There are times when you’d like to get hold of the unnamed heroine of Rebecca and give her a good sharp slap upside the head. Yes, she’s young. Yes, she hasn’t been around much. And yes, she has married a man much older than she – old enough to be her father, in fact.
But good grief, girl, show some spunk! Stand up to Mrs. Danvers. She is, after all, your employee. She may be one of the creepiest housekeepers ever to wield a dust mop but you’re never going to get anywhere letting her push you around. Quite being so nice – you’re getting on my nerves.
The problem for the new Mrs. de Winter is that she’s in competition with the old one. When Rebecca, the first wife, was alive, she was everything the new wife is not: confident, creative, strong-willed, beautiful. The villagers adored her. The household staff worshiped her. And Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, was very likely in love with her. The way she’s written, it’s hard to blame them. She was perfect, apparently. She was an accomplished hunter, a good sailor, an excellent horse-woman. She threw fabulous parties. She was fearlessly independent.
Eventually we learn that while Rebecca was all these things, she was also heartless, cruel, and a bit of a slut. Bring it on, I say. When it comes to fictional heroines, give me a bad girl any day. After all, who are you more likely to remember – the saintly good girls who serve and submit or the plotters and schemers who make life more interesting? Consider Fatal Attraction – does anyone remember Anne Archer? She played Michael Douglas’ wife. She got a best supporting actress nomination for it but does anybody remember her? Of course not. We remember Glenn Close, who played the obsessive, neurotic and ultimately deadly Other Woman. Men, I’m told, had nightmares about her.
Fiction has a long history of memorable bad girls. Moll Flanders was a thief and a prostitute. Becky Sharp was a calculating adventuress. Emma Bovary committed adultery, several times. Lady Macbeth was, well, Lady Macbeth. And the outrageously eccentric Miss Havisham and her beautiful but cold young ward, Estella, are the only really interesting female characters Dickens ever wrote. (I’ll be exploring these and other interesting female characters over the next few months. Stay tuned.)
More recently we have Misery‘s Annie Wilkes, who claims to be Paul Sheldon’s “number one fan” and just happens to be a serial killer. Amy Dunne, the missing wife of Gone Girl, is willing to lie, blackmail, and even commit murder in order to get what she wants. And who could forget Big Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Nasty, controlling, sociopathic women – I love them all.
My guess is that Daphne du Maurier did, too. Which is why the title of her classic tale of a house haunted by its former occupant is named after the first Mrs. de Winter, not the second. The new wife, in fact, doesn’t even get named. Du Maurier claimed not naming the narrator was an interesting technical device but I think she was making a point: the beautiful Rebecca, dead though she may be, is still the novel’s protagonist.
The story is told in flashbacks. The second Mrs. de Winter, shy, self-conscious and insecure, is working as a paid companion to a vulgar and arrogant American woman when she meets and falls in love with the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter. Within a few weeks he proposes marriage and whisks her off to Manderley, his country estate on the south coast of England. On the surface, it’s a dream come true, but right from the beginning she has a nagging feeling that all is not well. For one thing, all she knows about her husband-to-be is that his wife died in a tragic boating accident. He’s reluctant to tell her anything more, and he never actually says he loves her.
“I was to marry the man I loved. I was to be Mrs. de Winter. It was foolish to go on having that pain in the pit of my stomach when I was so happy. Nerves of course.”
Upon arrival at Manderley, she’s overwhelmed by the grandeur of the place. Every decoration and every stick of furniture has been chosen by her predecessor. The flowers are placed as Rebecca chose to place them … the meals are prepared according to Rebecca’s desires. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, resents the young woman’s presence; she would resent anyone who would dare to replace her beloved employer, but it doesn’t help that Maxim’s new wife is simply not up to the job. Over and over again we are reminded of Rebecca’s presence – in death she continues to dominate the household:
“She was in the house still, as Mrs. Danvers had said; she was in that room in the west wing, she was in the library, in the morning-room, in the gallery above the hall. Even in the little flower-room, where her mackintosh still hung. And in the garden, and in the woods, and in the stone cottage on the beach. Her footsteps sounded in the corridors, her scent lingered on the stairs. The servants obeyed her orders still, the food we ate was the food she liked. Her favourite flowers filled the rooms. …. Rebecca was still mistress of Manderley. Rebecca was still Mrs. de Winter.”
Rebecca was du Maurier’s fifth novel – it remains her best known. It also remains consistently underappreciated by those who write it off as “women’s fiction” or just a Gothic romance. It may indeed deserve those labels. But in the hands of a writer as adept as du Maurier it becomes much more than a romantic ghost story. What she’s created is a disturbing narrative of suppressed sexuality and psychological control. In essence, it’s a very modern tale … a study of the duality of human nature.
Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, represents the dark side – the libido, forbidden feelings of lust, rage and vengeance. Carl Jung gave the dark side a name: he called it the shadow. And while the shadow can be destructive, even evil, it has the potential to be creative and powerful. It is the door to our individuality. It demands to be recognized.
In the end the narrator makes a choice: forced to recognize Rebecca for what she was, and her husband for what he is, she embraces her own dark side. It comes with a sacrifice – she will never again be innocent – she will never again be treated as a child. It’s the painful price we pay for self-knowledge. The price, I think, is worth it.