Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier Sunday January 9, 2011

There’s a woman’s way of writing that drives me up the wall. It’s all about emotion, wrung out into tortuous narrative: I’ve not been, on the whole, well disposed to women writers. This dates back to A level study of Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford (I recall one of the quotations I used “poverty is no disgrace but ‘tis a great inconvenience” and the fact that very little happened), undergraduate study of Bronte’s Villette and Jane Austen’s Emma, the hard work of getting through Margaret Attwood’s Cat’s Cradle, then trying The Handmaid’s Tale and deciding I’d had enough: no more Attwood for me. Nor did I like Iris Murdoch’s The Sandcastle, at A level.

There are exceptions, and for me it’s because there’s a certain ‘masculine’ quality to their work. Donna Tart’s Secret History is a good example; I read a rave review praising her learning and artistry, as a writer and personality with considerable intellectual power. The Secret History was, I remember, a book I read after some years of not reading much. I picked up a second hand copy a few weeks ago because after browsing it in a bookshop I was seduced and impressed, all over again. I’ve considered reading The Secret Friend but the idea of spending time with a child, as it were, gets me into driven up the wall mode just at the thought. I’ve been working with children for a while, and that’s enough for me.

I used to like Anita Brookner, which is probably as girly as I’m prepared to go. An English lecturer friend once told me her students liked Brookner, and we agreed her prose is well crafted and lovely but her principle character always the same: the dowdy, lonely, single woman who works perhaps as a librarian.

I was however intrigued a few years ago hearing the case put for Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, in one of those vote for your favourite book TV series. They were saying there was more depth, subtlety and intensity in Rebecca than you find in any Bronte or Jane Austen novel (though Jane Austen won: boo! boo!). Cornwall was used, they said, and the large house of Manderley, to create a gothic atmosphere. It was quite a good descriptive recommendation; I’ve just read Rebecca and it was very much that, and I loved it.

I found even the first sentence had a strangely compelling effect: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. Du Maurier then describes a dream sequence which defines the main scene of the novel (Manderley) and its brooding atmosphere, full of psychological tension.

The principle character – interestingly – is unnamed. She narrates, but no one calls her by name and we don’t know what it is. Rebecca is the dead former wife of the man she marries, and it’s the memory and psychological presence of Rebecca which dominates the first third or so of the book, and the new wife feels she is taking her place. She writes letters where Rebecca has left notepaper. She is told Rebecca always phoned the house keeper, Mrs Danvers, to approve the lunch she is proposing for the day. Most chillingly of all, she discovers the bedroom of Rebecca is still there, in another part of the large house, with all its domestic contents. At one moment, the new wife feels through the clothes of the dead Rebecca, imagining her beauty though she’s never seen her.

I identified very well with this strange psychological situation. It reminded me of my adolescence when I experienced emotional neglect; I wasn’t so much rejected, as unseen and ignored. I endured painful years concerning what in hindsight was an appalling Comprehensive school where bullying was unchecked daily fare – and then went home, feeling like I was on another planet, because I was alone with it all.

The psychologist RD Laing writes very well on this subject, in his studies of alienation and dysfunctional family dynamics. He describes a double bind situation where a family expects a child to be a certain way which is damaging for its character and which, he found, literally makes people go mad. They have to be a certain way to get parental approval; if they are more themselves instead they risk rejection. Either way, they can’t survive the pressure. I remember studying King Lear at A level and feeling both absorbed and unbalanced when I reflected on Lear’s struggles summarised in the quotation I still remember, “Does any here know me? Does Lear walk thus, speak thus, where are his eyes?”

The beginning of Rebecca could be taken as an excellent case study for RD Laing psychology; the anti heroine doesn’t even have her own name and is taking the place of someone else, although this is psychologically impossible. She doesn’t have an identity, and no one cares to recognise it. At one point in the novel there’s a suggestion Rebecca might exist as a ghost, but only in passing and with little gravity. The moody gothic psychology is, however, much the same as if this were a ghost story. It’s gripping stuff.

Then the atmosphere changes, though not into lightness but rather into a different complexion of gloom. We discover that Maxim, her new husband, did not love Rebecca passionately and obsessively as it appeared but endured not only promiscuous affairs, but her scorn in regard to this subject. She may have been talented and beautiful but she was also a femme fatale monster, and Maxim eventually kills her. The mood changes from inexplicable strangeness to recognisable crime psychology: though losing none of its power as it does so.

Therein lies, for me, the core of Rebecca. The house keeper Mrs Danvers is further central, depicted with a pale skull-like face and angry black eyes, whose hatred for the new wife reaches a thrilling dark climax when she encourages her to commit suicide. Mrs Danvers embodies, channels, and articulates much of the situation concerning the new wife’s crisis: she doesn’t want her in the house and persuades her to wear a dress to a house ball exactly like a dress Rebecca wore to the last ball, which is a tremendous shock for Maxim. Danvers gloats triumphantly when she sees the damage this does to their relationship. The characters of Maxim, Mrs Danvers and the wife enact a psychological drama in regard to Rebecca, still present at Manderley like the perfume the wife detects in her still existing bedroom – the finest room in the house.

There may be some truth in the modern notion that Mrs Danvers is lesbian, sexually in love with Rebecca. She calls her “Danny”, which could easily be a game they both enjoy in regard to affections more normally of a man-woman kind. It would certainly explain her tremendous obsession, and add another dimension to the novel very much in tune with Du Maurier’s overall intent. While this is a 1940s work, it’s moved away from Dickensian prudery and is, when it concerns Rebecca, quite sexy. While never explicit, the novel describes Rebecca’s constant sexual exploits in direct terms: she has a beach cottage, a short walk from Manderley, where she takes her lovers.

Writer and English lecturer Germaine Greer takes a differing psychoanalytic line and declares not that Danvers is lesbian but the anti heroine narrator is a child, Maxim is the symbolic father, and Rebecca is a tale with a disturbing subtext:

Women’s erotic fantasy is so subversive, so deeply shocking that it can only be written in code. The archetypal themes that bask under the mask of incident, dialogue and location in women’s romantic literature are the seduction of the father by the daughter, and the destruction of the mother. Most romantic literature stops short after the seduction of the father by the little girl, leaving the mother to be annihilated by inference alone. Whether it’s Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Bridget Jones’s Diary or any old Mills and Boon novel, the grist that feeds the fantasy mill is the same. Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca may be a superior example of deeply encoded female pornography but, nearly 70 years after it was written, the code seems to have worn so thin that the unsuspecting reader is slightly revolted. In Rebecca, Maxim de Winter is the Daddy (obviously), the mother has three faces, being the appalling Mrs Van Hopper, the ever-present Mrs Danvers and, of course, the absent Rebecca. The nameless narrator is the seducing child. If, as her sister-in-law says, she is an “absolute child”, it follows that Rebecca is the classic novel of paedophilia.


I think there’s some truth here that Rebecca is “erotic fantasy” chick lit, but of the highest order. This is no girly-girly stuff, though it may on analysis articulate themes also found in Mills And Boon. It’s a wonderful literary device, that the narrator never has a name. I can understand Greer’s interest in this novel (and the Hitchcock film) because having no identity, and being an extension of a man, is an archetypal feminist theme. However, although I’m well disposed to psychoanalytic deconstruction and think it accounts for a substantial part of the pleasures of literature in regard to the significance of fantasy, I don’t like its reductionist effect. While I wouldn’t disagree with what Greer says, her observations can be regarded slightly differently. Not so much, aha! that’s what it’s all about and we thus crack the code, but this: the psycho-symbolic sexual dimension undoubtedly exists, but that is the starting point and not the end. That is, while it may indeed coyly depict women’s erotic fantasy with, as it were, fluttering eyelids and a downturned gaze, the pleasures of Rebecca lie elsewhere: the powerful characters, the gripping plot, and the wonderful psychological suspense.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”.

The first sentence, masterfully, evokes the entire novel as a psychological fantasy drama. After reading the book you can return to those few words and recognise their opening power, as the final closure.

I’m a new fan. Rebecca is a wonderful book. Read it.