Have you ever been curious about your partner’s ex? Have you ever felt even just a little bit envious of the times they shared with your beloved, the way they knew him when he was younger, or perhaps different from how he is today? Or worse, have you ever suspected your partner might still have feelings for them, or that what they feel for you may not be as strong as their past relationship?
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) is a novel which explores such feelings. It is a book about obsession – not the obsessive all-pervading feeling of love, but the obsessiveness of envy, hate, and the morbid fascination of a wife for her husband’s ex. Rebecca, in fact, is not as one might suppose,the name of the narrator, but the name of Mr de Winter’s first wife. The deceased, elusive, sophisticated, beautiful Rebecca, whom the reader, and in fact the narrator, never meets, but who nonetheless haunts every page, every moment, every thought.
This novel was groundbreaking in its time, and still continues to be so for a number of reasons. First of all, for example, the actual name of the narrator and main character is never mentioned. We always hear her being referred to as “the second Mrs de Winter”, but we never get to know her real name. This is very important, as it denotes that the narrator herself suffered from such low self-esteem, and gave herself so little importance, that her own individuality is barely glossed over in the overall scheme of things. Another factor is that the narrator, we realise, is not actually the real main character.
The main character is in fact Rebecca.
When the young naive narrator meets and marries Maximilian de Winter, the wealthy landowner of the notorious mansion of Manderley, she knows that he’d been previously married, and that his first wife had died in a boating accident some time before. This however leaves her unprepared for the fact that back home at Manderley, all the servants, neighbours, and acquaintances still miss and look up to her husband’s first wife – a peerless socialite, beautiful, intelligent, brave and helpful. The perfect woman, wife and partner. Her husband won’t speak of her, and flies into a rage every time she’s mentioned. The housekeeper emphasises the fact that Mrs de Winter had always wanted things managed just so, as though she’s still there, and Rebecca’s clothes, her monogrammed stationary, even her room, is left untouched. The house is still hers, as is the neighbourhood, and the narrator comes to believe that even the man she married cannot possibly have gotten over his previous marriage. She feels like everyone is comparing her to her predecessor, and finding her wanting. The novel is beautifully written, rendering the reader to empathise with the narrator, and slowly becomes convinced – as she does – that something is not right and not quite as it seems.
I must confess that I personally didn’t really like said narrator at all. The second Mrs de Winter is what they call “a ninny”. She is a relatively weak person, always keeping back, cringing in the shadows, simpering at people she doesn’t know. She prefers to run away stealthily in backrooms than meet neighbours, and even hides a small statue she breaks by mistake, instead of merely mentioning it and throwing it away. It seems like she cannot understand that she now is de facto Mrs de Winter, and continues to foolishly cling to her status of non-entity, because this is the way she sees herself. Though this was a very good and minute portrayal of such a personality, seeing life through the eyes of such a person was very irritating. No wonder she felt so overwhelmed and engrossed with the thought of Rebecca, who had been her total opposite!
Image above: The author Daphne du Maurier
The writer’s triumph, however, comes at the end. Not with the surprising twist, or with the way the plot revolves. Not with the way certain mysteries are solved or new meanings are discovered. Daphne du Maurier’s triumph is perceived in the way the tables are turned, and we understand that nothing in life is what it seems, because we always colour our perception of things according to our own character, and so end up failing to see the truth. Each and every narrator is fallible, like all of us, and so no novel, or movie, or perceived ‘truth’ is really so.
And neither was Rebecca.