Today we reminisce about
REBECCA, the literary and cinematic masterpiece
* Published specifically for The Calls of Cornwall: The Daphne Du Maurier Blogathon hosted by Gabriela at Pale Writer *
I became acquainted with Daphne du Maurier through the many film adaptations of her work, mainly those directed by Sir Alfred Hitchcock. Over the years I have re-watched Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and The Birds many, many times and seem to enjoy them more with each viewing. Several months ago, I was introduced to My Cousin Rachel and immediately loved it, too. Each one of these productions was incredibly well-made in large part thanks to talented cast and crew but moreover, it was the creativity of Du Maurier’s stories that stood out and made them so unique. The Cornish backdrop was dark and moody yet brought solace as well as an inexplicable beauty to viewers who were captivated by these romantic, ghost-like tales. (Only the setting for The Birds was altered for the big screen, moving from Cornwall to San Francisco and the northern Pacific Coast.)
Being more of a moviegoer than an avid reader, I generally lack the incentive to discover most literary versions of the films that I watch. Most of the books that I do read are more movie history related such as biographies, autobiographies and specific publications on the main studios of the time. So all in all, reading the novel Rebecca after adoring the film for so long was a very new experience. The possibility of being disappointed in the film after reading the novel was honestly something that frightened me because I had developed such a fondness for Hitchcock’s version. Yet at the same time, I was ready to face my fears because I really wanted to discover the characters and the narrative in a new fashion. After hearing a conversation between Gabriela and our mutual friend Carl Sweeney, host of The Movie Palace podcast, my intrigue ran deeper because I realised that there were aspects of Rebecca that had not been covered in the film and that I quite desperately wanted to know about them. Alas, I can say that reading the novel has brought me a new appreciation for Du Maurier’s initial effort and given me a different perspective about the 1940 film.
Both the novel and the film start off in the same fashion, with the second Mrs. de Winter delivering the line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” She then proceeds to describe the grounds and the drive up to the mansion. The literary Manderley is much more alive and welcoming than the one depicted in the film, which is almost reminiscent of a haunted house that is cold, echoey and without a personality. Both Manderleys have many rooms that are unused and closed up, particularly in the west wing, but there seems to be more general activity in the book. For example, Mrs. de Winter reminisces about her and Maxim’s usual afternoon tea which consisted of an extravaganza of edible goodies:
“Those dripping crumpets, I can see them now. Tiny crisp wedges of toast, and piping-hot, floury scones. Sandwiches of unknown nature, mysteriously flavoured and quite delectable, and that very special gingerbread. Angel cake, that melted in the mouth, and his rather stodgier companion, bursting with peel and raisins.” (pg. 8)
This very detailed image may seem insignificant but it struck me because it never dawned on me that Joan Fontaine’s Mrs. de Winter would harbour such a cheerful memory. When she ate her breakfast that first morning at Manderley, she only took a cup of coffee even though there was a complete buffet at her service. She and Maxim are never seen sharing tea and the meals they do have seem rather sparse. In Monte Carlo, she only had a scoop of scrambled eggs for lunch. Literary Mrs. de Winter is much more indulgent in that capacity and quite looked forward to these small, enjoyable moments. In fact, this Mrs. de Winter has many good memories of Manderley and seems to be an overall happier person than Fontaine who always appears to be out of place and almost impervious to being at Manderley.
Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter’s relationship is as complicated in the book as it is portrayed on-screen. Their initial meeting in the film is very dramatic as it appears as if Maxim is about to jump off a cliff before being snapped out of his trance by this younger woman he has never before met. He is rather rude to her, most likely out of embarrassment, but she has just shown more concern for his safety and well-being that most of the people in his life. In the book, Maxim does approach the cliff’s edge however he does so in a car and with the young woman present. This, I find, is far more concerning because he is putting her life in danger without giving any explanation to his behaviour. Her calmness during the whole situation is odd yet any sudden reaction on her part might have made Maxim actually go over the edge. Their love affair in Monte Carlo is played out nicely in both mediums although in much more intimate detail in the literary version. This allows you to explore the character of Maxim a little further and warm up to him as her suitor. At first, I believed him to be kinder and more laid back than Olivier’s personage but at the novel goes on, you find that he is just as rigid and even sometimes more insulting than Olivier. These are not qualities that I find redeeming and it has always been hard for me to be swept off my feet by the image of Maxim because he sometimes comes across as being a real bastard. I especially find this to be the case when he gets annoyed by the second Mrs. de Winter’s behaviour (before and after their marriage) because he does not even share details about himself and his background in order for her to better understand how he could perceive certain of her behaviours. Even so, she is free to act as her natural self without always having to feel as if she needs Maxim’s validation.
Quite a few people around the second Mrs. de Winter always call reference to her young age and inexperience in the world. Mrs. Van Hopper did this when she was in her employ even before Maxim entered her life and later ridiculed her future post as mistress of Manderley. Some make mention of it at Manderley although much of this negativity is in Mrs. de Winter’s head, culminating to the point of being a drawn-out inner monologue that she has invented. These sorts of passages appear quite frequently in the book almost to the point when her imagination running away from her becomes worrisome. The staff at Manderley would certainly never speak down to her and her lack of self-assurance leads her to believe that they do quite a bit of chattering behind her back. At the same time, I can appreciate when she makes note of insignificant places and things as well as random people with whom she crosses paths. I myself have done that for years although it occurs much less as I get older for various reasons. It shows that she cares enough to not pay attention to small details which is, in my opinion, a great sign of maturity. No one really takes the time to reflect on what Mrs. de Winter is thinking and how she understands/sees the world around her. Even Maxim is largely aloof to his wife except on one noticeable occasion when she started daydreaming so strongly about Rebecca that she started acting out her own dialogue. Had he not been frightened of her facial expression resembling those of his deceased wife, he may have very well carried on with dinner like nothing had happened. The novel is much kinder to Mrs. de Winter in that she gets unlimited opportunity to express herself. After all, she is the narrator. She does not hold back on anything and her emotional honesty earned my respect despite the fact that she remained outwardly timid. Having often felt misunderstood and a bit of a black sheep, I came to know her as an ally who was even more courageous than me.
Literary Mrs. de Winter came out of her shell a great deal more than the cinematic one, taking charge of her duties at Manderley and interacting with a lot of people both related to the de Winter family and the nearby town. In the film, she hardly sees anyone outside of the grounds until that fateful night when Rebecca’s boat is found. This was obviously a tactic by Hitchcock and his writers to make the second Mrs. de Winter appear more vulnerable to psychological pressure, very much like the character of Paula Anquist Anton in Gaslight. By sheltering these women from outside contact and making them constantly doubt themselves, they could be manipulated into believing falsities, not to mention be more easily frightened. As a consequence, Fontaine’s Mrs. de Winter goes around looking like a scared mouse who is deathly afraid of tripping up. In the novel, she has a relatively close relationship with her sister-in-law, Beatrice, and entertains acquaintances and locals quite frequently with Maxim. Since Manderley is open to the public at certain times during the week, she is used to people being around on those days. While she may not be the image of how people imagined her, especially compared to the exquisite Rebecca, she seems to have a higher self-esteem than her screen equal. This is not to say that she boasts about herself or is the slightest bit egotistical. She defends her choice of clothing and undergarments though she does become more critical of her looks later on in the book due to her insecurity about her marriage and Maxim’s true feelings for her. Her romanticised mental image of Rebecca makes her feel that she is rather dull. There is never a time that she does not feel good enough for Maxim, however, and their age difference is never an issue for her such as treating him as if he were old enough to be her father. Obviously Maxim saw something in this young woman even though he is never quite able to spell it out himself aside from giving little clues like “that lost look” in her eyes which gives notion to the innocence of her youth. Perhaps this missing link with Maxim is the most tragic part of the story until he eventually finds his young wife again although even then, he shows the wear and tear of being a battered man.
We learn that Maxim indeed was a victim of emotional abuse and a terrible marriage that turned into a nightmarish arranged plot of convenience. He was never quite the same after Rebecca showed him her true colours shortly after their wedding; even after her death, he was kept an emotional prisoner. Somehow, he would always be haunted by her. The novel gives the same conclusion to Rebecca’s death as in the film: suicide. However, Rebecca’s cousin Jack Favell seems to indicate that he will stop at nothing to prove Maxim’s guilt whereas in the film, he sort of disappears after the discovery of her incurable illness, defeated by being kept in the dark by the woman he so loved and not walking away with any sort of financial settlement by blackmailing Maxim. Favell was much more devilish in the novel and his exchanges with Maxim were much tenser and lengthier than in the film. If anything, Maxim shows that he has more of a backbone in the novel because he stands up to Favell, even chastising Mrs. Danvers to no end when he finds out that Favell had been to Manderley without his consent. A confrontation between Maxim and Mrs. Danvers is never something you see in the film so this scene is quite unexpected, yet pleasingly so. One can only wonder why he did not do this more often and why he did not remark upon her odd attitude towards the second Mrs. de Winter. At the same time, Maxim seems to wash his hands of any real responsibility in dealing with the servants, saying that it is his wife’s job, and seems to find it uncanny that she would have difficulty or be timid in dealing with them. His turning a blind eye to his wife’s woes is convenient enough for him to go about his business but it is quite a harsh punishment for Mrs. de Winter. After being treated so poorly by Rebecca, it seems that Maxim would go all out for his new wife but he does not really do anything exceptional for her.
The two most ghostly, villainous characters of the story are Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers. They were both prominently featured in the novel and the film even though Rebecca only exists through memories. She also stays relevant through the imaginations of the second Mrs. de Winter and Mrs. Danvers who are equally as obsessed with Maxim’s first wife though for very different reasons. Hitchcock definitely made Mrs. Danvers scarier in terms of personality and in intent although he neglected to respect certain of her physicalities. Mrs. Danvers is described as being very skeletal which Judith Anderson was not like at all though he tried to make up for this by giving her a specific dark look that was almost funereal. The housekeeper also had a more prominent role in the film and seemed to be around every corner keeping tabs on Mrs. de Winter and using any given opportunity to make a stinging comparison about her cherished Rebecca. In the novel, Mrs. Danvers stays out of Mrs. de Winter’s way as much as possible and “kept very much to herself” (pg. 152) making it so that they did not see much of each other. The two women did have confrontations and Mrs. de Winter does eventually muster up the courage to defend herself. However, these moments are reduced to one solitary instance in the film when the young woman declares that “she is Mrs. de Winter now”, rebuffing Rebecca’s old effects from the morning room. Literary Mrs. de Winter confronts Mrs. Danvers in a much more direct and drawn out fashion after the events of the costume party, talking to her with very strong words and not backing down so easily. There are even moments when Mrs. de Winter feels pity for Mrs. Danvers pathetic nature, even after the events that that Manderley in ruins. This is not something that would have worked at all in the film because Mrs. de Winter susceptible to Mrs. Danvers behaviour and had less of a back bone. Somehow, the characters of Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter were dumbed down for the movie to give more of the power of suspense and horror. In the end, Mrs. Danvers gets hers and good prevails while evil is crushed thanks to the Production Code.Comparisons between the two medias could go on and on. While the film is based on the novel, it does take on quite a different life form mostly due to time restrictions that forced them to water down certain parts and link the story in more creative ways. For instance, the second Mrs. de Winter’s and Mrs. Danvers’ big scene when she tries to coax the young woman to jump to her death does not happen during the costume ball as shown in the film. Also, the discovery of Rebecca’s boat does not simultaneously occur either. These events were linked together for the sake of efficient continuity. All in all, it is quite impressive that a great deal of details from the story were able to be so dutifully covered in a two hour time span. That being said, there were quite a few important elements missing from the story, the most prominent of which being Mrs. de Winter’s relationship with Beatrice. In the film, they see each other briefly and seem to have made no real connection with one another. However, in the novel they keep up with one another and show that they shared mutual respect and admiration. Beatrice appreciates Mrs. de Winter’s artist capabilities and offers her a set of books as a wedding gift. She also brings her to meet Maxim’s elderly grandmother, a character that is not even referred to in the film. Again, I believe the exemption of Beatrice and Mrs. de Winter’s closeness to be a tactic to isolate the on-screen Mrs. de Winter and increase her fragility as a new, young wife in a hostile environment. It is definitely not very flattering but Hitchcock was not known for promoting the image of strong women.
Here are a few other things that I noticed:
- Jack Favell never makes mention that he is Rebecca’s cousin in the novel. It is later revealed that he is her first cousin while in the film, he is her second cousin. This is no doubt an alteration required by the prudish Production Code who would find it incestuous to have the two characters sexually involved with such a close familial link. Throughout history, there have long been marriages between first cousins.
- The second Mrs. de Winter spends a great deal more time with Frank, Maxim’s best friend and right hand man, in the novel. They have more thoughtful and lengthy exchanges as well, especially regarding Rebecca and the second Mrs. de Winter’s paranoia about Maxim’s lingering feelings for her. I cannot help to feel as if there is some romantic chemistry that develops between the two that goes unspoken.
- In the film, Mrs. Danvers is said to have come to Manderley when Rebecca was a bride although in the novel she has been with Rebecca since she was a child. Did Hitchcock fail to mention this because he wanted to make it seem as if Mrs. Danvers had been seduced by Rebecca like so many others?
- It is said in the novel that Rebecca hated men and is so much as confirmed in the film when Mrs. Danvers talks about her playing emotional and sexual games with them for her own amusement. It makes me wonder what she had gone through to have such a poor regard for the opposite sex. Had she herself been a victim of sexual abuse?
- Ben had a slightly more important role in the novel that was important to Maxim’s exoneration of Rebecca’s possible murder. Rebecca had threatened Ben into being placed in an asylum if he spoke to anyone of her activities in the seaside bungalow. This would explain why in both the film and the novel, he is always fearful of being sent away.
- Maxim’s joking reaction in the book to the cupid figurine is rather unforgiveable when mocks the second Mrs. de Winter’s hiding of the broken pieces. “Is not that the sort of thing the between-maid is supposed to do, Mrs. Danvers?” (pg. 159) He chuckles and Mrs. Danvers is amused at this poor young woman’s expense.
While there is not one version that I like over the other, I must say that I was happily surprised to discover the book and to enjoy the narrative so very much. The character who had the most impact on me was the nameless second Mrs. de Winter who blossomed before my eyes. She is a thoughtful and humble woman who is probably far too good a wife for Maxim to deserve. Even after him coming to his senses a bit after the inquest, it remains unsure to me whether or not he would alter the stark, harsh reactions of his personality. He is far too formal with his wife who he knew came from a vastly different background from him with a laxer education. Despite all of this, I cannot help but to root for this couple and hope that they would eventually find happiness and found a beautiful family together. I highly recommend both the novel and the 1940 film, especially since du Maurier herself was quite pleased with Hitchcock’s chef d’oeuvre. Are you ready to go back to Manderley?