“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
The second Mrs. de Winter opens the mysterious novel of Rebecca with that single, dramatic line. Over the years, readers have drawn parallels between the novels Rebecca and Jane Eyre, another romantic gothic tale of an innocent young woman and a worldly older man. Similarly, the man’s first wife casts a shadow over the young woman, and haunts her. A masterful estate acts as a background character, but in my opinion, that is where the parallels end. Du Maurier insisted Rebecca was the study in jealousy, inspired by her own feelings of her husband’s first love. The second Mrs. de Winter is not Jane Eyre… she is far more complex and enigmatic than we give her credit for. There is a darkness within her.
Nameless throughout the novel, prior to her marriage, the second Mrs. de Winter originally served as a companion to an older, fussy woman. In her early twenties, the heroine has seen very little of the world and she lacks the polish of a refined lady. While she and her employer are in Monte Carlo, she attracts the handsome, brooding widower Max de Winter. Their meetings and rendezvous remain fairly innocent, though there is undeniable romantic chemistry simmering between the two. Rather than go their separate ways, Max proposes marriage. The heroine accepts.
To me this is proof enough that she is anything but meek. Shy and inexperienced, she still says “yes.” She weds a perfect stranger, eloping with him to Europe for a honeymoon, and settles down with him at his gothic mansion, Manderley. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, and the persistent presence of Rebecca de Winter, Max’s deceased first wife, overwhelm the second Mrs. de Winter from the start. Wherever she goes, whomever she speaks with, wherever she looks, she encounters Rebecca’s memory. Rebecca’s routine, Rebecca’s preferences, Rebecca’s room… Rebecca may be dead, but to the second Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca is very much alive. Perhaps Rebecca’s essence feels stronger because Mrs. Danvers continually reminds the heroine of the first mistress and how perfect Rebecca was in every sense of the word.
Rather than claim her place as Manderley’s mistress, the second Mrs. de Winter allows herself to be repressed, and increasingly becomes obsessed with Rebecca herself. While not a vengeful jealousy, her envy and increasing fear Rebecca was Max’s true love, convince her Max made a mistake in marrying her, and she should have never come to Manderley. At one point, the second Mrs. de Winter is tricked into dressing as her predecessor for a party. After it repulses Max, she contemplates suicide to escape her trouble. She might not have fallen into the depths of despair, were it not for Mrs. Danvers playing the part of the devil, standing by her shoulder, goading her.
Before she can do anything drastic, a disturbance interrupts the second Mrs. de Winter. A shipwreck unearths the truth about Rebecca. She was not as perfect or as good as the world perceived her… Rebecca had a broken marriage, several affairs, she was violent and abusive to animals, and at the time of her death was pregnant with an illegitimate child. The heroine learns Rebecca’s death was at the hands of another.
Unlike Jane Eyre who felt convicted by her Christian faith and left Mr. Rochester, the second Mrs. de Winter doesn’t abandon Max or Manderley. This is where her own darkness crops up. Without batting an eye, the heroine helps cover up the murder of her husband’s first wife. There are no great moral struggles, nor does her conscience bother her. Her darkness is nowhere near on par with Rebecca’s, but like all humanity, it still plagues her. I think du Maurier has given us a three-dimensional character in allowing the heroine to do something ethically questionable.
The ending of Rebecca is ambiguous. We’re uncertain of the outcome of the second Mrs. de Winter and Max. However, du Maurier left a notebook and drafts behind, which imply the heroine and Max moved past Rebecca and the dark shadow she put on their marriage, and perhaps the darkness they each possess.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Veronica Leigh has been published in several anthologies and her work has appeared on GoWorldTravel.com and the Artist Unleashed, and she has published a couple of fictional stories. She makes her home in Indiana with her family and her furbabies. To learn more about her, visit her blog.