HITCHCOCK’S WOMEN: Fighting the Waves of the Past – Mrs de Winter in REBECCA (1940) – PART I

Returning with the latest instalment of our Hitchcock’s Women series, Rebecca McCallum dreams of Manderley again…

In his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, Hitchcock channels the gothic and ghostly to maximum effect. When a young (and unnamed) companion (Joan Fontaine) meets and marries the brooding, melancholic and affluent Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) she finds herself battling for status, acceptance and identity. While she makes every effort to ingratiate herself into her new life, she is met by constant opposition as each corridor, room and corner of the imposing Manderley are possessed and haunted by Maxim’s (now deceased) first wife, the titular Rebecca.  As a string of incidents culminate in a dramatic revelation, the woman (whose married name even comes loaded with expectations as it is inherited from her predecessor) is repeatedly reminded of her position as the ‘second’ Mrs de Winter.

The Infantile Woman

The journey of the second Mrs de Winter correlates with the human transition from child-like, wide-eyed naivete to that of an adult who understands both the tragedy and fragility of life. From their first meeting, Maxim’s treatment of and behaviour towards his new wife reflects his perception of her as an infantile woman. After his tumultuous experiences with Rebecca, Maxim selects the mousy, unglamorous young companion precisely because she represents no threat to his masculinity. Unlike Rebecca, she can be contained and controlled, like a figurine in a doll house. Maxim continually addresses her as though she were a child, making remarks such as ‘eat up like a good girl’, ‘stop biting your nails’ and most directly of all (as he offers her a Mackintosh to shield her from the rain) ‘you can’t be too careful with children.’

However, in a hypocritical move, he responds to his wife’s childish reactions by chastising her. This can be seen after her refusal to address housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) about the breakage of a cupid ornament in the morning room. Panicked and ashamed, like a child frightened of getting into trouble, she suggests that Maxim explains what has happened while she retreats upstairs.  In response, he scolds her: ‘you behave more like an upstairs maid than mistress of the house’. The newcomer cannot win, as she is first infantilized and then punished for behaving in accordance with such treatment.

Mrs de Winter’s infantilization also links with the perception of her as small, meek and defenceless. Swallowed up by Manderley, she is frequently shown wondering about the gothic maze-like corridors and reaching for door handles, all of which highlight her overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. On the other hand Maxim’s male counterpart – and ‘Rebecca’s favourite cousin’ – Flavell’s (George Sanders) attitude towards the unnamed heroine could not be more opposite. Immediately upon meeting her he sexualises her with predatory remarks and, in asking for her not to disclose details of his visit, he represents the dark and dangerous aspects of sexuality.

The Unworthy Outsider

We first hear of Rebecca from Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates), who is one in a line of many to comment upon how ‘beautiful’ and ‘adored’ she was. This description stands in direct contrast to her companion, who has already been established as nervous, socially awkward, naïve and clumsy. When the young woman begins meeting with Maxim in secret, although a romance appears to be blossoming, his hasty marriage proposal is delivered not with a sense of passion and devotion, but with a dismissive attitude that seeks to instantly demean her: ‘I’m asking you to marry me, you fool’. Upon learning of their sudden engagement, Mrs Van Hopper expresses how unsuitable her companion is for the role of mistress of Manderley, telling her she knows ‘nothing of what it means to be a great lady.’ Among her final words to her former employee are a tut of questioning disbelief followed by a declaration ‘Mrs de Winter’ in a mocking tone. Before she even arrives at Manderley to begin her new life, the heroine then is surrounded by opinions that she is not worthy, as she herself confesses to Maxim ‘I don’t belong in your sort of world’. The foundation for her status as an outsider is thus firmly cemented from the film’s earliest moments.

Swallowed by Space: The Powerful Silence of Manderley

Along with the absent character of Rebecca, the heroine has another silent but powerful force to contend with: that of the grand and imposing Manderley. Architecture and space play a significant role in Rebecca. We hear how the successor has been haunted by its wonderment from a young age when she describes having seen the house on a postcard in a shop whilst on holiday with her father as a child. Could it be that the second Mrs de Winter connects the two moments, and through establishing this association Hitchcock is suggesting that while Maxim is searching for a child he can control, the film’s leading lady is looking for a man to fill the gap left by her father? Manderley has not only haunted her childhood but, as we hear in the opening lines of the film (which also marks the end of the story) it also appears to her in dreams, even after it has been burnt to the ground.  As the newlyweds approach Manderley, she feels a prophetic chill, an early warning sign that she is not welcome, something which is followed by heavy rain, an implicit connection with the water element of the sea that Hitchcock uses as an association with Rebecca. Maxim -attempts to reassure her – ‘just be yourself and everyone will love you’ – but being herself is the struggle that Mrs de Winter battles with, primarily because she is never given the space to do so.

After her arrival, the stoic and intimidating housekeeper Mrs Danvers (dressed perpetually in black) shows the newcomer to her bedroom, wasting no time in informing her that the room was previously ‘not used for much’ and that it ‘has no view of the sea’. In a new environment created just for her and outside the reach of the ghostly waves of Rebecca, there is a sense that she is being given the opportunity to carve out a successful and happy life as mistress of Manderley. However, this is shown to be no more than a fleeting moment of hope when we compare her space with Rebecca’s bedroom situated in the West Wing. That room – which Mrs Danvers was ‘ready to show to you everyday Madam’ – and everything within it is grand and larger than life. Described as ‘the most beautiful room in the house’, it has windows from floor to ceiling and is filled with luxurious furnishings.

Although Mrs de Winter tries to ignore the commanding energy of the West Wing, it continues to call her, as though Rebecca herself were beckoning. When she enters the space, her shadow shrinks to a minuteness, reflective of her perception of herself as inferior. Here, she becomes Alice in Wonderland, a character that Maxim will later suggest she dresses as for the Manderley ball, acting as another rumination on his obsession with her as a child. Everything in the West Wing conspires to dwarf her: the drapes, the windows, the flowers and even the framed photograph of Maxim on the dressing table appears oversized. Mrs Danvers shows her Rebecca’s closet full of beautiful, fashionable garments which stand apart from the heroines’ simplistic, casual attire. As though taken over by the spell of Rebecca’s sacred space, Mrs Danvers is unable to resist using the heroine as a stand-in as she mock-brushes her hair while detailing Rebecca’s routine. It is in this moment that the new Mrs de Winter occupies a liminal space (similar to the character of Judy/Madeline in Vertigo), both between herself and her predecessor but also between the living and the dead.  

The housekeeper also takes the time to show her a negligee, which she fondles while pointing out what is already obvious: ‘look, you can see my hand through it’.  The implication here is crystal clear: Rebecca was an intoxicating and sexual being who cannot be matched. The young bride lets out a cry, clearly in a state of anxiety as the ever-encroaching sounds of the sea surround her. These waves were present in Monte Carlo, but they were manageable and kept at a comfortable distance. Now in the West Wing of Manderley, Rebecca is in full control and at her strongest as the waves are shown crashing mightily, folding inwards on the heroine.

Despite being the mistress of a palatial home, there is a continual sense of the second Mrs de Winter being undermined, stalked and haunted, not only by Rebecca but by the extensive team of house staff. Mrs Danvers glides into shots, positively ghost-like, appearing from out of thin air as though she were the literal embodiment of the spirit of Rebecca. To add to this, butler Frith (Edward Fielding) is constantly in the heroine’s shadow, pointing out the ways in which Rebecca ran Manderley, all of which culminate in a feeling of claustrophobia and suffocation.

Additionally, it is not just Manderley itself that acts as a dominating and masterful force, but the landscape too plays host to a site of secrets extending to the beach (which Maxim cautions his new wife to keep clear of) and the cottage where Rebecca spent much of her time.

Underestimated Under Watchful Eyes

Mrs de Winter is frequently the subject of an examining gaze of either disapproval (Mrs Van Hopper; Mrs Danvers) or judgement upon her character (Maxim’s relatives; the staff at Manderley). She also finds herself repeatedly underestimated by those around her with Maxim’s brother-in law, Giles (Nigel Bruce), referring to her sneeringly as an ex-chorus-girl. Any expectations placed upon her are all steeped in perceptions and experiences of Rebecca, as can be seen at lunch when Giles bombards her with questions about the skills and hobbies which Rebecca excelled at, creating a sense that she fails to measure up to her many talents: ‘I’m trying to find exactly what it is your wife does do’, he laughs belittlingly. Even Giles’s wife Beatrice (Gladys Cooper), who initially seems welcoming of Mrs de Winter, suggests that she restyles her hair and critiques her outward appearance: ‘I can see by the way you dress that you don’t give a hoot about what you wear’ she tells her, all of which adds to the constant feeling that to be accepted, the new bride must transform.

Given the scrutiny that she is subjected to, it’s no surprise that the second Mrs de Winter chooses an outsider, Maxim’s friend and estate manager Crawley (Reginald Denny), to speak candidly to about Rebecca. Crawley confirms that Rebecca was opposite to her in every respect and how she ‘wasn’t scared of anything’, all while the heroine sits listening in a heightened state of fear. She confesses that she feels ‘disadvantaged’, aware that she is constantly being compared, and her anxieties are confirmed in Crawley’s choice of descriptors for the two women: while Rebecca had ‘beauty, wit and intelligence’ (all qualities the heroine feels she lacks herself), Crawley calls her successor ‘tidy, sincere and modest’, all noble sounding, but lacklustre by comparison.

This illustrates the dark dichotomy that manifests in the heroine throughout the film: that of wishing to both be Rebecca and to eschew her. Herein the paradoxical struggle exists – if only she could find the freedom to truly express herself and find comfort in being who she is, perhaps she might find acceptance. However, in being immediately and irrevocably rejected in favour of Rebecca, she is never embraced as herself. When she ventures to ask Crawley who Rebecca really was, Mrs de Winter’s world is ripped out from beneath her as he comments on how ‘she was the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.’ As their conversation draws to a close, Crawley places the responsibility of keeping Rebecca buried upon the heroine, telling her ‘it’s up to you to lead us away from the past’. Thus, the burden now sits with Mrs de Winter to hold back the ghost of Rebecca, and bring Maxim and Manderley into the present.

Rebecca McCallum

Rebecca will return soon to conclude her analysis of the second Mrs de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

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