These are the opening lines of the gothic novel, Rebecca. Even though the title is today mostly associated with Hitchcock’s 1940 movie or the more recent Broadway musical, the story goes back to the gothic romance by English author Daphne de Maurier, published in 1938.
This haunting novel tells the story of the young and naïve woman who falls in love with the wealthy Englishman, Maxim the Winter. She marries him and moves to his estate of Manderley, which is where the trouble begins. Manderley seems haunted by the memories of Maxim’s former wife Rebecca, who has died under mysterious circumstances. The housekeeper, sinister and domineering Mrs. Danvers, does everything to keep Rebecca’s memory alive and seems unable to face the death of the former housemistress, to whom she was deeply devoted. In fact, the memories of Rebecca haunt everyone, looming over the estate; her presence is so strong that it can nearly be felt. As Daphne de Maurier very pragmatically wrote in her notes, ‘“very roughly, the book will be about the influence of a first wife on a second, until wife 2 is haunted day and night… a tragedy is looming very close and crash! Bang! Something happens.”
But what was Rebecca like and why is her influence so strong, even after her death ? What happened to her?
I read Rebecca for the first time a few years ago and I enjoyed it as a diverting gothic suspense story, a sinister novel full of dark secrets and suspense – always dominated by the mystery of Rebecca, her lingering influence and the question of her mysterious death. Yet only recently did I become aware of how much more there is to the story after choosing this novel for a Freudian analysis. Indeed, rereading Rebecca with Freud’s theory in mind is unsettling and leaves you pondering it for hours. What is there in the novel that parallels De Maurier’s personality? Can her fiction be seen as a displacement of the author’s own, repressed desires? In a biography of Daphne du Maurier published in 1993, Margaret Forster claimed that Du Maurier was bi-sexual and had secret relations with women. Is this the explanation for Mrs. Danvers quasi-lesbian devotion to Rebecca? Does the character arise entirely from de Maurier’s Oedipus complex and is Rebecca’s destructive nature explainable through the author’s very fear of her own self-destructive passions?
Reading Rebecca with these questions in mind has been a very different literary experience and leaves me with an uneasy feeling about literature itself. How are we to read fiction? How much does a novel reveal about its author and how much influence does the ‘unconscious’ have on literary productions? Reading Rebecca under these premises and with these questions in mind gives this gothic romance a new depth; there are so many layers and questions to work through in order to come to its kernel. It made me once again aware of the power of literature and the complex relations between the author, the work and the involvement of the reader, who is left with so many questions to ponder…