Revisiting Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

ByTeja Lele
May 12, 2023 04:16 PM IST

A look at the English novelist’s most compelling work in time for her 116th birth anniversary on May 13

“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Theatrical poster for the American release of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel. ( PREMIUM
Theatrical poster for the American release of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel. (

Rebecca’s melancholic opening line establishes the setting, locale, and atmosphere of the gothic classic, which was published in 1938 and has never been out of print.

Written by Daphne du Maurier and set in the wilds of Cornwall, Rebecca is a psychological thriller about a young woman who impetuously marries a wealthy widower and soon discovers that he and his household are haunted by the memory of his late, apparently perfect first wife.

The book, despite facing plagiarism allegations initially, was released to a rousing response. In April 1938, when du Maurier delivered the manuscript to her publisher, Victor Gollancz, he predicted a “rollicking success”; her editor, Norman Collins, believed it had “everything that the public could want”.

Books by Daphne du Maurier (Shutterstock)
Books by Daphne du Maurier (Shutterstock)

They were right. Rebecca sold 2.8 million copies between its publication in 1938 and 1965, and went on to be adapted numerous times for stage and screen. The adaptations include a 1939 play by du Maurier herself, a 1940 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock (It won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year), and a 2020 remake for Netflix directed by Ben Wheatley.

But Rebecca isn’t du Maurier’s only claim to fame.

She followed her first novel, The Loving Spirit (1931), with successful stories usually set on the wild coast of Cornwall, where she lived. She also wrote Vanishing Cornwall (1967), a travel guide, some historical fiction, and several plays. But it is Rebecca that persists in public memory.

Born on May 13, 1907, in London to theatre actors Muriel Beaumont and Gerald du Maurier, Daphne and her two sisters grew up in a privileged, slightly bohemian milieu. The home-schooled children connected over stories and fantasies. She is said to have had a close relationship with her volatile father and misgivings around her mother, facets that found their way into her work. Family holidays at the du Maurier country home in Bodinnick by Fowey led to a lifelong passion for Cornwall, the setting for many of her atmospheric stories. In 1932, du Maurier married Major Frederick “Tommy” Browning, with whom she had three children. An unhappy period in Egypt as an army wife – biographers have written that the marriage could be “chilly” – sowed the seeds of her best-known novel.

Du Maurier’s study in female jealousy had its origins in her own life. Her husband had earlier been engaged to a glamorous, dark-haired woman named Jan Ricardo, and the writer was haunted by the suspicion that he remained attracted to her.


In The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories, her last work that was published in 1981, du Maurier recalled Rebecca’s gestation: “Seeds began to drop. A beautiful home... a first wife... jealousy, a wreck, perhaps at sea, near to the house... But something terrible would have to happen, I did not know what...”

Her notes reveal the writing process: “I want to build up the character of the first [wife] in the mind of the second... until wife 2 is haunted day and night... a tragedy is looming very close and CRASH! BANG! something happens.”

That was the genesis of Rebecca, and the author stuck to it faithfully. Using a then-intriguing writing style – a refusal to name the protagonist who’s only known as the second Mrs de Winter – she crafts the story of a shy, awkward young woman. While working as a companion to Mrs Van Hopper, an elderly socialite in Monte Carlo, she runs into the wealthy Maxim de Winter. A whirlwind courtship ensues which ends in a most unromantic proposal:

“Either you go to America with Mrs Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me.”

“Do you mean you want a secretary or something?”

“No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.”

The protagonist ends up marrying the sardonic, sophisticated, and sometimes morose widower whose wife, Rebecca, drowned in a sailboat accident.

The couple soon travels to Manderley, “a thing of grace and beauty, exquisite and faultless”, amid rhododendrons blooming “slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic”. The new Mrs de Winter is greeted by the black-clad housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, her “skull’s face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton’s frame”.

But there’s to be no happily ever after.

Manderley is haunted by the spectre of Rebecca, the first Mrs de Winter, who may have drowned but seems alive in spirit. She’s a living being, one whose choices and preferences can be seen across Manderley – from the lovely evening gowns in her closet to the lovely drapes and trinkets she herself chose to redo the country house.

How on earth can the second wife compare and compete with a vision of perfection who no longer exists? Can a dull and drab woman hold a candle to a paragon who personifies glamour and gaiety?

Armie Hammer and Lily James in Rebecca (2020) (Netflix)
Armie Hammer and Lily James in Rebecca (2020) (Netflix)

“I know people are looking me up and down, wondering what sort of success I am going to make of it. I can imagine them saying, ‘What on earth does Maxim see in her?’ You see, I know that all the time, whenever I meet anyone new, they are all thinking the same thing – How different she is to Rebecca,” she writes.

Suspense and drama builds, largely on account of the malevolent Mrs Danvers, who seems insistent on keeping the past alive to obliterate the present. The narrator grows progressively more obsessed with the beautiful first wife and insecure in her marriage.

“Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca,” she laments. “Perhaps I haunted her as she haunted me.”

Things come to a head at the annual costume ball at Manderley where the housekeeper encourages the second Mrs de Winter to wear a costume similar to one worn by Rebecca shortly before her death. The outfit upsets Maxim, and the next morning his new wife ruminates on the state of her marriage.

“It seemed to me, as I sat there in bed, staring at the wall, at the sunlight coming in at the window, at Maxim’s empty bed, that there was nothing quite so shaming, so degrading as a marriage that had failed. Failed after three months, as mine had done,” she says.

The menacing Mrs Danvers continues to play mind games with her employer’s wife, encouraging her to end her life after the disastrous ball.

“What’s the use of your staying here at Manderley? You’re not happy. Mr de Winter doesn’t love you. There’s not much for you to live for, is there? Why don’t you jump now and have done with it? Then you won’t be unhappy anymore,” she tells Mrs de Winter.

Du Maurier forgoes all the usual trappings of gothic writing, including skulking ghosts, creaking sounds, and hidden staircases, but creates an atmosphere that’s pervaded by memories and haunted by recollections.

Intrigue, scheming, and deception continue till the day a leaked secret leads to a power shift in the de Winter marriage. The plot twist leads to a somewhat satisfying denouement for the couple despite an enormous attendant loss.

“The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea,” the book concludes, the ending just as evocative and haunting as the beginning.

The Christian Science Monitor of September 14, 1938, predicted the novel “would be here today, gone tomorrow”.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Many believed that du Maurier had found her place and voice as an author with Rebecca, which was voted the UK’s favourite book of the past 225 years in a 2017 poll by bookseller WH Smith.

Apart from multiple old and new adaptations, the tome has inspired three books: Mrs de Winter (1993) by Susan Hill, The Other Rebecca (1996) by Maureen Freely, and Rebecca’s Tale (2001) by Sally Beauman.

Young Daphne du Maurier (Wikimedia Commons)
Young Daphne du Maurier (Wikimedia Commons)

du Maurier also wrote Jamaica Inn (1936), a period piece set in Cornwall, Frenchman’s Creek (1941), a historical novel, My Cousin Rachel (1951), a mystery-romance similar in theme to Rebecca, short stories including The Birds and Don’t Look Now, Growing Pains (1977), an autobiography, and The Rendezvous and Other Stories (1980), a collection. Both Jamaica Inn and The Birds were made into films by Alfred Hitchcock.

The du Mauriers’ marriage became strained during and after World War II, and the tension is visible in The Breaking Point (1959). She also wrote The Scapegoat (1957), which explored themes of stolen identity, during this time.

The death of her husband, in 1965, affected du Maurier profoundly and she began feeling that her talent was on the wane. She moved to Kilmarth, in Par, after another setback – an inability to renew the lease on Menabilly, her treasured home. She wrote The House on the Strand in 1969, the year she was also made a Dame Commander in the Order of the British Empire.

However, a long period of creative and personal decline led to a nervous breakdown in 1981 and she died from heart failure eight years later, aged 81. Her body was cremated and the ashes scattered off the cliffs around Kilmarth and Menabilly in Cornwall.

du Maurier could never break free from the wilful character she created and continues to be associated with Rebecca. Unsurprising when one considers Mrs Danvers’s words about the first Mrs de Winter: “No one got the better of her, never, never…. She did what she liked, she lived as she liked. She had the strength of a lion.”

The unhappy second Mrs de Winter, however, does escape the spectre of Rebecca: “Her boat had been found with its queer prophetic name, Je Reviens, but I was free of her forever.”

Not so the rest of us. Eighty-five years after Rebecca was published, we remain haunted and captivated – and forever eager to return to Manderley.

Teja Lele is an independent editor and writes on books, travel and lifestyle

The views expressed are personal

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