The intention of this column has always been to recall the lost or forgotten voices of horror, to remember those writers who, for whatever reason, have become forgotten or overlooked with the passing of time. But what I want to consider this month are the characters who are overlooked or forgotten within their texts, marginalised by the writer or the world they depict.
This was prompted by a recent reading of Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece, Rebecca. It was one of those books I’d put off reading because I thought I already knew too much of the story. Without having read it, I was aware of its well-known opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” and I knew the Hitchcock film version. The feeling of familiarity continued when I began reading, even when I found myself in unfamiliar territory with regards to the plot. Marketed at the time as a gothic romance, there’s so much in Rebecca that resonates in other texts. It has the older, wealthy (slightly Byronic) gentleman, and a young, naïve wife, a malevolent housekeeper, along with a quintessential English country house. And of course, there’s the Other Woman – Rebecca.
Giving her name to the entire book, we realise early on that names and identity are important in this story and that Rebecca (Max de Winter’s late wife) is going to take centre stage. This is compounded by the fact that de Winter’s new wife, a girl nearly half his age and the narrator of the story, is unnamed for the novel’s entirety. We learn that our narrator has a “lovely and unusual name” but the reader is never privy to it. The only name she is given is her husband’s, typical of the patriarchal society she lived in. She is defined only through her role as a wife and it’s a hand-me-down name at that, resulting in her occasionally being confused with the previous Mrs de Winter. The anxiety the narrator feels in taking Rebecca’s place is at the crux of this story. The narrator is a pale comparison of Rebecca, a ghostly echo of someone she believes to be so much greater than herself.
It doesn’t help that Rebecca’s belongings still furnish Manderley, her presence kept alive by her faithful housekeeper Mrs Danvers. Rebecca’s bedroom is not covered in dustsheets like the other unoccupied rooms in the house but maintained as if still in use. The narrator is persuaded to adopt Rebecca’s habits, using the same morning-room and the same stationary for her correspondence which is headed “Mrs. M. de Winter”. It is as if Rebecca has literally marked her territory, suggesting that the objects in the house are still in her possession. But the fact that the narrator bears the same name implies that she also has an entitlement to the house and its contents, highlighting the ambiguous nature of identity and ownership in the text.
It’s not just the physical traces of Rebecca that haunt Manderley, Mrs Danvers suggests something of a more paranormal nature:
Sometimes, when I walk along the corridor here, I fancy I hear her just behind me… And in the minstrels’ gallery above the hall. I’ve seen her leaning there.
Whether this is merely the delusion of a woman unable to let go of the past or an attempt to intimidate her new mistress, Mrs Danvers is responsible for keeping Rebecca ‘alive’. She persuades the narrator to replicate the costume of a portrait in the gallery for a fancy dress ball. But the narrator’s appearance causes more of a stir than expected. Mrs Danvers has tricked her. We learn that Rebecca wore the same costume at the last ball and to Max and the guests it is as if Rebecca is resurrected before them.
This sense of déjà vu marks an important moment in the story, a literal mirroring and merging of the two Mrs de Winters. Up until now, the reader supports the narrator’s desire to play at being someone else. She is plain and awkward and the act of putting on a costume provides her with confidence and self worth. However she is unknowingly assuming the part of Rebecca in the process, the polar opposite of herself – beautiful, immoral, powerful. As the story continues we see this mirroring more frequently as the narrator becomes more assertive, particularly in a dream sequence towards the end; when the narrator looks in a looking glass, it is Rebecca’s face she sees staring back at her.
Du Maurier’s use of mirroring and doubles extends to the intertextual links made within the text. The story draws very heavily on Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; Max de Winter and Mr Rochester are both in possession of wealth and property and troublesome first wives. Both stories are related in the first person by the new love interest, the second wife, who in terms of beauty is no match for her predecessor. And the endings are too similar to be accidental. Why du Maurier alludes to such a canonical gothic text, I feel resides in this issue of doubling, the connection between the old wife and the new. Jane Eyre takes its title from the new wife’s name (interestingly the name she had before adopting her marital one) whereas Rebecca takes its title from the first wife (significantly minus her marital name, suggestive of her free spirit and her lack of regard for marital fidelity). Both women of the titles are arguably the more significant female presence in their respective stories and du Maurier’s decision to focus so much on Rebecca could be seen as a response to Bronte’s treatment of the Other Woman, the first Mrs Rochester.
Perhaps better known as the ‘madwoman in the attic’, Bertha Mason is Mr Rochester’s insane, incarcerated wife. The reader never experiences Bertha’s point of view, which helps to identify her as the monster of the text, intent on setting fire to the house and killing her husband. However, as in Rebecca, there are moments when the female characters almost merge. According to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar many of Bertha’s transgressions (destroying Jane’s bridal veil, putting back the wedding) are what Jane would secretly like to do herself. In their book The Madwoman in the Attic they define Bertha as an “avatar of Jane” describing her as:
Jane’s truest and darkest double… the angry aspect of the orphan child, the ferocious secret self Jane has been trying to repress.
It could be that in all ‘good women’ there’s a Bertha or Rebecca trying to get out.
It’s been very popular in recent years to rewrite literary history, to look for gaps and silences in older texts, opportunities for telling new stories. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea for example provides a voice for the silenced Bertha Mason. Though du Maurier doesn’t do anything so overt, she does respond to Jane Eyre and the legacy of a first wife in her Rebecca. Like Rebecca’s yacht, discovered scuttled in the bay and aptly called Je Reviens (which translates as “I come back”) maybe all the best ideas in literature resurface. Rebecca is undoubtedly a reflection of the texts that came before it but it’s also an inversion, where the dead are more alive than the living and where the ghosts are the ones without names.
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