“If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale” (du Maurier 37)
Daphne du Maurier’s talented prose in her classic novel Rebecca (1938) enfolds a vivid embodiment of Gothic romanticism. With the notorious opening line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” du Maurier transplants the reader into the eerie milieu of Manderley, an ancient house steeped in isolating mystique (1).
The novel opens with a dreamed walk down the twisting lane of Manderley, ushering you into the nebulous domain and serpentine tale of Rebecca. With a nameless protagonist and narrator as a guide, you are led down a continuous series of twists and turns as du Maurier slowly unravels the complexly intertwined secrets of Manderley.
Here, truth tarries beneath a heavy mist, shrouded and unattainable. The muddled past appears insoluble even though the natural course of life persists: the past acting as an absent yet active influence on the present. It is dominating, a removed yet living power that must continually be flung back into obsolescence with the rhythmic tick of time.
This is brilliant artistic crafting. By placing the romanticized past (memory, history, repute) as the emblematic center, du Maurier amasses within her writing the foremost traditions of Gothic qualities:
- a disconcerting ambiance
- a delicately, assiduously described natural scenery
- a jarring atmospheric setting
- a story saturated in mystery
- a lingering impression that the characters and events are not fully synchronized with the rational world
The past is a focal point even from the opening line of the novel: “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” (1). Du Maurier immediately secures what is perhaps her most intriguing thematic bonding, which is the amalgamation of the past and the spectral.
Rebecca’s presence is unequivocally attached to the past. Within the borders of Manderley, it transmits her pervasive presence. An unwelcome dweller who intrudes on the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Maxim de Winter, whose presence is dutifully preserved by Mrs. Danvers, the malevolent head housekeeper still dedicated to the late Mrs. de Winter.
She floats behind a mystery concealed by Maxim de Winter—the master of Manderley—reemerging in pithily fragments as haunting memories. For Mrs. de Winter, these drift through the immense emptiness of Manderley in the elusive form of her predecessor, mocking her “gauche” youthful character attempting at a high-born lifestyle.
These three focal characters hold distinct, telling attitudes towards the past; at the heart of these variations lies the overarching ephemeral existent in the novel who is more present in absence than the protagonist is in life: the late and first Mrs. de Winter.
Mrs. Danvers | Preservation of the Past
Stoic and abrasively disconsolate, Mrs. Danvers maintains Manderley in the spirit of Rebecca. Under her touch this established estate begins to decay into a utilitarian yet wilting remnant of itself. It is a place of the past, a shrine to the jovial life of its former mistress.
In her warped dedication to Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers transforms Manderley—particularly places and rooms in which Rebecca spent much of her time, such as the west wing and the morning room—into a plangent sepulcher. She preserves Rebecca’s presence visually and thus psychologically.
It appears and feels as if Rebecca simply left the grounds for a weekend holiday. The first time Mrs. de Winter enters upon the west wing, she feels like an intruder of both the past and her home: “For one desperate moment I thought that something had happened to my brain, that I was seeing back into Time, and looking upon the room as it used to be, before she died… In a minute Rebecca herself would come back into the room, sit down before the looking glass at her dressing table, humming a tune, reach for her comb and run it through her hair” (159).
Indeed, when Mrs. Danvers happens upon Mrs. de Winter in the west wing, she asks her “you would not think she had gone now for so long, would you, not by the way the rooms are kept?”
This feeling is not confined simply to Rebecca’s old quarters. It is almost as if the memory of Rebecca echoes throughout the house, as Mrs. Danvers remarks, “I feel her everywhere […] Sometimes, when I walk along the corridor here, I fancy I hear her just behind me. That quick, light footstep. I could not mistake it anywhere” (167).
Mrs. Danvers is both the curator and warden of Rebecca’s past. Because of this, she lives for and in the memory of that past, viewing all the life which continued after Rebecca’s death with disdain. To her, the new Mrs. de Winter is a mockery to the image of Rebecca, a pathetic replacement unable to fight against the overbearing memory of the one who first bore the name Mrs. de Winter.
Mrs. de Winter | Engulfed in the Past
A dramatic, irrational response to the past. There are two battling ways—both of which fit such a description—in which the protagonist visualizes the past. First, a romanticized longing to preserve memories, to be able to revisit past moments. The other, a corruption of the original: a twisted romanticism charged with anxiety, turning memory into a haunting, living past that chokes out the present.
Mrs. de Winter’s understanding of the past utterly splits and ferments the moment she arrives at Manderley. In other words, the instant that, for her, the past fully merges with the spirit of Rebecca.
At the beginning of the novel, interestingly, the protagonist holds a similar attitude towards memory as Mrs. Danvers, just with a crucial alteration. During one of the drives with Maxim in Monte Carlo, she casually muses over preserving memory: “If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again” (37).
Innocent and ebullient. A youthful response to memory made in the total ignorance of the pain and troubles of a harsh life. Not that there is any wrong in cherishing memories, but this desire does show the girl’s wish to live in the past rather than focusing on the present, the future.
To live in memory. It is only once she meets the persona of her precursor—in name, title, position, home, and life—that the now Mrs. de Winter learns what it means to survive only in the past, the way that Rebecca does within Manderley. A mere whisper of a name, a shadow of a woman.
This irregular coalescent of Rebecca and the past opens overwhelms Mrs. de Winter. She shrinks beneath the weight of Rebecca’s memory that is all but “bottled up […] like a scent” by Mrs. Danvers preservation skills, never faded or washed out of Manderley. So much so that Mrs. de Winter feels as if she is walking through Rebecca’s life, an imposter “walking where she had trodden, resting where she had lain. I was like a guest, biding my time, waiting for the return of the hostess” (134).
The thought of Rebecca consumes Mrs. de Winter. At times, it appears as if Rebecca—significantly, the eponymous character—is more present and prominent in death than the living, nameless Mrs. de Winter. She lives under the oppressive memory of the former, incessantly haunted by her memory: “I could not help it if she came to me in thoughts, in dreams. I could not help it if I felt like a guest in Manderley, my home” (134).
Her home, yet not hers. Rebecca’s touch still lingered in Manderley. Everything within the house was specifically chosen by Rebecca. Every flower pot and chair was deliberately positioned by Rebecca. As Mrs. de Winter remembers, “they were not mine though. They belonged to somebody else” (161).
Once this fundamental shift occurs in Mrs. de Winter’s attitude towards the past, she desires nothing more than to outrun memory. As she says, Frank Crawley, the manager of the Manderley estate and a dear friend to the de Winters, has “told me to forget the past, and I wanted to forget it” (133).
All the past seems to hold for Mrs. de Winter at Manderley is suffering. Her married life is ostensibly inert due to the over-lingering memory of Rebecca. She loses any sense of identity under Rebecca’s name and position.
It is only the cognizant recollection of the present that jolts Mrs. de Winter from her depressing thoughts. Once she steps out from the past, she can escape the grasp of Rebecca. When she is walking through the west wing on that first visit, it is the sound of time passing that restores her to herself, as she reflects that “there was something sane and comforting about the ticking of the clock. It reminded me of the present” (160).
Maxim de Winter | Burdened by the Past
No character is visibly more affected by the memory of Rebecca than Maxim de Winter. It is his persistent torment.
The narrator states before recalling the events of the novel, that “sooner or later in the life of everyone comes a moment of trial. We all of us have our particular devil who rides us and torments us, and we must give battle in the end” (8). For Maxim de Winter, that devil is his past with Rebecca.
Maxim de Winter holds an outlook on the past similar to the later opinion of Mrs. de Winter; the past is a burden to be buried beneath the waves, something that must be put to rest.
It is the presence of Mrs. de Winter and a future life with her that sends Maxim out of morose ruminations and back into the present. He is unable to face life in Manderley after the death of Rebecca, preferring to drown out her painful memory in traveling.
When Maxim meets the protagonist in Monte Carlo, he says who has “taken me out of myself, out of despondency and introspection, both of which have been my devils for a year” (26). As Crawley later tells Mrs. de Winter, “we none of us want to bring back the past. Maxim least of all. And it’s up to you, you know, to lead us away from it. Not to take us back there again” (130).
She is the only one then removed from Manderley and not yet touched by the chilling presence of Rebecca’s memory. Thus, her refreshing presence rejuvenates Maxim; it is only after meeting her that he is ready to return to his home to focus on his present life (26).
The difference between this husband and wife on the matter of the past is not so much a matter of approaching and dealing with the past, but in how they allow the past to affect them. Both are plagued by the memory of Rebecca; Mrs. de Winter permits it to destroy her security and sanity while Maxim avoids it, giving the past no more reign over life than it demands.
Manderley is a place only visited in memory, a place housing the past. Throughout the novel Rebecca, du Maurier uses the old estate of Manderley as the stage for presenting varying, romanticized ideas of the past, all intermixed with the phantom presence of Rebecca, which is only projected in memories.
The three perspectives on the past held by Mrs. Danvers, Mrs. de Winter, and Maxim de Winter clash across the entire tale, continuously recalling Rebecca’s life and memory, thus giving rise to her spectral revenant.
Yet the novel is itself an account of the past, a return to Manderley in dream and remembrance. A past that lives on without a haunting, dominant presence, unlike the past living within the confines of Manderley. This emerges from a healthy relationship to the past, one Mrs. de Winter finds upon leaving the estate, having established a home outside of Rebecca’s influence.
Rebecca does not live outside of Manderley. She is sustained in memory and thoroughly linked to the estate, and its occupants. It is only in abandoning this toxic presence that Mr. and Mrs. Maxim de Winter successfully find the resolution to their personal flight to escape the past.
We all of us have our particular devil who rides us and torments us, and we must give battle in the end. We have conquered ours, or so we believe. The devil does not ride us anymore. (du Maurier 8)
du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. Hachette Book Group, 2013.