For The Love of Rebecca: Revisiting Manderley

Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca (1940)

“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. No smoke came from the chimney, and the little lattice windows gaped forlorn. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me.

“The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done, but as I advanced I was aware that a change had come upon it; it was narrow and unkept, not the drive that we had known. At first I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realized what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers.”

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier was a mysterious woman. Much like the ghostly legend her celebrated gothic novel is named after, knowing Daphne is a matter of collecting several accounts. For years she identified herself as a boy under the name Eric Avon, had numerous affairs with women—before and perhaps during her marriage to Frederick Browning. However, she denounced fluid sexualities despite being in love and romantically obsessed with women. Then there’s the thick web of lore around her novel Rebecca.

Rebecca is the tale of a nameless wide-eyed young woman who strikes the heart of a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter. The two meet by chance and develop a whirlwind romance akin to Cinderella. Happily ever after should be promised, but it’s dead upon arrival as the young woman, Maxim, and his grand home estate Manderley are haunted by the memory of his deceased wife, Rebecca.

Although du Maurier’s novel became a timeless hit, doubt always followed its reputation. du Maurier had been accused of plagiarizing from several authors. Most notably Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and A Sucessora by Brazilian writer Carolina Nabuco. A Sucessora was published in 1934 and involves a young woman named Mariana who marries Roberto Steen. Mariana embarks on the daily challenges of the first year of marriage and the added tension of the looming hold Roberto’s dead wife Alice has over the home. Too familiar? Yes. But according to du Maurier, no. Alice who? She didn’t know her.

All du Maurier claimed to know was her imagining of Rebecca. In fact, historians and biographers have spent a great deal of time collecting information on who the beautiful Rebecca was based on. A former lover of du Maurier’s is speculated as one guess, while another makes Daphne Rebecca herself and her sister the unnamed second Mrs. de Winter. My favorite rumor states the real Rebecca to be Jeannette “Jan” Ricardo, the ex-fiancée of Daphne’s husband Frederick. Legend has it, Daphne did the equivalent of going through her man’s phone—digging through his drawers and cabinets—and found a stash of old love letters Jan wrote for Frederick during their time together. The grandness of it all threw her for a loop, from the content, to the way Jan signed her name with a grandiose ‘R’—quite similar to that of Rebecca, who had everything under the sun monogrammed with an ‘R’. Daphne was convinced her husband still loved Jan and grew obsessed with knowing everything about her. But with no cell phone in the 1930s, how did one lurk on the ex to make sure they’d stay an ex? Social gossip, of course. Daphne was lucky enough to have a mutual friend of Jan in her sister Angela. She also spotted a wedding announcement of Jan’s—which Angela attended—in the local paper. It was during this event that Jan informed Angela of the parallels she’d noticed between her life and Rebecca’s. Years later, in 1944, Jan Ricardo stepped in front of a train and ended her life. Daphne learned of this tragedy through the London Times as well.

In 1944, Alfred Hitchcock labored over the release of his first American project, a theatrical adaptation of Rebecca. Shot in black and white under the watchful—and scrutinizing, per Hitchcock—eye of producer David O. Selznick, Rebecca became the only film Hitchcock would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture with. A timeless work of art, Rebecca holds its own like many of Hitchcock’s other films, with no competition. The suspense rises right under your nose, it lets you know it’s present only when it wants to. By the end of it, the sporadic creeping chills up your spine turn to a scratching anxiety as you demand to know the answers to all of Rebecca and Maxim’s mysteries. Joan Fontaine is convincing as a girl next door, and Laurence Olivier charms audiences as Maxim de Winter. Oddly enough, jealousy was the name of the rivalry between Rebecca and David O. Selznick’s concurrent project, Gone With The Wind (which happened to star Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh and Joan Fontaine’s sister, Olivia de Havilland).

Daphne du Maurier and her children at Menabilly–an English estate on the coast of Cornwall. Daphne crafted Manderley around her adoration for Menabilly and eventually went on to lease and repair the estate for twenty-six years before surrendering it to its heirs.

Then there’s the estate, Manderley. Hitchcock weaves the home’s presence into the story’s tapestry with a gentle professional hand. He colors Manderley as if he were filming in VistaVision, with romance, whimsy, decadence and sweeping moody trees. Skilled artists don’t need much to move an audience. Grey, black, and white were all we ever needed to feel stuck in a dream for two hours, much like the transportive prose du Maurier designed. Hitchcock made Manderley a character of its own. It’s regarded as though it is a person by those who know of it in the film. It’s a place that’s pregnant with memories of joy, nature, entertainment, and extravagance, while also carrying heartbreak, lust, tragedy and bitter revenge as its twin.

Memories, Soul Ties, and Places

I had once heard a Preacher explain the risk of intimacy before marriage. He described the soul ties humans develop when giving themselves to one another. “A piece of that person,” he said, “stays with you in some way, shape, or form.” I only have my own experiences to evaluate whether this is true. Sometimes I believe it. Sometimes I don’t. But in the passing years, soul ties of other forms have become apparent to me. Many are wrapped in purity. I learned this when my father died. I feel him elsewhere still, even though I have no idea where. All I know is, he’s not in this form or state I’m in. And because of this and his memory, every place belonging to him holds a soul tie to him. He is not haunting them. I am. My own warm thoughts of him are. The cold and empty space he left is.

This is what Rebecca does to Manderley.

Her spell is much more intricate. Her hand was in every corner and design of the mansion. Her interactions with people were too unforgettable for there ever to be a comfortable second Mrs. de Winter. The thrill of du Maurier’s story is wondering whether this is how Rebecca wanted it to be.

Perhaps soul ties with places must also be broken. That way, the land heals. Those ghosts we’ve invited would learn to rest instead of re-living moments we’re too stubborn to release. It’s a crime to watch your angels turn to monsters, but nothing is immune to insanity. Could that be what a haunting is? Unsettled aggravation? Resentment? Insomniac memories acting in your head like stage actors that are driven mad.

The second Mrs. de Winter touches on this as she describes her standing feelings of Manderley as a place she’d let go for good.

“We can never go back again, that much is certain. The past is still close to us. The things we have tried to forget and put behind us would stir again, and that sense of fear, of furtive unrest, struggling at length to blind unreasoning panic – now mercifully stilled, thank God – might in some manner unforeseen become a living companion as it had before.”
― Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca

Netflix’s Rebecca, starring Armie Hammer and Lily James, debuts October 21, 2020 in the US.

Click here to stream the original Rebecca directed by Alfred Hitchcock.


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