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Rebecca - the Wrong Woman.

daphne du maurier rebecca Oct 18, 2020


One of our 'Hero Books' for novelists writing their novels with The Novelry is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and many of us are looking forward to the new movie adaption which airs on Netflix on October 21st. 

If you don't know the story, here's the premise:

Working as a lady's companion, the orphaned heroine of Rebecca learns her place. Life begins to look very bleak until, on a trip to the South of France, she meets Maxim de Winter, a handsome widower whose sudden proposal of marriage takes her by surprise. Whisked from glamorous Monte Carlo to his brooding estate, Manderley, on the Cornish Coast, the new Mrs de Winter finds Max a changed man. And the memory of his dead wife Rebecca is forever kept alive by the forbidding Mrs Danvers. Not since Jane Eyre has a heroine faced such difficulty with 'the other woman'.

Described by Sarah Waters as one of the most influential novels of all time, the famous opening line of Rebecca (1939) has wooed millions of readers. A bestseller which has never gone out of print. In 2017, W H Smith revealed Rebecca was the UK's favourite book of the past 25 years. In 2019, the BBC named it one of the most inspiring novels ever.

Here's the checklist for why this is a big story:

  • first-person 'avatar' for immersive experience (walk in my shoes)
  • life and death stakes (a murder)
  • magic - as in Manderly - the enchanted setting which provides another world of hallways and mirrors and super-natural beauty
  • a clearly drawn relentless antagonist in pursuit of our heroine (Danvers)
  • the ticking clock - a sense of running out of time
  • a love story fulfilled
  • draws upon a psychologically resonant archetypal story (Bluebeard)
  • the 'sacrifice' of the stakes (i.e Manderley)
  • the Five F's of story shape
  • a pleasing shape, a novel structure with a midpoint
  • the use of repetitious 'coding' per the suspense genre

(All of which we teach at  The Novelry.)

Graduates of our Classic course will not be surprised to see the following:

  • an orphan main character (homeless and nameless)
  • a secondary world and a portal (the 'drive' - the word which dominates the first chapter)
  • a homely companion/guide (Jasper)
  • fairy tale comparisons (Cinderella meets Bluebeard)

The Perfect Novel?

The novel is hinged at its midpoint, folks, when our heroine enters adulthood rather unhappily and through the backdoor of embarrassment courtesy of a Mrs Danvers set up. She learns she can't mimic 'womanhood' as represented by Rebecca, and merely borrow the costume, she has to find her own way.

The novel uses the suspense method of story-telling which relies on repetition. Ad nauseam when you dissect it, but it creates a hypnotic effect on the reader. (Think how many of our first nursery rhymes require echoes and repeats.) The first half of the novel tells us over and over again - she will never be Rebecca. He loved Rebecca. The second half tells us over and over again - He did not love Rebecca.

But the repetitious first-person telling is not merely suspenseful story-telling, it mimics the negative inner voice of the young woman loaded with inadequacies and low self-esteem. It is the insecurity of a girl in a man's world; bottled.

The narrative is driven by a first-person rendition of a girl's paranoia; almost. (I'll come to Mrs Danvers!) Her paranoia, her unease and discomfort in a man-made world is understandable in the pre-WW2 era, but in our own age with online trolling and rampant insecurity especially among the young, we can hear the tiresome, inisistent and harmful voice of our own self-loathing. 

Her only security as a homeless orphan, nameless to boot, is via the authority figure of landed gentry man of means, Maxim de Winter. But:

He did not belong to me at all, he belonged to Rebecca. He still thought about Rebecca. He would never love me because of Rebecca. 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 down 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. Her clothes were in the wardrobes in her room, her brushes were on the table, her shoes beneath the chair, her nightdress on her bed. Rebecca was still mistress of Manderley. Rebecca was still Mrs de Winter.

Maurier, Daphne Du. Rebecca (p. 261).

The murder of another woman by such a man is presented to us as reasonable, given his standing and in the following circumstances of errant non-compliance by a woman. In his confession to his new wife, Maxim presents a portrait of 'the wrong woman', as a strong independent headstrong woman rather keen on the idea of open marriage. She is presented as unfaithful and sexually promiscuous. ‘Then she started on Frank, poor shy faithful Frank.’ She used bad language; ‘every filthy word in her particular vocabulary’. (Sounds to us in 2020 like a quiet episode for a daytime TV show.) 

But Rebecca's real crime was to threaten to cuckold Maxim, and produce a 'bastard' heir, trouncing the system of inheritance (note Maxim owns Manderley not older sister Beatrice), thus cheating the patriarchy. No man could accept such a rebellion. It's treachery, civil war! Unable to face the social indignity of divorce, he killed her.

But being a good egg, he feels a little bad about it. He asks our nameless heroine if she shares his shame for his crimes.

The short answer is no.

I did not say anything. I held his hands against my heart. I did not care about his shame. None of the things that he had told me mattered to me at all. I clung to one thing only, and repeated it to myself, over and over again. Maxim did not love Rebecca. He had never loved her, never, never. They had never known one moment’s happiness together. Maxim was talking and I listened to him, but his words meant nothing to me. I did not really care.

Maurier, Daphne Du. Rebecca (p. 306). 

She's bloody thrilled to bits! Hoorah! Ding dong the witch is dead! The remainder of the book further to this confession at two-thirds, repeats her gloating that Rebecca is dead. He didn't love Rebecca, he loves her! 

Rebecca is such a mensch, she smiles when he shoots her. Little man Maxim disposes of her body with a lot of inconvenience to himself and it puts him out of sorts for his holiday in the South of France.

I hear you, the novel's still great.

The liberal reader can set aside the reactionary bent of the tale and enjoy it. Ouch! Why?

The writing, the setting, the suspense, yes, but above all else - DANVERS.

It's the charisma of this ghastly sentinel that gives this novel its wonderful light and shade. When she is overcome by the new alliance of Maxim and the second wife, the book's far less interesting. Even Manderley seems just a house when the spectral Mrs Danvers no longer roams its corridors, and they decide to quit it and head back to France. After all, it's by Mrs Danvers agency, her absolute, devotion to Rebecca, that Rebecca is able to haunt the place. When Danvers gives up the ghost, both she and Rebecca are gone from the story and its all far more 'ordinary'.

Every woman needs a Danvers! You see the shit that goes down when two women collude? Poor od Maxim, poor old Frank. The menfolk are quite undone by the loyalty between these two women. But don't worry, it won't happen again. Drawing on the lessons of Bluebeard, Maxim chooses for his second wife a woman who has no alliances, no female friends or female relatives. And Frank remains an inveterate bachelor.

En route to proper devotion to the patriarchy, our heroine has learnt a thing or two about what it means to be a woman and the dividing line between pretty and beautiful, useful and threatening, a border vital to the maintenance of power relations.

‘It’s very big, isn’t it?’ I said, too brightly, too forced, a school-girl still.

In the first half of the book, she is referred to as a girl, a school-girl, and a parlour-maid. Now come on ladies, that won't do! You are not to be as children!

The Woman as a Useless Child.

Maxim berates her as a mother might, instructing her daughter:

‘I wish,’ I said savagely, still mindful of his laugh and throwing discretion to the wind, ‘I wish I was a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls.’ ‘You would not be in this car with me if you were,’ he said; ‘and stop biting those nails, they are ugly enough already.’ (...)

‘I told you not to go on those rocks, and now you are grumbling because you are tired.’ (...)

‘If you wear that grubby skirt when you call on her I don’t suppose she does,’ said Maxim. (...)

‘I can’t help being shy.’ ‘I know you can’t, sweetheart. But you don’t make an effort to conquer it.’ (...)

'I didn’t mean it. Really, Maxim, I didn’t. Please believe me.’ ‘It was not a particularly attractive thing to say, was it?’ he said. ‘No,’ I said. ‘No, it was rude, hateful.’ (...)

‘You look like a little criminal,’ he said, ‘what is it?’ ‘Nothing,’ I said quickly, ‘I wasn’t doing anything.’ (...)

'I wished he would not always treat me as a child, rather spoilt, rather irresponsible, irresponsible, someone to be petted from time to time when the mood came upon him but more often forgotten, more often patted on the shoulder and told to run away and play. I wished something would happen to make me look wiser, more mature. Was it always going to be like this? He away ahead of me, with his own moods that I did not share, his secret troubles that I did not know? Would we never be together, he a man and I a woman, standing shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, with no gulf between us? I did not want to be a child. I wanted to be his wife, his mother. I wanted to be old.'

The Wrong Woman.

Careful, there is the wrong woman and the right woman. They can be easily confused. Here's what a woman looks like:

'Someone whose quick eyes saw to the comfort of her guests, who gave an order over her shoulder to a servant, someone who was never awkward, never without grace, who when she danced left a stab of perfume in the air like a white azalea.'

Maurier, Daphne Du. Rebecca (p. 141). 

The house in dreams and in fiction is a common metaphor for the self, with unexplored rooms and light sociable spaces with hidden closed spaces. Thus we are drawn through Manderley on this bildungsroman which shows the development of a girl to adulthood, towards the dark, dark space occupied by the wrong woman. It's heady stuff!

Du Maurier, who admitted to her devoted and loyal former nanny in letters that she harboured 'Venetian' tendencies (code for lesbian), provides an almost erotic scene as Danvers shows her Rebecca's room as if it was still inhabited. (Our heroine has bitten her nails with worry about the servants laughing over her cheap undergarments.)

Down a long dark corridor she find the horror of 'the wrong woman':

I got up from the stool and went and touched the dressing-gown on the chair. I picked up the slippers and held them in my hand. I was aware of a growing sense of horror, of horror turning to despair. I touched the quilt on the bed, traced with my fingers the monogram on the nightdress case, R de W, interwoven and interlaced. (...)

‘Now you are here, let me show you everything,’ she said, her voice ingratiating and sweet as honey, horrible, false. ‘I know you want to see it all, you’ve wanted to for a long time, and you were too shy to ask. It’s a lovely room, isn’t it? The loveliest room you have ever seen.’

For Joseph Conrad, the horror in The Heart of Darkness is what white man can do in the name of territory, here the horror is what the wrong woman can do to white man. Danvers shows her the tools of 'beauty' that a minx could use to deceive a respected landowner.

Mr de Winter used to brush it for her then. I’ve come into this room time and time again and seen him, in his shirt sleeves, with the two brushes in his hand. “Harder, Max, harder,” she would say, laughing up at him, and he would do as she told him.

Danvers shows her Rebecca's furs, then her underwear.

I would always know when she had been before me in a room. There would be a little whiff of her scent in the room. These are her underclothes, in this drawer.

The scene is one of fearful eroticism, the wrong woman unfettered;

‘It’s not only this room,’ she said. ‘It’s in many rooms in the house. In the morning-room, in the hall, even in the little flower-room. I feel her everywhere. You do too, don’t you?’

Go back, dear girl, go back! Maxim - the parental figure - warns her:

'When you were a little girl, were you ever forbidden to read certain books, and did your father put those books under lock and key?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Well, then. A husband is not so very different from a father after all. There is a certain type of knowledge I prefer you not to have. It’s better kept under lock and key. So that’s that. And now eat up your peaches, and don’t ask me any more questions, or I shall put you in the corner.’

But the silly girl gets it all wrong and dolls herself up as Rebecca for the party, appearing in the costume of the last wrong woman. And little man Maxim is quite cross!

So what the devil is the right woman? 

The Right Woman.

It's quite simple; she's useful. Du Maurier reduces it to one quality. A good wife takes command of the servants, the lower orders. She brokers her husband's authority. After her disgrace, once Maxim is in a tricky spot having shot the bad woman, they form a working alliance, and it's at this part of the novel our heroine at last takes the reins of the household.

The first half of the novel includes numerous hints she should do so from Maxim and his sister Beatrice. But she's too nervous. Come on, dear, Rebecca almost whipped a horse to death! Channel your inner brute.

When she breaks an ornament, she conceals it as a guest might.

‘Fancy not getting hold of her when you broke the thing and saying,“Here, Mrs Danvers, get this mended.”'

But in the second half, after she gets a clear indication of what the wrong woman looks like and is rebuked at the midpoint, she muscles up, and takes control of Mrs Danvers.

‘You’d better stop this, Mrs Danvers,’ I said; ‘you better go to your room.’ (...)

She went to the mantelpiece and took the vases. ‘Don’t let it happen again,’ I said. (...)

‘I’m afraid it does not concern me very much what Mrs de Winter used to do,’ I said. ‘I am Mrs de Winter now, you know. And if I choose to send a message by Robert I shall do so.’ (...)

'She can’t frighten me any more, I thought. She has lost her power with Rebecca. Whatever she said or did now it could not matter to me or hurt me. I knew she was my enemy and I did not mind.' (...)

Du Maurier, the Apologist?

Not so fast! Poor old Daphne was in thrall to her capricious, womanising, stage actor father and was preoccupied with negotiating the power relations of the male-female world. Her family occupied a grand London home with servants, but she preferred the more modest home of her grandparents, unstaffed, where the couple worked together.

She wrote to Tod (her dear Danny Danvers equivalent - the nanny) 

‘The future’, she announced to Tod, ‘is always such a complete blank. There is nothing ahead that lures me terribly . . . If only I was a man.’

'I only hope I haven’t got Venetian tendencies.’

As Mrs Danvers puts it in Chapter 18, referring to Rebecca:

'She had all the courage and spirit of a boy, had my Mrs de Winter. She ought to have been a boy, I often told her that.'

Margeret Forster, in her biography of Daphne du Maurier, describes the years of the 1920s which du Maurier spent in France feeling insecure, trying to find herself as a writer.

'The short stories Daphne wrote in Brittany, and for the next three years, all have one striking thing in common: the male characters are thoroughly unpleasant. They are bullies, seducers and cheats. The women, in contrast, are pitifully weak creatures, who are endlessly dominated and betrayed, never capable of saving themselves and having only the energy just to survive. (...) The tone of all the stories is cynical and there is an obsession with the life of the working-class girl, often a prostitute. The thread that binds all the early stories together is one of total disillusionment with the relationship between men and women – they are bleak, bitter and sad. (...)

In all the stories, eleven of which were finished by the spring of 1928, there is no trace of the charmed life Daphne led. Her view of the world is dark and dismal, and the overriding influence is clearly that of her father’s amorous relationships. None of the men in these stories is even remotely like Gerald du Maurier – none has any charm, none is witty, none talented or attractive – but in all of them is the unmistakable flavour of what Daphne found it so hard to accept: all men were like her beloved father, unfaithful and not what they seemed. No other topic interested her so much as the relationship between men and women. What she was doing was emphasizing over and over again her own pessimism as she surveyed what she believed to be the truth about these relationships. She concentrated on the interchanges between couples, often not bothering to give either man or woman a name...'

Margaret Forster: Du Maurier.

In Britanny, she learnt to sail, enjoying the command of small boats out at sea, and carried on an affair with cousin Geoffrey. Then, her family bought a second home in Cornwall, and Du Maurier found it easier to write at Ferryside near Fowey. It was there she became fascinated with the house Menabilly which was to become Manderley.

'Literature needed practice, and she was not practising. She wished she could stay by herself at Ferryside and work all winter – which she swore she would do – but she was obliged to return to London. There was, however, a chink of light: her parents said that if she could sell her stories and earn enough to keep herself, then she would be allowed to stay at Ferryside. Never having earned a penny in her life, nor having been required to, it was a rather unreal condition, but one Daphne accepted at once. She did not want to be dependent financially or in any other way on her parents – it would fill her with joy to have her own money and this was the incentive she needed.

Margaret Forster: Du Maurier.

Her relationship with her mother - Muriel - was poor, until her father Gerald died. (My writers will have come across Maureen Murdock's work The Heroine's Journey - which explains why women writers kill their mothers in order for the story to start!)  Gerald died in 1934. 

She felt close to her (mother) for the first time, even physically close, able to embrace her as she never had done before, and she felt instantly protective. There had never, or so she had thought, been any role for her in her mother’s life, but now that she could see how much support was going to be needed she was eager to acknowledge her new responsibilities. A kind of love for her mother touched her for the first time.

Margaret Forster: Daphne Du Maurier

After his death, du Maurier came into her own penning notable successes - a biography of her father Gerald: A Portrait (1934), Jamaica Inn (1936), The du Mauriers (1937).

Many of the elements for Rebecca were in place before she began writing the novel in 1937. The absence of place in her short stories was remedied, and she had the confidence - and perspective - to draw on the nail-biting preoccupations of her youth to drive the tension of the fearful narrative.

The wrong woman, the strong woman, Rebecca, the inner self, the spirit of defiance and independence was linked to the act of writing itself. Writing was a 'way out' of dependence or institutionalised inferiority. No wonder then, that when we first meet Rebecca in the novel, in the early chapters, the letters of the name of this woman (in contrast to the nameless girl narrator) are spelt out to us in the act of writing. 

I picked up the book again, and this time it opened at the title-page, and I read the dedication. ‘Max – from Rebecca. 17 May’, written in a curious slanting hand. A little blob of ink marred the white page opposite, as though the writer, in impatience, had shaken her pen to make the ink flow freely. And then as it bubbled through the nib, it came a little thick, so that the name Rebecca stood out black and strong, the tall and sloping R dwarfing the other letters. (...)

I had a book that she had taken in her hands, and I could see her turning to that first white page, smiling as she wrote, and shaking the bent nib. (...)

When Max proposes, she removes the title-page furtively in another room and burns it.

On her first day at the marital home of Manderley, she sits at Rebecca's writing desk and marvels at its 'lovely' 'rich' colours. It is beautiful and yet also 'business-like'.

I noticed for the first time how cramped and unformed was my own handwriting; without individuality, without style, uneducated even, the writing of an indifferent pupil taught in a second-rate school.

Rebecca's act of writing in her own hand, her own words, and using her name, occupies our narrator as she explores the halls and corridors of her developing psyche.

Her voice, echoing through the house, and down the garden, careless and familiar like the writing in the book.

Here in the act of writing, du Maurier, seems to sigh in her novel, is a way to be all sorts of women, and also un-gendered, un-bodied and free.

 That bold, slanting hand, stabbing the white paper, the symbol of herself, so certain, so assured. 

The novel provides no lessons on the possibility of rebellion for women who form alliances with each other, the male order is too well-entrenched for that. The way out of it is lonely and secretive, found behind the veil of fiction.

Don't mistake performance for promulgation.

Because du Maurier is showing us the status quo does not mean she's an advocate or champion for it. She is depicting it, with heavy strokes; light and shade. Beyond the novel as entertainment, as Graham Greene put it, there is also the novel as performance.

By performing the conventions we don't endorse them, often quite the reverse, sometimes we lampoon them. The airing of dirty laundry is worthy in its own right.

You don’t have a debt to politics you have a debt to the truth.

The stage in this novel is the 'stakes' itself. The stakes character in Rebecca is Manderley. It's the return there that provides the story. Finally, they must choose between the house, the estate, the inheritance and the possibility of love or a romantic union. They choose the latter.

The prize or lure for the homeless, nameless girl was the house of Manderley - as firmly articulated by Mrs Van Hopper. It is also the site of what she fears, the place that still houses the wrong woman, who risked it. If we flip the stakes, or the prize, we find fear wriggling underneath. Nothing valued, in any era, against any socio-political backdrop, is without its cost.

Against the ancient and enduring backdrop of women who stand by their men and protect the bricks and mortar, no wonder Daphne picked up her pen. Something has to be sacrificed in a story, and Daphne discarded Manderley for the idyll of romantic love.

In next week's blog, we'll be looking at how Daphne du Maurier restructured the work to create a Classic.

Happy writing,


Louise Dean

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