du Maurier. Fascinating material, but when it came  time to talk about the novel itself, we were bursting with comments, observations, and questions. To begin with, just about everyone felt profoundly frustrated with the young heroine’s behavior at Manderley. Far from asserting herself as the head of the household, she continually deferred to the servants. As a result, they regarded her with contempt. Mrs. Danvers, with her idolatry of Rebecca, could probably never have been entirely won over, but she might have been brought to heel if the second Mrs. de Winter had had the backbone to put her in her place. But instead, the opposite happened: Mrs. Danvers used every arrow in her considerable arsenal to wound the new mistress of Manderley and make her feel hopelessly inadequate and inferior. It did not have to be this way! Or at least, that is what we all thought.

Mrs. Danvers was not the only villain in the piece. Maxim de Winter came in for considerable criticism. He drops his vulnerable young bride into this fraught domestic situation, hedged about as it is with rules of protocol and propriety, and leaves her to fend for herself, knowing full well that she’s had absolutely no experience of living in this manner (or perhaps I should say, this manor). He is secretive and remote, absenting himself from the house for long periods of time and grudging his new wife the barest amount of help, let alone companionship. 

When Maxim finally acknowledges his need for his young wife – in other words, when Rebecca’s body has been found and he knows he’s in deep trouble – he admits that he’s  been “…the worst sort of husband for you.” She cries out “No!” But we Suspects cried out “You got that right!” Up until that time , he had confined his expression of affection to patting her hair and kissing her on top of her head. At one point, I exclaimed in exasperation, “It’s as though he wanted a daughter, not a wife.” But Frances responded perceptively: “He wanted an innocent.” And that, it seems to me, is the key to her attraction for him. She was as far from the worldly, superficially glamorous, corrupt Rebecca as a female of the species could possibly be. Her mistake was in thinking that Maxim wanted her to emulate this famous first wife, whereas he actually desired just the opposite. Frank Crawley, the estate manager, tries to point this out to her:

‘…I should say that kindliness, 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.’

A word here about Frank Crawley. I think other readers will agree with me that he is the unsung hero of this novel. In fact, his many gestures of unforced friendship toward the second Mrs. de Winter made me wonder how she could not come to prefer him to the distant and aloof Maxim.

Everything changes when the divers discover that Rebecca had never escaped from the wreckage of the sailboat she loved to take out in all kinds of weather, a boat ironically named Je Reviens (I will return).  Maxim had already identified the body of another woman, an unknown drowning victim, as being that of his deceased wife. A farrago of lies and deceptions was  about to be exposed. Finally – finally! – he comes clean with his young bride: He had never loved Rebecca, never known a moment’s happiness with her. They had put on a good show for the smart set in which they moved, but when the parties were over and the celebrations at an end, they were miserable. Or rather, Maxim was miserable. Rebecca seems to have hugely enjoyed herself at his expense – literally and figuratively. She seems to have triumphed even in death, having goaded her hapless husband into shooting her.

Once Maxim has bared his soul to his new wife, he becomes positively ravenous for her love. Now, there’s nothing paternal or indulgent in his feelings for her. There’s adult passion, the real thing. As for the second Mrs. de Winter, she is so thrilled to know that Maxim had never loved Rebecca that she too feels utterly liberated. Some in our group were surprised that she didn’t recoil from the knowledge that she was married to a man who had murdered her predecessor. But no – instead, she becomes his staunchest defender, determined to help him slog through this morass of his own making, so that  they can be together blissfully as man and wife.

The relationship between Maxim de Winter and his bride is central to this novel, but the shadow of Rebecca, demon or goddess, falls across them in virtually all that they do. And Mrs. Danvers, a somewhat demonic presence herself, hovers within that shadow as well, invoking her adored mistress at every opportunity and engineering the disastrous gaffe committed by the naive bride on the evening of the fancy dress ball.  From the standpoint of the present time, it seems fairly evident that the relationship between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers possessed an erotic component – at least, where the housekeeper is concerned. (For information on a related aspect of Du Maurier’s own life, see the article “Daphne Du Maurier: Venetian Tendencies,” by Cathy Pryor, from The Independent in 2007.)

We considered the situation of servants in England’s great estates.  They led difficult, restricted lives, working very long hours and reaping relatively little from their labors. But they made it possible for the privileged classes to live in almost unimaginable luxury and idleness. And what, we wondered, did these people do with all that free time? The second Mrs. de Winter keeps being asked: Do you hunt? Do you play bridge? In the evenings there was a seemingly endless round of dinner parties and balls. They changed clothes multiple times in the course of a single day. And why not? Just drop your gloves and other items on the bed or the floor; a servant will collect them and return them to their proper place. One could almost say that it’s not surprising that English country houses became such popular settings for crime  fiction. Perhaps murders were committed simply in order to while away the time! (And yes, I’m being facetious.)

Then there is Manderley, the estate that looms like a malevolent force over the novel’s characters. In a previous post I discussed Manderley’s origins in the imagination and life experience of Daphne Du Maurier. It is this large – and largely vacant – domicile that gives the novel its heavily Gothic atmosphere. Rebecca is part of the great literary tradition in which young unworldly women find themselves, for all intents and purposes, alone as they fight to overcome the threat posed by a house full of sinister secrets. Sometimes the house itself must be destroyed in order to liberate the heroine and her beloved. Think Rebecca and Jane Eyre (Thornfield Hall). Sometimes the house (Bly) wins, as in Henry James’s terrifying masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw. (In an article entitled “Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca,’ a Worthy ‘Eyre’ Apparent,” critic Jonathan Yardley examines the novel and its place in the Gothic literary tradition.)

It had been suggested that we view the 1940 film before our meeting date. Most of us did that, and knowledge of this cinema masterwork – Alfred Hitchcock’s first film for an American studio and an American producer, the notoriously controlling David O. Selznick – greatly enriched the discussion. In some cases, whole sections of dialog from the book were used in the film; in other cases, however, significant changes were made. The most notable of these concerns Rebecca’s death: in the film, her demise is the result of an accident, albeit one that follows an angry confrontation between her and Maxim. (According to the Wikipedia entry, this alteration was in keeping with the Motion Picture Production Code that was in force at the time.)

I strongly recommend viewing “The Making of Rebecca,” a feature included with the DVD. One of the most interesting revelations has to do with Maxim’s recounting of what happened in the cottage between him and Rebecca on the night of her death. It’s rather a lengthy expository passage, and the filmmakers had to decide whether or not to present it by means of flashback. This, of course, would have necessitated the appearance of Rebecca herself. They decided, I think wisely, to let Maxim tell the story with no additional visuals. Thus Rebecca – tall, darkhaired commanding Rebecca – retains her ghostly powers.

Ellen presented us with a very astute list of discussion questions. One of my favorites had to do with the second Mrs. de Winter. This was formulated with the help of a quote from 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: : “One of Du Maurier’s achievements is to secure readers’ loyalty to this jealous, insecure narrator.” We were then asked if we did in fact feel this loyalty? Then we were queried about our reaction to the destruction of Manderley. Now I already knew that Manderley burned; yet when I saw the film version of the fire, I gasped aloud in shock. It seemed such a violent conflagration . (I wonder what materials they used to construct that table top model….)  (Images from the film courtesy of Hooked on Houses.)

I want to say something about my personal experience of reading Rebecca. I mentioned in a previous post that the book surprised me in a number of ways. First of all, it was quite a bit longer – 386 pages – than I had expected it to be. Hitchcock’s film is so tightly wound, I had thought the novel’s plot would proceed at a similar pace. I was mistaken in this assumption, especially as regards the first half.  I listened to the narrated version until I was about two thirds of the way along, when I switched to the print version. The reader of the recorded book was Alexandra O’Karma, an actress with whom I was not familiar. Her voice initially struck me as not being very expressive; gradually, however, it gained a sort of hypnotic hold over me and began to seem well suited to the material. Nevertheless, I found the story of the young bride’s early tenure at Manderley to be very slow going, at times almost tedious. (At this moment I’m thinking of that phrase from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – “a tedious argument of insidious intent.”) Granted it was tedium punctuated by attacks of acute anxiety. It may just have been my own perception, but the pace seemed to quicken when I switched from the recording to the actual book. This I did shortly after the disastrous scene that occurred just before the fancy dress ball. The heroine accuses Mrs. Danvers – correctly – of having deliberately set her up. It was a relief to see her finally standing up for herself. I wanted to shout, “That’s the spirit!” This is just before the explosion that heralds the shipwreck and forces the stunning revelations from Maxim. From that point on, the novel hurtles toward the final cataclysm. I could scarcely put it down.

I was particularly affected by a scene, about half way through the novel, in which the young bride – oh, it is awkward not having a name for her! – and Maxim’s sister Beatrice pay a visit to Maxim’s grandmother. This scene does virtually nothing to advance the plot and hence was entirely omitted from Hitchcock’s film. But it has really stuck with me. For one thing, it is so emblematic of the strangeness of English country life in those days. Here is an old woman, surrounded by servants, living out her remaining few years in a huge and nearly empty house. Indeed, her waning existence might stand for a way of life that was itself waning, that would be dealt a death blow by war and a changing world.

**************************************

Two more things I’d like to mention before concluding this post:

Ellen herself had neither seen the movie nor read the novel before embarking on her task as discussion leader. Pauline commented  that that was probably the best way to approach the subject. It certainly gave her a uniquely fresh perspective with which to approach the material.

Carol told us of the time when she was touring Cornwall with a group when they passed the home of Daphne Du Maurier’s son. This gentleman happened to be outside at the time. The tour leader introduced herself, and he spoke to the group for a while. (I hope I’m recalling this anecdote correctly.) I was reminded of our encounter, while on tour some four years ago, with an elderly gentleman who claimed to have been a  gardener at Greenway, Agatha Christie’s nearby home in Devon. He had such a pronounced West Country accent that we had some difficulty understanding him (though I am sure our Blue Badge Guide, the fantastic Roz Hutchinson, had no such trouble.) 

7 Comments

  1. Frances said,

    We never got to Ben. He was an interesting character. What did he know or not know? What motivated him to keep silent? How did his family history influence his decisions?
    Did his relatives influence his behavior? How “simple” was he and how would that knowledge impact our decision about his motives? Was he characterized in the movie as he was in the book? We know he was afraid of Rebecca. He was among the few characters who knew of Rebecca’s ‘true nature’. We could discuss Rebecca for many hours.
    We always run out of time at our US meetings.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      You are so right, Frances. Your observations are as usual very apt. And then there’s the question of how a person like Ben is referred to. I positively winced at the derogatory terms. (I’m pretty sure they were in the book, not the movie, though I’m finding it hard to keep the two separate.) It makes you realize what a vast step forward it is to be able to say “developmentally disabled,” a precise yet inclusive term with no pejorative connotation attached to it.

      • Frances said,

        Oh, for sure we are making progress in the way societies around the world view persons who happen to have a disabling condition of any sort. Looking back upon the ways human beings with disabilities were treated makes one’s skin crawl and our moral conscious wither in shame. No wonder Ben’s worst fear was to be put in an asylum.
        Shows you how cruel Rebecca was to taunt him with such a heinous threat.
        My advocate juices are flowing. Thanks for bringing this up.

  2. Pauline Cohen said,

    Roberta,

    This afternoon when I stopped by my local library I noticed that there was a copy of “Mrs. De Winter” by Susan Hill in the For Sale section. On the inside of the cover, this book is described as a follow-up to Du Maurier’s “Rebecca”. Of course I bought it. I can’t wait to read it and find out what Susan Hill imagines happens to all these characters. If you haven’t read it and want to, I’ll be glad to lend it out. I hope it doesn’t disappoint.

    Thanks again for another of your great posts.

    • Frances said,

      Pauline,
      What good fortune to find Susan Hill’s book! It was meant to be. Can’t wait to hear what you think of it.

  3. Carol said,

    Meant to add this earlier.

    Kits Browning really just voiced some pleasantries and then went back into the house. But – he invited us into his small garden to look around at that a bit as well as the outside of the house. This was Ferryside, where Daphne lived at one time.

  4. Claire Duffy said,

    Hi – may I say a what I joy to have just discovered your blog. I haven’t read Rebecca since I was 19 (I am 55), but the experience was a formative one. I live in Sydney Australia, the Opera House had recently opened, and opera – like wonderland – was just opening up for me. My summer ‘youth subscription’ was to be the highlight of the holidays. Alas, I got sick. For weeks I was housebound, while my mother (a librarian) supplied good books, and an elderly neighbour took my operatic education in hand, sending classic LPs over the fence in a flower basket. After 6 weeks, duly improved, I was allowed out, to see Aida. My excitement was stupendous. The problem? My mother gave me Rebecca to read on the train. And once I started I couldn’t stop. It is not impossible to read in a darkened theatre, if you’re near the front and can catch the footlights, but it is quite impossible to attend to Aida while you do so. The opera was (I am told) a triumph, the book most certainly is. Thank you for reminding me of it.

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