Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca came to me as a recommendation from a long-ago acquaintance after I’d mentioned having watched the Hitchcock film. Since the book itself is all about One’s Past (and how you cannot ever really hide from it, no matter how damn hard you try), it seemed appropriate to come to me from a person from my past. In any case, it’s really a fascinating novel. (And a fascinating film. I’ll try not to make too many comparisons, although I took numerous college courses that give me the authority to do so, but I did consume both in the course of a few days, and they’re slightly inextricable in my mind.) Spoilers to follow…
Rebecca is the story of Mrs. de Winter, a woman who is so useless that she never gets her own name. It’s really kind of the point, that she is so overshadowed by the former Mrs. de Winter that there’s no real point in her having her own name. While working in Monte Carlo as the companion to an insufferable gossip of an old woman, the not-yet Mrs. de Winter falls into the path of Maxim de Winter, the rich and semi-famous so-and-so that is the owner of Manderley, an estate in Cornwall that’s so impressive, it’s on the fronts of postcards. When not-yet Mrs.’s employer (Mrs. Van Hopper) falls ill, our heroine takes this opportunity to go gallivanting about the south of France with Mr. de Winter (who insists she call him Maxim. I feel like there is a penis joke in there somewhere). They fall in love or something, and he insists (he does a lot of that) she marry him, and move to his palatial estate, and the whole thing seems quite random, given that even she doesn’t understand why Maxim loves her. (She is twenty-one, he is in his forties and/or is played by Lawrence Olivier with a frightening mustache, you do the math.)
And, you know, for all that’s going to end up happening to this poor girl, not to victim-blame, but I can’t have too much sympathy for her, because it’s not as though there weren’t warning signs that Maxim was going to be slightly crazy and/or completely damn useless as a husband. He is constantly referring to her as “[his] little [fill in your own insult, some helpful ones are ‘fool’, ‘idiot’, ‘criminal’]”. You charmer, you. My personal favorite, and this is both in the novel and in the movie, is when during his very uncomfortable and laissez-faire proposal, he says:
“I’m being rather a brute to you, aren’t I? This isn’t your idea of a proposal. We ought to be in a conservatory, you in a white frock with a rose in your hand, and a violin playing a waltz in the distance. And I should make violent love to you behind a palm tree. You would feel then you were getting your money’s worth.”
And she doesn’t think anything of this. Girl, get your mind right.
But then, Mrs. de Winter has her own weird issues going on as far as marriage is concerned; she talks about how Maxim is now her everything: her husband, her father, her son. She wants to be his wife, his mother. I don’t know what this lady has heard about marriage, but it is not what I have heard about marriage.
In any case. She’s young, they’re in love, they get married and honeymoon around France and Italy for like six weeks before he then moves her to his childhood home that she’s never even seen (except on the back of the aforementioned postcard), Manderley. This is when it gets real. Because he has a head maid, Mrs. Danvers, who super hates the new Mrs. de Winter. And because Maxim has a first wife, Rebecca, who died tragically in a boating accident less than a year ago, that everyone loved and is still mourning, and everything is super awkward. Also Mrs. de Winter’s maid thinks Mrs. de Winter’s lingerie is cheap.
Mrs. Danvers, occasionally called Danny, hates the new Mrs. de W. because she was with Rebecca since Rebecca was a child, and has not recovered from her death (and thinks it’s in poor taste that Maxim has married so soon) (I might be a little on Danny’s side with this, but Maxim has his reasons). Mrs. de W. tries to contribute to the house, but Mrs. Danvers is such a forceful presence that nothing the new Mrs. does is ever right, and it only makes Mrs. Danvers hate her more, and she is quite terrified of the woman with no real reason. Mrs. Danvers never does anything to her overtly… until the night of Manderley’s costume ball. It used to be a big honking deal back when Rebecca was running things, and everyone misses it, and Mrs. de Winter rather gets talked into it by some chatty broads she doesn’t like but feels she needs to impress. She wants her costume to be a big secret, but has no ideas about it, until Mrs. Danvers shows her a portrait in the house and suggests she copy the dress. Mrs. de W. does so, to epic failure, because apparently it was the dress Rebecca wore to the last Manderley costume ball, and Maxim freaks out.
Mrs. Danvers totally planned this, perhaps as retribution for what she thinks is a slight against her. She believes that Mrs. de Winter tattled that Danny had a guest over – Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin, who Maxim loathes. Mrs. de W. didn’t do this, but whatever. Danny then takes her distraught mistress and tries to sweet-talk the poor girl into committing suicide. I told you it got real. Before she can do it, though (and she was gonna), there’s a big commotion out the window, because a ship has crashed on the rocks or some nonsense and everyone has to go into Coast Guard mode. BUT THEN, they discover Rebecca’s sunken boat! AND THEN, they discover Rebecca on it. And then, Mrs. de Winter goes to comfort Maxim, whom she’s sure is distressed, only to learn two very important facts:
1, Maxim never loved Rebecca, because it turns out she was kind of an enormous bitch, possibly sociopathic, was banging her cousin, and may or may not have been traipsing up to London for months at a time for Satanic orgies or somesuch. (She was definitely traipsing up to London. The Satanic orgies are only implied.) (But she was totally banging her cousin.) (She also tried to bang Frank Crawley, Maxim’s agent and best friend. And her brother-in-law Giles.)
2, Maxim is distraught about the discovery of Rebecca’s body, but that’s because he kind of super murdered her and sank the boat to cover it.
This book is actually really great.
After that, there’s just an inquest, and the threatening of a mentally disabled man who one time saw Rebecca banging her cousin (Jack Favell uses this in his defense, because he is horrible. ‘The idiot saw me banging my cousin-lover, so we threatened him, but we threatened him too well, so now he refuses to admit it to prove she was murdered.’), and a lot of driving around, and eventually we find out that Rebecca may or may not have planned to have Maxim kill her (by telling him she was pregnant with someone else’s baby, that she would raise to be heir to Manderley), because she had cancer. But it turns out everyone thinks it was a suicide, so everyone wins! Except for Jack Favell, who is a dickcheese. And Danny, who kinda loses it and burns Manderley to the ground.
Some questions that were raised during the course of my reading:
– What happened to Mr. Danvers? It’s said that Mrs. Danvers has been with Rebecca since Rebecca was a child, so I can only wonder if Mr. Danvers died at some point, thus solidifying further Mrs. Danvers’ attachment to Rebecca.
– Was Frank Crawley, Maxim’s agent, in love with Maxim? He becomes very recalcitrant when the present Mrs. de Winter brings up Rebecca, and Maxim later reveals that Frank was shaken by Rebecca’s attentions, thinking the de Winter marriage was more solid than it was. While that’s certainly plausible and not impossible, I suspect that Rebecca attempted to seduce, then sexually harass, Crawley, and when he resisted, she suspected the truth and threatened to expose him, hence why he plead with Maxim to leave Manderley. It makes more sense why Frank, clearly knowing the de Winters are comvering up something re: Rebecca’s death, chooses to stay and support Maxim.
I appreciate that both versions of the story (novel and adaptation) pick and choose where they’re ambiguous. The movie makes it clear that Mrs. Danvers burns Manderley, and decides who makes it out alive. The book just concludes with the glow of the flaming Manderley lighting the horizon.
But the more interesting change is how the movie approaches Maxim’s involvement in his first wife’s death. Film Rebecca falls and hits her head in an argument – not really Maxim’s fault, but he covers it up nonetheless. In the book, however, it’s just straight murder. Maxim shoots Rebecca through the heart. He talks about cleaning up the blood, of which there is a considerable amount. I suppose eliminating the flat-out murder aspect makes Maxim more sympathetic, but it’s not as though you’re rooting against him in the novel, really. When Jack Favell shows up – bragging about conducting an affair with Rebecca (who is his own cousin) right under her husband’s nose, not to mention making lewd remarks to Mrs. de Winter, insulting her when she doesn’t respond, mocking Frank Crawley for no good reason, and doing it all in front of the people investigating Rebecca’s death – you rather want to punch him in his face. He’s so detestable and smug I was begging for him to be proven wrong. Even though he was right. About a murder.
That’s the kind of wreckage Rebecca left in her wake, though – a tormented Maxim, a battered Crawley, a haunted Mrs. de Winter (who never even knew her!), and Mrs. Danvers, so distraught that she tries to get another woman to commit suicide, and failing that, just commits arson.
In conclusion: don’t get married. Or if you do, invest in background checks.