It was the sprawling signature—the “R” signed at the bottom of her husband's letters from his former fiancée—that inspired Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel Rebecca. 2018 marks the 80th anniversary of the book’s publication, which first released in 1938. An instant bestseller and the basis for many a pop culture homage and dramatic adaptation, Rebecca has never gone out of print. And just like the haunting presence of the novel's titular character, Rebecca isn’t going anywhere.
Du Maurier was branded a romance writer during her prolific career. Her masterpiece was packaged as “women’s writing”—the story of a young woman who marries an older man haunted by his past. But du Maurier’s books are anything but romantic. They feature episodes of terror, jealous rage, and intense sexuality, hallmarks of the noir genre.
Rarely do the novels of Daphne du Maurier end with two people riding off into the sunset. And unlike Rochester, the hero of Jane Eyre, it’s Maxim de Winter’s nameless new wife who is obsessed with the first Mrs. de Winter: her clothes, her bedroom, her loyal servant Mrs. Danvers. In new relationships, previous loves are always a kind of haunting, either to the former partner or, more often, to the new one. What kind of a person was she? And what exactly happened to her?
“Few writers (Elena Ferrante comes to mind) have been so aware of how women excite one another’s imaginations,” Parul Sehgal wrote in her appreciation of du Maurier’s work. It is, after all, the power play between Mrs. Danvers and the new Mrs. de Winter for Rebecca’s affections in life and death, that gives Rebecca its fascinating, gender-bending take on the classic thriller.
Similar to Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels, Rebecca is a book about about homosocial (even homosexual) obsession. In Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, wherein readers first encounter the shapeshifting titular character, Tom becomes obsessed with playboy Dickie Greenleaf. When Tom realizes his feelings aren’t reciprocated, he plots Dickie's murder and the ultimate con: to become Dickie himself. In Du Maurier's Rebecca, the new Mrs. de Winter doesn’t have to worry about a threat in the flesh, because Rebecca is dead. Yet in the process of becoming the second Mrs. de Winter, she also finds herself becoming obsessed—and perhaps even falling in love—with the lingering memory of Rebecca.
Du Maurier always described Rebecca as a novel about the all-consuming and dangerous power of jealousy. It was a topic the author may have known something about. Her husband, Sir Frederick Browning, had previously been engaged to a woman named Jan Ricardo. Du Maurier once came upon a bundle of love letters written by Ricardo to Browning, each signed with that sweeping “R.” Ricardo committed suicide later in life, and it is said that du Maurier was haunted by a lingering suspicion that Browning still carried feelings for his former lover.
The author's relationship with Browning had its share of challenges, especially after Browning returned from World War II. While the couple had three children together, biographers have portrayed the marriage as chilly at times—one of friendship rather than of passion. Du Maurier often imagined what kind of life she might have led if she had been born a man. “From a very young age she was what she called a ‘half-breed’, female on the outside ‘with a boy’s mind and a boy’s heart,’” Olivia Laing writes in her portrait of du Maurier. The character of Rebecca is looked down upon for what society deems a reckless pursuit of pleasure. Yet it’s easy to imagine that if Rebecca had been the man in the marriage, her promiscuity would’ve been chalked up to typical male behavior. In the noir genre, the sexuality of the femme fatale threatens and challenges traditional gender roles.
Du Maurier knew how to write a compelling thriller. Her short story "The Birds" was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic, and another of her stories, “Don’t Look Now,” was adapted into the terrifying 1973 film of the same name starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. Rebecca, meanwhile, has been adapted for radio, television, the stage, and the big screen—including another famous Hitchcock film. Du Maurier knew what thrilled people, what scared them—and yet, to a modern audience, the scares in Rebecca may feel tame. So what accounts for its staying power? Like all great thrillers, Rebecca is ultimately a haunting investigation of identity. We can never really know the ones we love. Any speculation we might give to the past, outside our experience, is nothing but pure fiction.
Featured photo of Daphne du Maurier: Alchetron