Characters & Colours: 80 Years And Still Maurier’s Rebecca Haunts Readers

Recently, I watched Ben Wheatley’s ‘Rebecca’ (2020) and my senses hovered to the famous line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”…this sentence often disturbs my equilibrium and shakes me from within when I think what a tremendous impact a character can cast on the mind without actually appearing anywhere in the text. Today, on National Author’s Day (November 1), I have in my thoughts one of my favourite authors Daphne du Maurier and her creation Rebecca.

Rebecca, wife of Maxim de Winter and the unseen protagonist, is present though absent throughout the book. When Mrs de Winters asks about Rebecca to Maxim’s friend Frank, he replies thus:
Mrs de Winters: “…tell me, was Rebecca very beautiful?”
Frank: “Yes…yes, I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life.”
Maxim talks about her to his second wife (who is referred to as Mrs de Winters in the book). She is alive through his memories of her. He speaks about Rebecca as: “Damnably clever. No one would guess meeting her that she was not the kindest, most generous, most gifted person in the world. She knew exactly what to say to different people, how to match her mood to theirs. Had she met you, she would have walked off into the garden with you, arm-in-arm, calling to Jasper, chatting about flowers, music, painting, whatever she knew to be your particular hobby; and you would have been taken in, like the rest. You would have sat at her feet and worshipped her.”

Mrs Danvers, the chief housekeeper of Manderley and childhood nanny and companion of Rebecca, has kept her alive by keeping all her things as it is in her bedroom. Not a single thing was disturbed. Her handkerchiefs, her notepads, her Manderley ball invitations, her guest lists in her visitor book in her writing all bore her initial R in a cursive fashion. She was nowhere but everywhere. Mrs Danvers even lay her satin black night gown on her bed – as if she would return any moment from her sailing and get into it. Mrs Danvers explained to Mrs de Winters how she used to brush her hair with the hairbrushes lying in the dressing top in her room and Rebecca would ask her to go more firm with the brushing. She is described to be “so lovely, so accomplished, so amusing” and someone who had three things desirable in a wife: “breeding, brains and beauty”. She pleased even the people who were most difficult to impress like Maxim’s Granny.

Mrs de Winters finds the haunting presence of Rebecca everywhere in Manderley. She feels everyone mentally compares her with her husband’s first wife. Somehow, Mrs Danvers does not let anyone at Manderley forget Rebecca. Says Mrs de Winters: “Mrs Danvers knew the colour of her eyes, her smile, the texture of her hair. I knew none of these things, I had never asked about them, but sometimes I felt Rebecca was as real to me as she was to Mrs Danvers. Mrs de Winters even sees Rebecca in Maxim’s eyes and his breath every time he makes love to her. Mrs de Winters regrets her marriage to Maxim though she had fallen in love with him. She tells Frank: “…I have a fearful haunting feeling that I should never have married Maxim, that we are not going to be happy. You see, I know that all the time, whenever I meet anyone new, they are all thinking the same thing – How different she is to Rebecca.”

The servants objected to the lilacs being kept elsewhere other than where Rebecca kept it. Mrs Danvers referred to Rebecca being particular in choosing the sauces everyday for the dishes being cooked. It appeared to Mrs de Winters everyone at Manderley wondering why she was chosen as Mrs. de Winter after the lineage of a wife like Rebecca. Her mind often drooled back to the back of how Rebecca might have been and done things – how she might have socialized with people or conducted the ball.

The past did not leave Mrs de Winters. She seemed to have harbored a strange connection with the absent Rebecca. It held her in awe and fascination on one hand, and fear and inferiority complex on the other. She was able to picture Rebecca without even having seen her once. “Rebecca, always Rebecca. Whenever I walked in Manderley, wherever I sat, even in my thoughts and in my dreams, I met Rebecca. I knew her figure, now, the long slim legs, the small and narrow feet. Her shoulders, broader than mine, the capable and clever hands. Hands that could steer a boat, could hold a horse. Hands that arranged flowers, made models of ships, and wrote ‘Max from Rebecca’ on the fly leaf of a book. I knew her face too, small and oval, the clear white skin, the cloud of dark hair. I knew the scent she wore, I could guess her laughter and her smile. If I heard it, even among a thousand others, I should recognize her voice. Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca.”

Mrs de Winters considered herself rather banal and often thought Maxim regretted marrying her because of her timidity and plainness. However, Maxim never complained about her clothes though he often mentioned to her that she will outgrow her introversion. Mrs de Winters always thought there was a shadow lurking in the relationship between Maxim and her – Rebecca! She thought: “He did not belong to me at all, he belonged to Rebecca. He still thought about Rebecca. He would never love me because of Rebecca. She was in the house still, as Mrs Danvers had said: she was in that room in the west wing, she was in the library, in the morning-room, in the gallery above the hall…Rebecca was still Mrs de Winter. I had no business here at all. I had come blundering like a poor fool on ground that was preserved.”

It was only later in the plot that Mrs de Winters realizes that it was Maxim who had murdered Rebecca. He hated her because she was a woman without fidelity and morals. Her external beauty did not match with her internal nature. The revelation shocked her because she thought Maxim had not gotten over the memory of Rebecca. She finally realized the truth to what Frank had told her earlier: “You have qualities that are just as important, far more so, in fact…kindness, and sincerity, and – if I may say so – modesty are worth far more to a man, to a husband, than all the wit and beauty in the world.”

The adaptations of Rebecca by Alfred Hitchcock (1940) and that by Ben Wheatley (2020) are not exactly faithful to the text. There are similarities and differences. The Hitchcock adaptation seems slightly more similar to the book. But both the adaptations maintain the mystery, eeriness and haunting atmosphere of the character Rebecca who died in the book but is still alive in the minds of readers years after the book was published. Anyone who has watched the films is very curious to see Rebecca. So much is spoken about her and she is so elaborately described by other characters that it raises speculation. But she is not shown. That I feel is the beauty of the character. She gives infinite room for imagination. Rarely has a character not seen made such an impact.

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