In an occasional series of reviews by Stella Backhouse, here is an analysis of Daphne du Maurier’s book Rebecca, to coincide with the new filmed adaptation out this week.
It was the shot heard round the literary world. In a doomed attempt to end the torment of their marriage, Cornish landowner Maxim de Winter kills his wife Rebecca with a single bullet, dumps her body out at sea, then pretends she’s drowned. When Alfred Hitchcock came to film Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 masterpiece in 1940, he subtly changed the plot to make the death accidental – romantic heroes are not supposed to be cold-bloodied wife-murderers. Hitchcock needn’t have worried: Maxim didn’t kill Rebecca. He couldn’t have, because Rebecca – at least, the flesh-and-blood Rebecca – was never alive in the first place.
To understand this, we need to approach the book as if we were its first intended audience: British readers of the late 1930s. “How strange” says the second Mrs de Winter (whom I shall henceforward call ‘the Narrator’) “that an article on wood pigeons could so recall the past and make me falter as I read aloud. It was the grey look on his face that made me stop abruptly.” In the 1920s and into the ’30s, that “grey look” was known and dreaded in households throughout the land: it was the look of a man who in the midst of a calm day, was suddenly back on the battlefields of World War One. Despite her legendary beauty, wide circle of friends and regular attendance at innumerable social functions, there are no photos of Rebecca. Even her loyal lieutenant, Mrs Danvers, never shows one. And that’s because Rebecca is not a person. Rebecca is the First World War.
Her welcome to Manderley, as Maxim and the Narrator arrive for the first time at his ancestral mansion, is the blooming rhododendrons: “monsters, rearing to the sky, massed like a batallion”, “their crimson faces…one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing…nothing but the slaughterous red”. ‘Slaughter’ is a word that even today, we still reach for when we want to convey the almost casual horror of World War One. This is not the blood of one woman. This is the blood of a generation.
It continues the next day, when the rhododendrons appear in the Morning/Mourning Room, tinting with red the walls around the desk where Rebecca wrote her letters – to the wives and sweethearts of the men who never came home. The room’s ornamental china Cupid, broken beyond repair some time later, is symbolic of love shattered – while the fact it was pushed to the floor by a falling book is a post-modern warning: Rebecca won’t be consigned to books. Rebecca has unfinished business.
Supporting her are war’s two eternal familiars: death and change. The housekeeper Mrs Danvers, “tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…set on a skeleton’s frame” is the slain of the Somme, nightmarishly re-animated. The cousin/lover Favell – vulgar, opportunistic, no respecter of tradition – is the new breed, circling the carcasses of country estates like Manderley as they declined economically after the war. Beyond the big house, poor damaged Ben, uselessly combing the beach for ‘shell’, lives in fear of Rebecca’s threat to send him to the asylum.
Although it had long been recognised that exposure to trauma could have lasting psychological effects, the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were not formally described until 1980, forty-two years after Rebecca was published. One of du Maurier’s most astonishing achievements with the novel is how accurately she portrays a condition that, at the time she was writing, did not yet have an agreed set of diagnostic criteria.
According to the NHS website, PTSD is characterised by a number of different symptoms, including re-experiencing (flashbacks, nightmares); avoiding reminders of the traumatic event; emotional numbing; irritability and angry outbursts; drug and alcohol misuse. Maxim is a check-list of all of them. The discovery of Rebecca’s body, he tells the Narrator, was “the thing I’ve dreamt about, day after day, night after night”; he fills his mind with the minutiae of county cricket; he struggles to tell the Narrator he loves her; his sister says he “loses his temper once or twice in a year, and when he does – my God – he does lose it”; and though his drinking isn’t excessive, he practically chain-smokes.
Additionally, the text is bristling with what we now call ‘triggers’ – some widely associated with World War One, some specific to Maxim’s personal hell. People hum tunes to steady their nerves, like the troops as they marched up the line. There are frequent mention of birdsong – so well-remembered by veterans that Sebastian Faulks used it as the title of his own First World War novel of 1993. There are sounds, scents, unease about waste; daydreams about other realities (where the war never happened); the constant obtrusion of the past on the present through the tolling phrase “I can see/hear her/him/them/it now”; and the whispering dread that “when the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress”.
“Rebecca, always Rebecca.” Every room at Manderley: re-decorated by Rebecca. The gardens of Manderley: re-designed by Rebecca. And this festering, claustrophobic conceit of PTSD – you can’t escape it, but you can’t talk about it either – is the heart of Rebecca’s power. It infects everyone. The Narrator can’t talk about it because she is “fearful that some heedless word…should bring that expression back to his eyes again. I began to dread any mention of the sea, for the sea might lead to boats, to accidents, to drowning…” Maxim can’t talk about it because he’s ashamed. The result is despair – an empty marriage where the participants are acting their parts unaccompanied by true feeling, and no end in sight. Echoing Laurence Binyon’s well-known war poem For The Fallen, the Narrator laments that “Rebecca would never grow old. Rebecca would always be the same.”
About two-thirds of the way through the book – literally overnight – the Narrator abruptly states that she feels more grown up (“I would never be a child again”); and this paves the way for an improvement in her relationship with Maxim. The catalyst is categorically not sex – du Maurier is careful to keep Maxim out of the bedroom the night before. Instead, it’s the at-first-glance unsuccessful fancy dress ball. Tricked by Mrs Danvers, the Narrator commits the appalling gaffe of appearing in an outfit identical to one worn by Rebecca a few years before. Maxim is majorly triggered, and the Narrator is forced to appear, like her husband, in ordinary evening dress.
Although imperfectly realised (the fireworks, representing the artillery barrage, are unavoidably at the end, rather than the start where they logically should be), the ball is symbolic of battle on the Western Front. “I was going to give orders that all cars should stand by for 5am” says Frank, the protective land agent whose own war-related PTSD – while seemingly less severe than Maxim’s – makes him the only person with whom Maxim can be…well…frank. The Narrator’s descent of the stairs (going over the top) is accompanied by drumming. And in the bleary light of morning “It was as though a blight had fallen on Manderley…One of the gardeners passed me with a barrow full of bits and paper, and litter, and the skins of fruit left on the lawns by the people last night.”
The boundary between Maxim and the Narrator is always fragile. It’s the Narrator who hums the tunes and hears the birdsong. It’s the Narrator who has the possibly recurring nightmare of returning to Manderley that forms the book’s unsettling opening chapter. But after her initiation at the ball/in battle, her identification with Maxim becomes more overt. In some ways it’s a comfort: her new-found empathy will help them face the future. “It would not be I,I,I any longer” she says. “It would be we, it would be us. We would be together.”
But it also opens the door to more troubling possibilities. The most important scene in this respect is the one that recalls the Temptation of Christ as well as foreshadowing the revelation Maxim will shortly make about how he almost killed Rebecca at the cliff near Monte Carlo. Whispering to the Narrator as they stand at the window of Rebecca’s bedroom, Mrs Danvers urges her to jump: “There’s not much for you to live for, is there? Why don’t you jump and have done with it? Then you won’t be unhappy any more.” As the protagonists’ experiences merge, we infer that what Maxim really contemplated at the cliff edge was killing himself.
In reality, there are two ways of interpreting Maxim’s relationship to the Narrator – one hopeful, the other not so much. The more literal interpretation is that despite hints to the contrary, the Narrator and Maxim are separate people. As their lives move forward, his honesty about the past helps her to understand him better, which in turn enables her to support him through his continuing struggles with mental health. The insight that he was not altogether to blame for Rebecca’s death (read: what happened in the war) means that some degree of healing can occur.
The alternative is that the Narrator is a product of Maxim’s mind. Perhaps she’s based on a sympathetic nurse (on this reading, the quiet hotel where he’s residing in Chapter 2 is almost certainly a sanatorium) around whom he’s constructed a fantasy. His dream is of a wife who understands him. The mutual abandonment of fancy dress at the ball (followed up by telling the truth about Rebecca’s death) is symbolic of a longed-for abandonment of pretence.
If he can’t have this, he wants the war never to have happened. Some of the book’s imagery – the lilac, the arching trees, the clocks, the afternoon tea – is suggestive of ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ by the celebrated war poet Rupert Brooke. Significantly, the poem was written in 1912, two years before war broke out. Maxim would happily suspend himself for ever in 1912. At Manderley, which he loves “before anything else”, this is what he tries to do. He tries to make it his safe place; the haven where he can shut out reality and pretend that all is well.
But the fact is, Manderley cannot keep the world at bay. It’s not safe from the past, but it’s not safe from the present either, and that’s what drives Maxim mad. In the dream sequence, sinister, rampant nature threatens to strangle the life out of the gentle ritual of afternoon tea. A tourist on the cliffs casually opines that “all these big estates will be chopped up in time and bungalows built.” The final straw comes when Rebecca tells him she is pregnant. The book was published in 1938. Another war is on the way.
So: who is the real Mrs de Winter? If it’s not Rebecca and not the Narrator, there’s only one candidate left: the nameless, faceless woman Maxim identified as Drowned Rebecca, lying entombed like the Unknown Soldier in the family vault. And this is the heartbreaking truth: grief is Maxim’s only life partner. If you’ve stayed with me this far, perhaps you feel it’s a shame to have sucked the romance out of Rebecca – to have robbed it of, on the one hand, its uplifting narrative of ‘troubled-man-redeemed-by-love-of-good-woman’ and on the other, of its darkly exciting Freudian subtext of ‘troubled-man-can’t-cope-with-female-sexuality’. I disagree. Understood this way, Rebecca is an utterly devastating book. It’s also an urgently necessary book.
Twenty years after the Armistice was signed, it shone a light on the hidden suffering of those for whom the war was still a daily reality. Forty years before the doctors got there, it nailed the symptoms of PTSD and recognised it as an agony that endured for years. It acknowledged the toxic effects on families; it told them they were not alone. It made a plea for honesty and getting things into the open. And while some might argue that Maxim is unrepresentative because he’s cushioned by wealth, he could equally be seen as a de-stigmatising figure, affirming that this can happen to anyone. And these are messages that even today, we still need to hear.
Like all good literature, Rebecca can be read on many levels. If you want to enjoy it as Gothic yarn of love and jealousy – if you want to explore it as Freudian psycho-drama – you absolutely can. But alongside that, I think we owe it to Daphne du Maurier to put on record another of her achievements: classic study of PTSD.
[Stella Backhouse is better known locally for her Food Covolution website, highlighting independent food outlets in Coventry. She is a regular volunteer at the Tree House and a great and serious reader.]