Stacy Gillis on the enduring appeal of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. The opening iambic hexameter of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca is one of the best-known opening passages of any British novel. Rebecca has remained in print since it was first published. It sold over 100,000 copies in the first year alone – an astonishing feat – and still sells thousands of copies each month. While the novel has had both male and female readers, of course, the sale numbers speak the power of women speaking to one another about the novel, recommending it, buying it as gifts for one another.

The novel has been adapted repeatedly – first by Orson Welles in December 1938 for radio, then by du Maurier herself for the stage in 1939, and then several times over for radio, film, theatre, opera and television. The 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film was very well-received – encomiums such as ‘brilliant’, ‘superb’ and an artistic success’ were used to describe Hitchcock’s first American film, and the film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards (winning Best Picture and Best Cinematography).

The lure of Manderley as told from the unnamed narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter’s perspective, is nearly all-encompassing. Once we finish the book, of course, we realize Manderley is no more – but its pull is such that the second Mrs. de Winter, in her dull pension reading the cricket scores to her husband, dreams regularly of the house. This dream version of Manderley reveals much to us – it is a place of nightmare, murder and Gothic haunting, rather than one of heritage, order and aristocratic privilege.

To read Rebecca is to be pulled inexorably into this nightmarish – yet confusingly also desirable and desired – world of Manderley. This is achieved through extraordinary narrative agility – we are drawn tenaciously into the unnamed narrator’s subject position: the position of watching and wanting, but never really getting, her man and Manderley – but also never really getting Rebecca.

Rebecca’s lineage has been well-established – it draws heavily for inspiration from Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre and has had at least three sequels, prequels or re-writings by Sally Beauman, Maureen Freely and Susan Hill. The novel’s influence is indubitably also visible in much modern domestic Gothic fiction, such as Paula Hawkins’ 2015 The Girl on the Train and Gillian Flynn’s 2012 Gone Girl. Rebecca is a romance in the traditional sense – will the couple, in this case, be able to stay together in end – but it also asks searching questions about the expectations of romance, and about gender relations.

The history of the term ‘romance’ is complicated. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, romance was often used to refer to writing by men about travel or inventions – so H.G. Wells wrote ‘scientific romances’, while H. Rider Haggard wrote ‘adventure romances’. It was only in the 1930s that the term romance became associated with women, women’s writing, and women’s films. The publisher Mills & Boon – founded in 1908 as a general fiction publisher – moved to publishing heterosexual romance plots in the 1930s, specifically aimed at women readers.

There has been a strong critique of romance fiction since the 1970s, with second wave feminists, such as Germaine Greer, dismissing them as rape fantasies. However, at the same time, critics such as Janice Radway, argued for the importance of romance fiction for women readers. Should romance fiction be dismissed as a ‘mere frippery’? Or is part of the critical dismissal to do with the fact that it is often authored by women and read by women?

In the context of the #MeToo movement, it is important to revisit texts from earlier periods, as we can ask some difficult questions about the gender relations in these texts. But this should not be to dismiss or censor them – rather it should be about understanding how we’ve arrived at this particular moment in gender history, and to think about where we go from here.

This is particularly important in terms of the one major difference between the novel and the film, and this impacts heavily on how we understand Maxim. In the novel, Rebecca goads Maxim into killing her as an indirect means of suicide. However, the film – in order to comply with the Hollywood Production Code which articulated that the murder of a spouse had to be punished – has Maxim thinking of killing her, but she actually falls and hits her head. This change substantially alters our reading of the romance, however, between Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter – she stays with a noble hero, rather than with a murderer, as in the novel.

See Rebecca at Durham Book Festival