Her boat had been found with its queer prophetic name, Je Reviens, but I was free of her forever.
The name of Rebecca de Winter’s boat – Je Reviens (“I will return”) is a chilling promise that lies at the heart of Daphne du Maurier’s bestselling novel – and, despite the narrator’s bold claim, neither du Maurier herself nor the reading public has ever been free of Rebecca. Celebrating its 80th anniversary year with a new edition published by Virago, Rebecca is a novel that has haunted and enchanted generations of readers, who find themselves drawn to return to Manderley again and again.
Recently voted the nation’s favourite book of the past 225 years and repeatedly adapted for stage and screen – most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940 – why does Rebecca retain its power to captivate and challenge readers, 80 years on?
Rebecca’s famous opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, sets the scene for a novel in which dreams become nightmares, obsessions take root in the mind – and a lost house of secrets feels as real as any of its inhabitants, living or dead. Nothing is at it seems in this novel in which du Maurier, the consummate plotter, is always one step ahead, pulling the strings and surprising us time after time.
Famous for its rich evocation of the secretive mansion Manderley and its first mistress, the effervescent and treacherous Rebecca, the novel beguiles and deceives by turns as we are compelled to delve beneath the surface glamour that skilfully veils what du Maurier’s biographer Tatiana de Rosnay calls its “muted violence and suppressed sexuality”.
“Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca”, laments the second Mrs de Winter, the shy, gauche creature who is repeatedly overshadowed by her glorious and vibrant predecessor. But then she muses: “Perhaps I haunted her as she haunted me”, betraying that spark of nerve that hovers at the edge of her narration. The young, impressionable girl who cowers before the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, and shrinks in the face of her responsibilities as mistress of Manderley, is in fact the controlling voice of the story.
She might begin by telling us that “there would be no resurrection…For Manderley was ours no longer. Manderley was no more”. But it is by the power of her feverish and intense imagination that the house rises up before us and we risk losing ourselves down its serpentine drive, overcome by the monstrous blood-red rhododendrons, but drawn on by an uncontrollable desire to know what is hidden in du Maurier’s “house of secrets”.
The narrator’s passion for Manderley was inspired by du Maurier’s own longing for the Cornish house, Menabilly, that she had discovered abandoned “like the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale”, waiting to be awakened by an intrepid trespasser such as herself. She began writing the novel in the sticky heat of Alexandria, Egypt, where she had accompanied her husband, Frederick Browning, on a military posting, leaving her beloved Cornwall behind but remaining “possessed” by the house – “even as a mistress holds her lover”.
Five years after Rebecca was published, du Maurier realised her dream of living at Menabilly, after convincing the owners to lease it to her, but the entailed house would never be hers and indeed she was heartbroken to have to move out in 1969. Like Manderley itself, Menabilly represented both love and loss, a house which possessed its tenant but to which she could never, ultimately, return.
Du Maurier described Rebecca as a “study in jealousy” – and that jealousy snakes its way into the heart, not just of Mrs de Winter, but of Mrs Danvers and Maxim de Winter as well.
Maxim the menace
A favourite codeword in du Maurier’s secret language among friends and family was the term “menace”, used for an attractive individual. But “menaces” like Rebecca de Winter often attract and repel in equal measure – and they need to be controlled. Just after the narrator has agreed to Maxim’s most unromantic of proposals in Monte Carlo: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” – she comes upon a book inscribed with Rebecca’s distinctive handwriting. Emboldened by the thought of her marriage, she not only neatly excises the offending page and tears it into pieces, she sets it on fire and watches, with satisfaction, as the curling R crumbles to dust. Such flashes of power are easily missed in the novel but when Mrs de Winter returns to Manderley, Rebecca’s presence is not so easily extinguished.
Much of Rebecca’s “menace” derives from the housekeeper Mrs Danvers’ obsession with her former mistress, whose room and possessions she devotedly preserves, stroking Rebecca’s furs and delicate nightgowns, and conjuring up an irresistible image of a seductive and rebellious woman whose presence in the house is inescapable. “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?”, Mrs Danvers asks. “Sometimes I wonder if she comes back here to Manderley and watches you and Mr de Winter together.”
But it is Maxim himself, patriarch of the aptly named Manderley, who is the most dangerous character in this novel, not the supposedly vampiric and deviant Rebecca. Even the sepulchral Mrs Danvers, who tempts Mrs de Winter into oblivion at an open window, has to take second place to Maxim. In the context of the #MeToo movement, his treatment of his first wife – who had the audacity not merely to betray him but to laugh at him – triggers a stomach-churning recognition of misogyny that modern readers are chilled to find that the second Mrs de Winter cheerfully ignores. Maxim de Winter is far more menacing than the ghost of his first wife.
Rebecca is a novel that has haunted du Maurier’s literary reputation, for both good and ill. Wrongly promoted by her publisher Victor Gollancz as an “exquisite love story”, du Maurier’s critical standing has been hampered by her misrepresentation as a “romantic” novelist and Rebecca’s popularity has often been an excuse for snobbery and dismissal by the critics.
But when we return to the novel, 80 years on, and step into the vivid and dangerous dreamworld of Manderley, “secretive and silent as it had always been”, du Maurier’s creative power cannot be in doubt. We will never be free from Rebecca – nor would we want to be.
Laura Varnam, Lecturer in English Literature, University of Oxford.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.