For most of her career, Dame Daphne du Maurier was plagued by the title "romantic novelist," an epithet she felt unworthy of her work. Her best-known novel, Rebecca, is also her least understood, an elegant treatise on the power dynamics of marriage shrugged off as nothing more than a poor Jane Eyre facsimile, another disposable work of that most shameful genre, "women's fiction."
Gothic romance has long been disregarded as a genre unbefitting literary recognition, as if its very popularity - particularly among female readers - makes it base. But some of the most feminist work of the Victorian age onward was written by women in the guise of gothic romance, a convenient, sexy camouflage for subversive ideals. Rebecca, published by du Maurier in 1938, tells two stories, one tawdry and direct and the other tragic and veiled.
On the surface, Rebecca follows a self-conscious, nameless, working class heroine as she's quite suddenly romanced by a dashing older widower named Maxim. Maxim marries the girl and brings her to his majestic estate Manderley, where she is relentlessly beset by the oppressive memory of Maxim's late wife, the glamorous and beautiful Rebecca. Manderley's intimidating housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, loved Rebecca dearly, and she works to constantly undermine the new Mrs. de Winter, convincing her that Rebecca was her superior in every particular, but most especially in Maxim's regard. Eventually we learn from Maxim that Rebecca was a cruel and promiscuous wife determined to ruin him, and he at last murdered her in a fit of rage after she provoked him with her pregnancy by another. Our shy, sweet heroine, rather than growing aghast at Maxim's crime, is relieved to learn that he truly loves her and never loved Rebecca, and they eventually find peace together. It's a chilling examination of the power that jealousy can hold over our psyches, of the rival "other woman" who can make us feel small and nameless - and it's also an example of the Plain Jane romance, in which the good but otherwise unremarkable girl wins the heart of the gentleman over the more bewitching but morally distasteful bad girl. It's what all of us Plain Janes dream of, right?
But there's another story in Rebecca, one in which a free-spirited and powerful woman is despised by her haughty husband because he is unable to subdue her. du Maurier - a bisexual herself - hints that Rebecca's affairs were with suitors of both sexes, and Mrs. Danvers' devotion certainly leans to the romantic. Rebecca was untamed by society, and for that she must be punished. Maxim disposes of this dynamic partner, an equal to him in every way, and finds himself a mousy little wife who lives in obligation to him for rescuing her from her sad life and making her the mistress of Manderley. Unlike Rebecca, Maxim is able to command the new Mrs. de Winter, who meekly agrees to stop biting her nails, to wear a coat, to eat her breakfast, to leave him to his letters, never wanting anything from him but a small amount of affection in the wake of her vast love and gratitude. But Rebecca, long at the bottom of the ocean, still triumphs in her own way, haunting the home with her indomitable presence, and even taking agency over her own death, provoking Maxim to kill her rather than subjecting herself to the cancer she recently discovered was ravaging her body.
It's brilliant! See, Rebecca is both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea at once. du Maurier - who once suffered from the knowledge that her husband had been previously engaged to a beautiful woman, and who also lived her life freely and with little regard for societal norms - is both Jane and Bertha Rochester. This vulgar little gothic novel is actually an incredibly layered exploration of gender, of power, of envy, beautifully written and incisively executed.
And the genius in Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation, released two years after Rebecca's publication, is that he realizes it. Rebecca is one of the most faithful literary adaptations ever made, with the only significant changes a result of Hays Code interference. As with most of his actresses, Hitchcock is said to have terrorized the young Joan Fontaine in order to overplay her natural timidity, convincing her that everyone on set disliked her. Hitchcock played Fontaine's own Mrs. Danvers to cruel but compelling effect, as she gives a performance that is almost amorphous in its delicacy, a wispy, indefinite role that corresponds with the nameless character. We can forget that Joan Fontaine looks like Joan Fontaine and believe that she is small and obscure and terribly plain.
Laurence Olivier is in turns the ardent savior and the stern and loveless tyrant, equally convincing as both. When his ill-defined proposal is received with confusion, he snaps, "I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool," and for a moment, because it's Laurence Olivier and he is the dreamiest man who has ever lived, we melt a bit along with our protagonist before some part of our mind recognizes what a crummy proposal this truly is.
Dozens of memorable little details from the novel are translated with wonderful precision in Hitchcock's film - Mrs. Van Hopper's cigarette stubbed out in the face cream, the "curious slanting R" of Rebecca's monogram, stamped indelibly in every room of Manderley.
But Hitchcock's greatest triumph in interpreting du Maurier's work is his elegant reflection of its themes. We can watch Rebecca just as we read it - two stories of two women, one subversive and one superficial, assimilated into this deliciously grim mystery. If Hitchcock weren't such a talented director with such a bold and specific vision, one could say that his adaptation of Rebecca is almost slavish. But though, in 1940, du Maurier's novel was still considered nothing better than a titillating romance, Hitchcock's film was universally praised as haunting, captivating, atmospheric, masterful. Maybe we can assume that it was only when the story of Rebecca was told by a man that it was considered valuable, worthy of winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards while du Maurier continued to toil for critical recognition, a pursuit that still evades her, even in death.