Anti-Semitism, Book review., Books, Charlotte Bronte, Christianity, Cornwall, Daphne Du Maurier, Death, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Jane Eyre, Literary criticism, Love, Manderley, Marriage, Maxim de Winter, Mr Rochester, Mrs Danvers, Murder, Rebecca, Sheridan Le Fanu, The Second Mrs de Winter, Unreliable Narrator
[The following contains spoilers.]
Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) is often presumed to be a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), and whilst this is not necessarily untrue, it is hardly uncomplicated. If the second Mrs de Winter seems to be frozen within her predecessor’s shadow, we may fancy that this corresponds with some inevitable admission of inadequacy on Du Maurier’s part at following in Bronte’s footsteps. Yet Bronte’s influence may wend its way through the pen of Sheridan Le Fanu, whose Gothic thriller Uncle Silas (1864) offers an appreciably darker retelling of Jane Eyre and one in which Bronte’s Irish blood comes to the surface. In both novels a vulnerable young woman takes up residence in a forbidding country house, but as if stating a preference, Du Maurier appears to take the name of her diabolical housekeeper Mrs Danvers from that of the accountant Danvers who “manages the estate” in Uncle Silas.
In truth, Jane Eyre and Rebecca are pointedly opposed at heart, as if the dreamwork of Rebecca has reassembled the different pieces of Bronte’s daydream into a nightmare. If anything of Jane Eyre and Rochester remains in Rebecca, Du Maurier has sucked the blood out of them like a vampire. Maxim de Winter is no Mr Rochester. The reader of Jane Eyre acquires a joyous sense of Rochester’s exuberance, the madcap love for Jane which transforms him into a gypsy fortune teller and leaves him vowing “to take mademoiselle to the moon.” Maxim is a faded, flavourless man who is nothing if not “of winter,” and his sparse dialogue lacks Rochester’s sardonic flair. “As long as you don’t black your face and pretend to be a monkey,” he quips when his wife is planning for Manderley’s fancy dress ball. Rochester would have left this one in the bottom drawer. Maxim’s excruciating joke about Ethelred the Unready (bizarrely, the narrator is embarrassed on Mrs Van Hopper’s behalf) offers perhaps one of the greatest available insights into his character.
The narrator is likewise no Jane Eyre, and Bronte’s crusading governess may have more in common with the first Mrs de Winter than with the second. Jane and Rebecca’s names provide the titles for their respective novels, whilst the name of the second Mrs de Winter is so unimportant that nobody will utter it throughout the whole of her story. Jane Eyre charms and thwarts Mr Rochester; the second Mrs de Winter will fawn over an inferior Rochester so cravenly that it can only invite a comparison with their spaniel Jasper. The narrator is enchanted by her husband’s home Manderley, its flowing gardens and lavish teas, and she seems to have concluded that the only thing to do is occupy Manderley, to be mindlessly contained within it like a goldfish in a pond. She is as much incarcerated in Manderley as within her own innocence. Her story begins with the “happily ever after” of a fairytale ending, but this happiness becomes her crisis because she is doomed to wait for it to end.
Du Maurier’s own versions of Bronte’s hero and heroine are as colourless as ghosts. The second Mrs de Winter remains an anguished and half-invisible presence, who disturbs the domestic peace of Manderley by breaking the ornaments and wandering the passageways. Mrs Danvers is adamant that the narrator rather than Rebecca is “the shadow and the ghost. It’s you that’s forgotten and not wanted and pushed aside,” and yet Maxim is equally spectral, disappearing and reappearing mostly in silence. On first meeting Maxim, the narrator imagines him as a visitor from a “medieval” world of “narrow stairways and dim dungeons,” but Maxim turns out to possess even less colour than this ghostly figure (whom the narrator designates with the apposite title of “Gentleman Unknown.”) Maxim and the narrator could well be the groaning spectres of Rochester and Jane Eyre, although we may judge their heaven, Manderley, to be decidedly a purgatory. The original ghost, meanwhile, has assumed a massive and ferocious life.
Jane Eyre is a ghost story without a ghost, or a ghost story in which the ghost is still encased in flesh. Mrs Rochester wails in the dead of night and she haunts the folk of Thornfield Hall, invading their bedrooms, but unlike a floating spectre, she remains dangerously physical. One imagines that Mrs Rochester could rip off Jane’s arm or bite a chunk out of her neck. The fabulous Rebecca, as pale and as sexually vivacious as a Victorian vampire, may be left physically absent, but she nevertheless exerts greatly more power than Manderley’s belated human inhabitants. Rebecca’s bedroom remains fresh, her routine of dinners and parties continue as normal, the same guests continue to arrive, and she even appropriates the second Mrs de Winter’s body in order to give her old husband the fright of his life. The only technically dead Rebecca possesses a girl who is only technically alive, and who will be ironically granted a fuller life when appearing as Rebecca’s ghost.
Both Mr Rochester and Maxim de Winter are determined to return to innocence within their respective country houses, burying the original sin of their first marriages with the assistance of a more suitably submissive woman. Yet Jane Eyre is having none of it, and the literary patriarch Harold Bloom has remarked impishly that, “Rochester is all but castrated by Charlotte, since his maiming and blinding by the plot is so curiously gratuitous… Bronte symbolically castrates Rochester, in the process of taming him into a mate suitable for Jane Eyre.” In Rebecca, however, the narrator has arrived as a mate already suitable for Maxim, not least because she had no selfhood of any consequence to begin with. She will be effortlessly subsumed within Maxim’s own history, despite making the initial mistake of castigating herself for failing to be Rebecca when Maxim prizes her nothingness over Rebecca’s identity.
Du Maurier has claimed that she wrote Rebecca in a transport of jealousy after discovering her husband’s letters to an old flame. It is fruitless to speculate upon how much of her own tempestuous relationship with her father informs the unbearably Oedipal marriage which is portrayed in Rebecca. Yet the unerotic passion between Maxim and the narrator, the willing and virtually incestuous fusion of the powerful and the powerless, will end only with Maxim’s blindness. Jane and Rochester survive the destruction of Thornfield Hall, and Rochester will eventually recover some of his sight. Maxim lives only for the vivid colours of Manderley, and when it is destroyed, he will lose everything aside from his almost invisible wife. The poor narrator ends up in comparable circumstances to those in which Maxim found her: enduring a sterile endless holiday in the company of a dreary malingerer. Maxim has ultimately become the faded ghost of Mrs Van Hopper rather than of Mr Rochester, and he is similarly lacking in Mrs Van Hopper’s cheerful spirits.
The narrator may have assumed that she was personally haunted by Rebecca, and she feels estranged from the name Mrs de Winter, just as every girl may shudder with a sense of inadequacy when first hearing themselves described with their mother’s formal title. But Rebecca is not vanquished in the euphoric Oedipal moment when Maxim admits to murdering her. Maxim and the whole of Manderley are instead revealed to be Rebecca’s victims, and her tyranny over the second Mrs de Winter becomes suddenly curiously impersonal.
Rebecca’s revenge upon her husband had not required or anticipated that he would marry again. If Rebecca’s ghost ever really did descend upon Manderley, she would no doubt be baffled and exasperated by the hopeless narrator. When Mrs Danvers tries to talk the narrator out of the window, this appears to re-enact Maxim’s almost murderous moment on the “precipice” with Rebecca, and we may assume that Mrs Danvers is here – via some subliminal or supernatural instinct – furthering Rebecca’s vengeance. Yet the rocket which portends the verification of Rebecca’s death is fired at precisely the moment which will save the narrator’s life, and this is simply because Mrs Danvers has misinterpreted her instructions. The narrator’s suicide would overshadow, or at least distract from, the dramatic rediscovery of Rebecca’s body. The narrator remains fundamentally unconnected to Rebecca and she instead finds a soulmate in the similarly nameless “unknown woman, unclaimed, belonging nowhere,” who is washed up on a beach with no arms to reach out to the world. These nameless women are only appropriated by Maxim because they provide convenient substitutes for Rebecca. One lies in her tomb, the other plays with her dogs.
For the narrator, Rebecca dies for the final time with her master’s words that “I shot Rebecca in the cottage in the cove.” This is uttered like a magic spell, and Rebecca’s curse over the narrator is undone. Mrs Danver loses “her power” and the narrator rejoices over this newly helpless figure. The second Mrs de Winter can now cast her own if somewhat lesser spell over the story.
Yet whilst the narrator judges herself to be freed from Rebecca’s tyranny, her Oedipal struggle may remain unresolved rather than negated, for we are surely confirmed in our suspicion that the narrator is only a shadow of Rebecca. In other words, the narrator wins Maxim but loses her reader. A novel of two halves, or rather a mystery and an elaborate explanatory epilogue, Rebecca would be unrecognisable if it was written in the third person. This story only becomes alive through the distortion of history at the narrator’s hands.
With her pirate’s lust for liberty, her gregarious heart, her mischief and trickery, and her sheer love of life, Rebecca should be the heroine of this novel. We should commiserate with her jolly cousin Favell for losing his heart to Rebecca and perhaps indulging in the fantasy of fathering her child. Mrs Danvers’ inability to say goodbye to Rebecca should be a story of heartbreaking tenderness. Rebecca’s drearily effeminate husband should be as unsympathetic as Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin or Clifford Chatterley. It may seem incredible that the shrivelled Frank Crawley can be even more pathetic than his master, but this handyman is ultimately Maxim’s useless little tool.
Names are everything in this novel, and if Rebecca had been named Emma or Pamela, we would be far more generous towards her. We are henceforth bound in an anti-Semitic conspiracy with Du Maurier, and Rebecca only takes on a sinister significance because of her Jewish name, which tingles with a wild Otherness that can never take root and flourish peacefully in Manderley’s country garden. Maxim may sense that Rebecca’s dark Jewish vengeance – her demand of a pound of flesh from every man – was like something sexual and sordid which could only be repelled from Manderley’s sturdy English heart. Yet Rebecca “made Manderely the thing it is to-day,” transforming the house from an albeit “lovely” ruin into a shining Camelot, rather as courtly knights galloped off on their crusades with credit from the Jews. Manderley is simultaneously a treasure and a curse, a physical incarnation of the narrator’s innocence and of Rebecca’s deception, an escape from history and a vengeance upon the living.
Maxim strikes a “bargain” with Rebecca in order to create Manderley, and he may think that her death frees the house from history and the force which created it. Once Rebecca is dead, the story of Manderley can be finally written, for Maxim sees that the narrator, or any observer, “would have been taken in, like the rest. You would have sat at her feet and worshipped her.” Unfortunately for him, however, Rebecca is far from dead. She is washed up on the beach in the wrong body. She emerges in her old costume at Manderley in another awry body, just as in life she had appeared before Doctor Baker under Mrs Danvers’ identity. She rises out of the sea again in her old boat, returning like Jonah or the Flying Dutchman. She was killed with bullets, but they have left no mark on her body. Whereas Jesus was ressurected in the flesh to allay doubts about his destruction, the disciples at Manderley are searching for “proof” of Rebecca’s real death. It is variously concluded that she drowned herself, or that she was already dying from cancer, but we know that Rebecca somehow possessed her husband, just as she had appropriated the subsidiary Mrs de Winters, and then turned his gun on herself.
Perhaps a contract of Maxim and Rebecca’s “bargain” can be found in the poem “The Hound of Heaven” (1909) by Francis Thompson, which is “much-frequented” by Maxim but quoted only in part by the narrator. Thompson had ventured a markedly hellish symbol of God’s inescapable power, a Grace which is effectively a vengeance, and Rebecca offers her own diabolical variation upon the idea of a power which encompasses the whole material world so that, ‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’ The hound’s power is evoked through a metaphor which is literally planted into the gardens of Manderley, possibly as a reminder of Maxim’s bargain:
Ah! is Thy love indeed
A weed, albeit an amarinthine weed,
Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?
Arriving at Manderley for the first time, the narrator is greeted by the same lines but in Rebecca’s blood red:
They startled me with their crimson faces, massed one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic, unlike any rhododendron plant I had seen before… these were monsters, rearing to the sky, massed like a battalion, too beautiful, I thought, too powerful, they were not plants at all.
Encircled by Rebecca’s “battalion,” Maxim and the narrator find themselves imprisoned in the world which she had created, rather than being able to narrate it anew, not least because their church remains in the hands of Rebecca’s ambassador to the land of the living, the high priestess of Rebecca’s dark religion, Mrs Danvers. Moments after imagining her future “boys” invading the house and reducing it to “glorious shabbiness,” the narrator declares to Mrs Danvers that, “I can leave all household arrangements to you… I shan’t want to make any changes.” Spellbound by Mrs Danvers, the narrator admits that “I heard myself saying” the declaration and that she wondered “whether I was saying the right thing.” Mrs Danvers responds with a look of “derision.”
Leaving aside the rustle of a possible lesbian relationship between Rebecca and Mrs Danvers, whose name is masculinised to “Danny” in her devotion to Rebecca, it seems that some unconscious or possibly supernatural sympathy renders Mrs Danvers purely a manifestation of Rebecca’s power, rather as the narrator herself becomes a shadow of Maxim. Whatever the meaning of that unspecified signal from Favell, Mrs Danvers will complete her mistress’s revenge. Perhaps Rebecca would prefer her husband to be humiliated rather than hanged, and she must know that he values the colours of Manderley more than his own ghostly life. Manderley is torched after Maxim is humiliated with the knowledge that he did not even really murder Rebecca, and that he cannot try to wriggle out of his bargain and expect to keep Manderley. Whoever is writing this story, it can only end with Rebecca’s triumph. Manderley burns down like a sun rising or like eyes unsealed from a nightmare to the morning light.
[Tychy’s previous review of Jamaica Inn is here. Ed.]