An Encounter with Rebecca de Winter
(Via the Narrator)

 

 

When I was thirteen I sat with our set in the classroom waiting for Miss Eldis, the Latin mistress, a very able teacher, a young woman who had had polio and who limped badly. Sitting next to me was a slim, dark-haired girl called Lisa Dukes. I liked her very much. She was reading, and was very absorbed in her book. As she read she fidgeted, moving her pale, slender legs about under her desk.
'What are you reading, Lisa?' I asked.
She did not reply, but briefly held up the book so I could see the cover. It was a card-backed Penguin edition with a black line-drawing of stunted trees, thorn-trees perhaps; between the trees and superimposed upon them was a ghostly face drawn in pale red: this face, partly obscured by the trees, held a malevolent expression, the corners of its mouth drawn down. The cover was a highly effective one. The title was Rebecca. The author was Daphne du Maurier.
Lisa had come to the end of a section or a chapter. She sighed. She put a spill of paper in between the leaves as a book mark and laid the closed book on her desk together with her Latin Grammar and her exercise books. She turned to me. 'A very fine read,' she said, simply. She stopped moving her legs and placed them neatly together.
'Would I enjoy it?' I asked.
Lisa looked at me speculatively. 'I don't know,' she said. 'It's written by a woman with women in mind. You might not like it. Anyway, when I've finished it you can borrow it and find out.'
'The cover looks fascinating.'
'Yes. It is supposed to be Rebecca. We never meet her. She died before the start of the novel.'
The Latin mistress was making her way up the court to the classroom block. We greeted her. The lesson began; its first subject was the ablative absolute. Miss Eldis wrote the words Ceteris paribus on the blackboard.
Well, Lisa was as good as her word and a few days later lent me her copy of Rebecca. I read quickly and in some depth. At first I didn't think much of it; the first-person narrator seemed a rather insipid woman, an indifferent artist, an orphan reliant on a shallow malaprop socialite and then on a much older man, a widower haunted by memories of his dead wife. In fact it seemed to me rather empty.
'Persist with it,' said Lisa encouragingly. 'It improves.'
And so I took Lisa's advice and persisted with it. It indeed improved.
I shan't detail the plot; I shall attempt to use this classic novel - which can be read at many levels - to study the authenticity of narration. The style is simple and very straightforward. You can see why some (but not all) reviewers of the time, probably skip-reading it, dismissed it as an ephemeral romance.
Though the novel is entitled Rebecca, Rebecca died before the story begins and cannot speak for herself. We can only know Rebecca through others - and this knowledge is itself filtered through the psyche of the first-person narrator, who has never met Rebecca and who does not give her own name. So, a living but nameless woman, Rebecca's successor as the wife of Maxim de Winter, is telling us, second hand, about a woman with a name and a reputation but no present physical existence. We know little of Rebecca's background, though it must have been affluent; she was at ease in high society. She was well-educated. As a girl she had a personal maid. She was astonishingly and darkly beautiful in a boyish way. She was a natural equestrienne and a courageous and competitive lone sailor. She had the ability to run a vast formal household.
Rebecca apparently died at sea while sailing. A body was later found, identified as hers, and placed in the family vault.
About nine months after his wife's death, the widower asks the unnamed girl to marry him despite their difference in age and class. (He is wealthy and upper-class; she is poor and lower middle-class, though intelligent, imaginative and well-spoken; she must have gone to a good grammar-school.) Initially she demurs, but soon gives in. And what an odd marriage it is! Mrs de Winter (as we are forced to call her) is completely obedient to her husband, Maxim, who treats her not as an equal partner in marriage, but as a child: a much younger sister, say; even a daughter. He suggests to her that she should dress as Alice in Wonderland at a forthcoming costume ball. He constantly criticizes her. Her self-esteem runs on near-empty. All the time Mrs de Winter is comparing herself miserably with the dead Rebecca. Cue to meet the dreadful housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, permanently dressed in black, hovering in remote corridors, ever vigilant. Mrs de Winter is scared stiff of her. Now, any woman with a fragment of self-confidence would have firmly put such a housekeeper under threat of dismissal - perhaps even paying her a month's salary in lieu of notice - but Mrs de Winter never apparently thought of doing this. And so this dreadful creature began to run her life for her, maintaining everything as dead Rebecca would have wished it. Mrs Danvers takes a further hatchet to Mrs de Winter's self-esteem and even suggests suicide as a way of escape. Rebecca in death is to her more real than Mrs de Winter in life. We are told that Mrs Danvers entered Rebecca's service when the latter was a child. We guess that Rebecca dominated Mrs Danvers, who responded with a life-long crush, a fanatical devotion which bordered on the cultic. Whether it had an unrequited sexual element I do not know; if it didn't, the situation between the two is even more bizarre. It is possible that Rebecca as a child was spoiled and manipulated by the older woman.
Rebecca's body is found in her long-submerged boat: the body in the tomb is not hers. The boat's hull has been deliberately damaged, and the sea-cocks opened. The boat has been purposefully scuttled. Rebecca has either committed suicide or been foully murdered. Which?
At this point Maxim confesses to his wife that he hated Rebecca and shot her. Why did he hate her? Well, the story he spins to Mrs de Winter portrays Rebecca as a highly talented and intelligent psychopath, incapable of fidelity in marriage or friendship. Rebecca is said to have been sexually promiscuous. According to Maxim she inferred that she was pregnant with another man's child; this child would inherit the mansion and estate. Rebecca knew that her husband was easily enraged and provoked him into killing her and her (ostensibly) unborn child.
And here we come across our first big difficulty with the narrator. Our narrator is so gratified to learn that her husband did not love Rebecca that she scarcely stops to consider that she has married a murderer; further, a murderer who kills a defenceless woman he believed to be pregnant. He claims that he is totally unrepentant. Well, can you trust the word of a narrator who distorts apparent reality so unthinkingly? I don't think you can. However faithless and provoking your wife, you are not permitted to kill her. And the narrator goes as far as to view the murder as a felicitous act. This is the stuff of infatuation rather than love.
And so the story goes on.
In the end, Maxim, aided by a clique of county cronies, appears to be let off the hook. However, before she died, Rebecca had visited Dr Baker, a London gynaecologist. Was she pregnant?
And here we come to another difficulty with the narrator. Mrs de Winter, fearing that matters will go against her husband, hopes fervently that Dr Baker is dead. Now, to wish for the death of another human being is nothing if not immoral. Dr Baker, however, is very much alive. He reveals that Rebecca was not pregnant but suffered inoperable cancer. She had only months to live and would have faced a painful death. Dr Baker (who remembers Rebecca well and who was impressed by her strength of mind) says that a woman in her predicament might well consider suicide.
So. The story ends with Mrs Danvers likely setting the mansion on fire. We are not told whether she quietly decamped or whether she immolated herself in the blaze. The latter - perishing in a last sacrifice on Rebecca's final pyre - seems to fit in with the overall gothic timbre of the novel. The torch she carries for Rebecca ignites her chapelle ardente. Perhaps Mrs Danvers hopes to be Rebecca's servant in the after-life.
Mr and Mrs de Winter retire to an indifferent hotel in the South of France where he chain-smokes and she does nothing but read and reminisce. In a way the narrator is worse off at the end than when she was an innocent and naive girl in Monte Carlo. Then she could have left her snobbish and ignorant employer and taken a practical job as a shop-assistant, say, or a secretary, and done something independent and useful. Instead, at the story's end, bored out of her mind, she lives a shadowy existence, spending day after day in a hired room in the company of a haunted man who has to live with the evils of the past, the worst of which was of his own making.
And as for Rebecca's character? I think in the end it's difficult to say much about her character with any certainty. Mrs Danvers is near to a psychosis (at one stage she tears her clothing) and can't be believed, even when she admiringly recounts her teenage mistress's cruel (and bloody) mastery of a spirited (male) horse. Maxim, in retailing Rebecca's supposed psychopathy in some detail to his second wife, is surely trying to ease a gnawing conscience. Possibly he is projecting some of his own potential weaknesses onto a dead woman who cannot answer back. Not only has he murdered his wife, but he perjures himself in court, repeatedly and unflinchingly lying on oath. Is such a man really to be believed? The other characters are just as unreliable. Jack Favell, Rebecca's cousin, is a blackmailer who will pitch any yarn to make money. Frank Crawley, the land-agent (and party to the truth about Rebecca's death) is so craven he advises Maxim to give in to Favell's attempt at blackmail. The most trustworthy witness is Ben, a harmless simpleton who is afraid of Rebecca. Ben spied furtively on Rebecca; she threatened him with committal to an asylum were he ever to reveal what he had seen. Paradoxically, Rebecca's intimidation of Ben was so extreme - 'he was showing the whites of his eyes, just like a dog does when you are going to whip him' - that he refuses to speak of the consigning of her body to the sea, of which he was almost certainly a witness. Yet Rebecca only threatened him: she stayed her hand: in her position she could easily have had him committed.
So: what we make of Rebecca (and, indeed, the book Rebecca) depends on the untrustworthy testimony of second-hand characters filtered through the sensorium of an untrustworthy narrator who is seen to be intelligent but emotionally myopic. Ultimately we do not know the narrator, and we do not know how the author perceived the narrator.
Rebecca is a story that is far subtler and deeper than it first appears, and stands careful re-reading. In many ways Rebecca is not about Rebecca at all. It is about the private reminiscences of the unnamed narrator, who, in common with most of us, cannot take too much truth and has a tendency to varnish it with fantasy. We, the reader, are not directly addressed by the narrator; we are overhearing private reminiscences - some true, some confabulative - shaped by past events.
Rebecca the person? Who was she? Who knows. Ah! Rebecca is a novel probably greater than its own author's appreciation of it. And that's rare.

 

 

David Wheldon
11th October 2013

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