In Defense of the Second Mrs. Maxim de Winter

LOHF Rebecca Readalong

If she’d wanted to, my mom could have been a devastatingly good librarian. She gifted me the right books every single Christmas and birthday, usually inscribed in the upper left inside corner in her impeccable penmanship. And at some point in junior high, my mom looked at the space on my bookshelf between Jane Eyre and Interview With a Vampire, and knew precisely what would fill it.

Rebecca was like catnip for me. At thirteen or fourteen, there weren’t enough stories in the entire world about dark, mysterious, older men carrying off sensitive young maidens. It also ticks a staggering number of genre boxes – it’s a ghost story, a haunted house story, a romance, a mystery, a coming of age story, etc. My edition is the mass market paperback, with swirling embossed gold letters adorning rippling red satin sheets. It’s intense, and I remember hiding it inside my seventh grade pre-algebra book because I didn’t want the football players in that class to see me reading it and make fun of me.

They did anyway, incidentally.

So when I saw that the Ladies of Horror Fiction, a recently launched platform designed to signal-boost female-identified writers, bloggers, and creators in Horrorland, was doing a community read of Rebecca, I headed to the shelf for my banged-up copy Mom gave me for Christmas twenty years ago, which has been on every shelf I’ve lived with, from Minnesota to Nanjing, China to now.

I’ve read the first eight chapters so far, and oof. This is very different reading as an adult, mostly consisting of wanting to grab the narrator by her shoulders and shake her until she starts seeing herself as a person. It’s very easy to get frustrated with her passivity and her immaturity. It’s hard to be inside the head of a character who hears the following marriage proposal and goes along with it:

“So that’s settled, isn’t it?” he said, going on with his toast and marmalade; “instead of being companion to Mrs. Van Hopper [her current employer], you become mine, and your duties will be almost exactly the same” (53).

But let me defend this character for a minute. This is no Bella Swan. This is a young woman who is an orphan, in a middling caste in pre-war England, with very few choices in front of her. She works for an odious person and counts it a blessing to have reasonably good work. Her deep insecurity and self-abnegation may have internal roots, but god knows it’s reflected back at her everywhere she goes.

In spite of that, she’s maintained an imagination. It’s her imagination that does her in, when she attaches ridiculous fantasies to Maxim de Winter, who’d I’d argue is more or less emotionally abusing her, but it’s also the product of a sharp, emotional mind that’s basically sustaining itself without any sustenance from anyone else in her life. She can spin out a detailed, absorbing story from the smallest detail (see: her painfully funny nightmare about New York boys hitting on her – “D’you like hot music?”).

The sudden attention of Maxim ignites her imagination, particularly the idea of Manderley, which she recognizes from a postcard she bought on a holiday as a child. The fantasies she works up have very little to do with reality (she imagines announcing her engagement by laughing and saying, “we’re very much in love!”, when really Maxim just goes in and essentially buys her from Mrs. Van Hopper, out of her hearing) and everything to do with what she wants that she feels she’s not entitled to.

She’s also incredibly socially perceptive; she sees exactly how loathsome Mrs. Van Hopper is and how painfully aware everyone else is of that fact. She can read Maxim like a book, too (she just doesn’t trust her interpretation and gives him enormous heapings of benefit of the doubt that he doesn’t deserve). This makes her the perfect person to be sensitive to Rebecca’s mostly metaphorical ghost who lingers all over everything.

And I know that the main complaint we all have of her is that she’s passive and lets everyone walk all over her, back up to be sure they rub off all the mud on her, and then drag the carriage wheels across her while they’re at it. But this is also the same woman who, after Maxim suggests they have lots in common, fires back: “you forget. You have a home and I don’t.”

I humbly suggest that she’s got more brass than she gets credit for. It’s certainly not her defining characteristic, but the insurmountable social forces of gender and class she’s up against don’t entirely shut her down. That’s got to be worth something.

And I think she and Daphne du Maurier are occasionally really funny, which doesn’t get as much air time as the novel’s moody air of dread. Submitted as evidence, when she’s caught rummaging around for matches because she’s too intimidated to ask a servant to light a fire for her:

“The fire in the library is not usually lit until the afternoon, Madam,” said [Frith, the butler]. “Mrs. de Winter always used the morning room. There is a good fire in there. Of course if you should wish to have the fire in the library as well I shall give orders for it to be lit.”

“Oh no,” I said. “I would not dream of it. I will go into the morning-room. Thank you, Frith.”

“You will find writing paper, and pens, and ink in there, Madam,” he said. “Mrs. de Winter always did all her correspondence and telephoning in the morning-room, after breakfast. The house telephone is there, should you wish to speak to Mrs. Danvers.”

“Thank you, Frith,” I said.

I turned away into the hall again, humming a little tune to give an air of confidence. I could not tell him that I had never seen the morning-room, that Maxim had not shown it to me the night before. I knew he was standing in the entrance of the dining-room, watching me, as I went across the hall, and that I must make some show of knowing my way. There was a door to the left of the great staircase, and I went recklessly toward it, praying in my heart that it would take me to my goal, but when I came to it and opened it I saw that it was a garden-room, a place for odds and ends; there was a table where flowers were done, there were basket chairs stacked against the wall, and a couple of mackintoshes too, hanging on a peg. I came out, a little defiantly, glancing across the hall, and saw Frith still standing there. I had not deceived him though, not for a moment.

“You go through the drawing-room to the morning-room, Madam,” he said, “through the door there, on your right, this side of the staircase. You go straight through the double drawing-room, and then turn to your left.”

“Thank you, Frith,” I said humbly, pretending no longer (81).

I am enjoying revisiting Rebecca, even if I’m astonished at how awful Maxim is now that I’m reading it as an adult and how frustrating the narrator can be. But it’s still pretty propulsive reading for me, and truthfully, for all her passivity and occasional total idiocy, I can relate to the awkward fish-out-of-water second Mrs. de Winter, who’s in way, way, way over her head and has no idea what she’s doing but is still gamely trying to cover up for herself. This isn’t a perfect character or a perfect book, but I do think it’s worth hearing her out.

 

3 thoughts on “In Defense of the Second Mrs. Maxim de Winter

  1. Mrs Danvers could come down the stairs in a Dollar Store vampire costume and Maxim wouldn’t notice. Would her character be classified as camp? She’s so forwardly nefarious it’s like she wants to be caught, or have someone play the game with her (since she knows it all goes over her boss’s head). Maxim’s living at a Murder Mystery retreat and doesn’t know it.

    Also loved your comment on the LOHF blog, “This lady hates plants!” Something bad has happened, a way of life has been erased, and it seems the plants have something to do with it. What do the plants represent? The wild and untamable feminine? I’m looking at photos of rhododendrons and trying very hard to get a creepy feeling. The first chapter sounded like disgust at a blurring of class lines and the downfall of the aristocracy, so heavy-handed were the natural metaphors as they consumed Manderly.

    “The rhododendrons stood 50 feet high, twisted and entwined with bracken, and they entered into an alien marriage with a host of nameless shrubs, poor, bastard things that clung about the roots as though conscious of their spurious origin.”

    Who what now?

    1. Yeah, those malevolent botanical metaphors are hungry! I like that quote you pulled out a lot, as nutty as it is. The rhododendrons are identified with Rebecca since her morning-room is stuffed with them, right? So I guess the narrator is the little bastard shrub who gets all tangled up with Rhodobecca. But it’s weird how the downfall of Manderley at the hands of, I don’t know, native plants or whatever, is presented so negatively. It feels so mournful in a way that kind of makes me think of misguided nostalgia for southern plantations. Do you think Du Maurier meant that? I just read her wikipedia article, which says her dad was a theater manager. She married into a title herself, but never used it. I don’t think she means for Rebecca to read as a love song to a lost aristocracy, but it’s kind of hard to read that first chapter any other way.

      I’m having a hard time being spooked by rhododendrons too. But it’s one of the best flower names to say, because it sounds like alien machinery.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *