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
'Yes. It is supposed
to be Rebecca. We never meet her. She died before the start of
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
'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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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
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
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
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