I first read Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece Rebecca in my mid-teens. Its opening paragraph mesmirised me – it was one of the most beautiful and haunting paragraphs I had ever read –
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited”
Unpacking this paragraph now, I find that it connotes meanings of imprisonment and enslavement, darkness and despair. And strangely, it is these connotations that make me wonder if Rebecca can be read through a feminist lens, and within the context of various women’s rights campaigns that one engages with today. This passage resonates a timely complexity: do women still encounter a barred path?
Rebecca is not often considered as a feminist novel, and rightly so. Yet, I am drawn to its portrayal of three vivid characters: the nameless narrator – often known only as ‘Mrs. De Winter’; then Rebecca herself; and the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.
Rebecca starts off very much as a Cinderella story, where the a wealthy Englishman, Maxim De Winter, whose first wife, Rebecca, has died of mysterious conditions, falls in love with the narrator – a young, orphan. After marrying him, the young narrator becomes the mistress of the house. Yet, Rebecca’s spirit is instantly and acutely felt, and this is kept alive by Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, whose domineering nature and frightful obsession with Rebecca allows for clever twists.
What appeals to me is the portrayal of the two wives of Maxim De Winter. Rebecca, the deceased wife, appears the perfect wife. Yet, she is the promiscuous woman, mocking her husband with tales of her many affairs, and manipulating him with news of a pregnancy. Maxim later tells how their marriage was very much a sham. An interpretation accorded by feminists here, however, is the powerful and fearless nature of this woman, who defies the patriarchal order. At the same time, there is a question, was Rebecca being fearless or cruel? In contrast, in the nameless narrator – often referred to as the ‘second Mrs. De Winter’ – we see a timid woman, constantly comparing herself to the more formidable Rebecca, doubting her outsider status, and overcome by a sense of non-belonging, that is further reinforced by Mrs. Denvers. While the narrator does grow through the novel, it is significant that she remains nameless. It demonstrates a sense of lack of freedom, identity, and recognition; as if she is, in some senses, almost alien, and not belonging. In looking at Rebecca through a feminist lens, I am draw more, then, to the idea that what is more appealing is how the affection of a good woman can transform a man.