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Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

So much more than a love story for women.

A watercolour portrait of famous English author and playwright, Daphne du Maurier.
Daphne du Maurier

At the time of its reception, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca was lambasted by many critics as just another Gothic romance, written by a woman, for women. However, as is often the case, the true greatness of the novel has now been realised, as critics softened to the idea of female writers, and as those who’ve read affirm the greatness of it. This is only supported by its high ranking position on the BBC’s “the nation’s best-loved novel” survey in 2003, and the book’s recent adaptation into a Netflix film, which itself has been widely praised. The brilliance of du Maurier cannot be denied here.

Daphne du Maurier herself was born in London to Sir Gerald du Maurier and Muriel Beaumont in 1907. This was a wealthy and artistic household, with her father being a prominent actor-manager, and her elder sister, Angela, becoming a writer herself. This helped her to gain her own foothold, and her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931, when she was just twenty-four.

Nonetheless, it was Rebecca, of course, that is the most prominent of all her works. Having never been out of print since the day it was published, and being adapted for several stage and screen productions, the power of the storyline is clear.

The story focuses on a unnamed narrator – something to be examined later on – who is married to the illustrious Maxim de Winter. Their marriage, however, is constantly plagued by the memory of Maxim’s first wife: Rebecca. The fact that the entire book is named after this woman demonstrates the weight she has over the storyline, even though she is dead. The narrator of the book – Maxim’s new wife – reports the haunted feeling she gets as she sits in ‘Rebecca’s chair’ and leans against ‘Rebecca’s cushion’ (acknowledging the Gothic element of this story). Furthermore, the expectations which Rebecca’s presence put on the narrator are hugely damaging: Rebecca was a woman of high birth; she was pretty; she was gracious; and she could run the house properly. However, the narrator muses that she is from ‘spurious origin’, and describes herself as ‘dull’. This is made worse by the fact that other characters, even those who are nice to her, still maintain this comparison. For example, Maxim’s sister says that she is ‘so very different from Rebecca’. The fact that the novel is named after Rebecca, whilst the readers never even find out the narrator’s actual name, demonstrate her dominance, and this oppression is a key theme of the story.

For du Maurier, though, the theme of femininity in Rebecca was also crucial. The expectations mentioned above are all noticeably sexist, and the narrator’s position in her new home, Manderley, reinforces this. Expectations, a key theme of the book, are powerful in demonstrating what women were meant to be, and this is shown in the “indoctrination” of the narrator, as she says that ‘confidence, grace, beauty’ are three of the most important things for a woman to possess, despite also acknowledging throughout the novel that she lacks these key qualities. This indoctrination is reflected in the way that the narrator admits she feels freer when Maxim leaves the house to go to London, as she can be more herself, and not try to live up to the stereotypically feminine ideals that she believes Maxim holds her to.

The subtle criticism of sexism in Rebecca, though, is made more poignant because of du Maurier’s own beliefs. Like the narrator, du Maurier was married to an “important man”: Lieutenant-General Browning. Whilst writing Rebecca, du Maurier was living in Egypt, posted there with her husband for the first time. It has been reported that she absolutely hated all the schmoozing at the military dinners, particularly because – as far as most people were concerned – she was just the wife of a successful man, rather than being her own person. This is similarly reflected in her novel, as the narrator’s anonymity, as well as giving emphasis to the power of Rebecca, shows the narrator to be inferior to Maxim, and lacking in identity, in the way du Maurier felt about herself. Moreover, du Maurier herself felt she struggled to order the servants she had to do things. This reflects the narrator’s own difficulties in this regard, as she was brought up with no experience of this. Mrs Danvers expects her to be able to manage Manderley straight off the bat, mostly because she is a woman, again demonstrating the way in which du Maurier highlights sexist beliefs in Rebecca. This shows how themes in the book are made more powerful by the semi-autobiographical nature of it, relating them to real life.

This relatability to Daphne du Maurier’s own life continues with another key part of the book: Manderley. The inspiration for this house came from du Maurier’s own Cornish home, Menabilly. This was her pride and joy, and she spent many years (and a lot of money) doing it up. However, in this instance, du Maurier’s inspiration contrasts with the image portrayed in the book, as Manderley – though revered by most – is the ‘sepulchre’ of the narrator’s ‘fear and suffering’. Also, the fact it burns down is surprising in light of how much du Maurier loved her own home, though perhaps it can be explained by the Gothic nature of the book.

However, the question remains as to what makes this book so much more than a Gothic love story. It’s true that the ending is surprising, romantic, and also that the portrayal of the dead wife, alongside her sinister counterpart, Mrs Danvers, explain why ‘Gothic’, and ‘romance’ are apt descriptions for the novel. However, this is a rather pernicious description for Rebecca, as the subtle criticisms of societal expectations, and the oppression of women are hugely important. This makes the novel somewhat prescient, as it was published in 1930, the time between the first and second wave feminist movements, and in the time before the liberalisation of the youth from expectations their parents had of them. Because of this reason, it is now clear that Rebecca is a hugely important book, and not just “women’s fiction”.

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