It Could Have Been So Good: Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’

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I was bowled over recently when Roy confessed to never having read Rebecca. ‘What?’ I spluttered. ‘But I’m always going on about it! Do you mean you’ve just been pretending to understand what I was talking about?’ Shocking, yes, I know. I immediately put aside my glass of red and hoofed it upstairs to grab my copy from the shelf. Roy is now in the process of filling this unacceptable gap in his knowledge.

Du Maurier’s novel has been the subject of at least two sumptuous adaptations for film and one very dodgy amateur stage production that I saw a few years ago in Plymouth, in which the actor playing the second Mrs de Winter had failed to button her dress properly so when she sat down on the centre-stage sofa, every member of the audience could see her rather dull knickers. No knickers, but plenty of cleavage in the image above which is, of course, a still from the celebrated Hitchcock screen adaptation, depicting the moment when evil old Mrs Danvers is trying to persuade the new Mrs de Winter (whose own name is never revealed) to chuck herself out of the window. The same moment is shown in the image below, from the screen version starring Emilia Fox as Mrs Deedoubleyoo and Diana Rigg as Mrs Danvers. I particularly like the effect of the reflection – it makes the second wife look as if she’s a ghost already:

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Forget knickers and cleavage, this latter version goes straight to the full-frontal both-breasts shot and Emilia Fox’s nipples are staring you in the face before you can say ‘Goodness, I don’t remember this bit, is it in the book?’ All a bit unnecessary, I think, especially as the debate still rages over the actual extent of the sexual activity between Maxim and his second wife. It’s even been suggested that the newly-weds don’t enjoy any kind of physical intimacy until the night of Maxim’s confession. Charles Dance and Emilia Fox certainly do get it on in this adaptation, however, which to me looks a bit like interpreting the text liberally enough to allow for an ‘artistically justified’ booby shot.

Anyway, jarring as it is, this isn’t really what I want to write about. The point I’d like to make is that Rebecca could have been a much better book if Maxim really had loved Rebecca and if she really had been everything we believe her to be until we learn the ‘truth’*. As a study of jealousy, the first half of this novel is an absolute masterpiece. The second-best second wife, dowdy, timid and self-effacing, believes herself to be in the unenviable position of trying to take the place of a woman who will always be young and beautiful, who will never grow old, and who didn’t live long enough for her husband to tire of her. Du Maurier’s writing here is absolutely superb. The second wife becomes gradually more and more obsessed with Rebecca, recreating her image and bringing her to life again in many and various situations such as unpacking the valuable china cupid which is later broken. Aided by Mrs Danvers in particular, she constantly compares herself to the beautiful and much-beloved first wife and finds her own self wanting.

But the narrative goes downhill once Maxim spills the beans, and then the story turns into a thriller in which it becomes imperative to demonstrate to the court’s satisfaction that Rebecca committed suicide rather than being murdered – which she did, in a way. How much better the book would have been if Rebecca had died in a freak boating accident after all, leaving Maxim alone and lovelorn, only to marry again quickly in an attempt to find happiness with another. The second wife would have been driven insane by the knowledge that she could never be another Rebecca, that her husband had been lost to her from the start. The only ending that book could have had would be the second not-good-enough wife chucking herself out of the window after all. Much better. In fact, if I fancied myself as a creative writer, I’d rewrite Rebecca along those lines and I bet the new version would be a corker. The trick, of course, which was adopted in both screen adaptations discussed here, is never to show Rebecca. Her myth mustn’t be punctured. It has to be left to the reader/viewer to create their own mental image of the perfect wife for Maxim: tall, slim, elegant, staggeringly beautiful, the perfect hostess; someone who can ride a horse and who knows a lot about china. Actually, the Dance-Fox adaptation did show an actor’s back and her mouth, and even that was too much. Rebecca needs to be left out of it entirely, so the reader/viewer can experience the same mental processes as the second Mrs de Winter and is given a free hand to invent an impeccable and irreplaceable Rebecca. Pitted against that, who wouldn’t chuck themselves out the window?

*In recent years, critics have leapt to Rebecca’s defence, pointing out that Maxim’s version of events must be weighed against his own background and personality; also, Rebecca is dead and cannot speak for herself. I don’t know how far I agree with these arguments because they are written and presented within a theoretical context that has its own agenda, but they do bear some scrutiny and are certainly worth further consideration.

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