The Ex Files
You’ve just graduated college. You’re feeling a little aimless, not sure what you want to do with your life. So you take a job as a personal assistant and head to Monte Carlo for the summer. Suddenly you find yourself spending all your time with a Clooney-grade older dude who wants to marry you even though you barely know each other. Out of boredom, you marry him. On top of this impulsive, most likely regrettable decision, it turns out his mansion, Manderley, is haunted. By the ghost of his ex-wife.
All right, so it’s not really haunted per se, but it might as well be. Everywhere you turn you’re reminded of Rebecca, the former Mrs. DeWinter, who was the most beautiful woman in all of England, who threw fantastic parties, who kept herself and the house in tip-top shape. In other words, she’s everything you aren’t. The staff, particularly Mrs. Danvers, hates your guts. Your husband seems withdrawn and anxious, as if he regrets his decision to make you his wife. Life is hard, and it can always get worse.
Daphne DuMaurier’s masterpiece, Rebecca, was published in 1938. Much to Ms. DuMaurier’s surprise, the book was a huge hit (to this day her best selling novel), and Alfred Hitchcock adapted it for the screen in 1940. The film went on to win Hitchcock’s only best picture Oscar. DuMaurier said the inspiration for Rebecca came from her obsession with a house in Cornwall called Menabilly. She wondered, as she stumbled upon it during a walk how a beautiful home like Menabilly could come to be totally deserted, fallen into disrepair. So while she lived in Egypt with her husband (who was stationed there) DuMaurier finally set about trying to come up with a drama that could explain Menabilly’s situation -- and Rebecca was born.
DuMaurier doesn’t give the narrator of the novel, a young woman in her early twenties, a name. She claims it’s because she couldn’t think of a good one. The character’s namelessness helps us relate to her. She could be us, we could be her. It immediately puts us on her side -- as if to say, you already know me so well, I don’t even need to introduce myself. Rebecca’s narrator is everywoman. While the story is similar to most romantic mysteries (Jane Eyre), I found, upon this second reading, that Rebecca offers an intriguing antiheroine in Rebecca herself. The second Mrs. DeWinter is described as plain, with limp colorless hair and no sense of fashion. Rebecca, on the other hand, is dark, wild-eyed, tall and slim. This is like pitting Jennifer Anniston against Angelina Jolie. I’m not interested in Rebecca’s looks, however. I’m more interested in Mrs. Danvers’s description of what kind of a woman she was while she was living.
In a disturbing scene, Mrs. Danvers explains to the narrator that Rebecca was a free spirit -- that while she was a gracious hostess, and to any outsider looking in a model-wife, she came and went from Manderley and she pleased, dallying about with other men. “'I shall live as I please, Danny,” she told me, ‘and the whole world won’t stop me.’ A man only had to look at her once and be mad about her. I’ve seen them here, staying in the house, men she’d meet up in London and bring for week-ends... They made love with her of course, who would not? She laughed... She did not mind, it was like a game to her. Like a game.”
Infidelity is not a feminist attribute. But for Rebecca to find these booty calls “a game,” implying that she treated her paramours with as much disdain as her husband, is an interesting implication -- it suggests that Rebecca was out to live only for herself, unusual behavior for a woman in the early 1900s. Mrs. Danvers further illuminates Rebecca’s character near the end of the novel, when it is revealed that she carried on a prolonged affair with her first cousin. “She was not in love with you,” Mrs. Danvers explains to the cousin, “or with Mr. DeWinter. She was not in love with anyone. She despised all men. She was above all that.”
It’s a stretch, but I’d say Rebecca maybe preferred ladies to gentlemen, from what Mrs. Danvers implies. Or perhaps Mrs. Danvers perception of the events is colored by the fact that she was totally head over heels in love with Rebecca. Either way, the true love story of this novel may be a lesbian one.
When Maxim (Mr. DeWinter) discovered her affairs, she threatened him with the scandal of divorce, and he agreed that as long as she conducted her unsavory business in London, they would remain married. But Rebecca, being a rule-breaker, started bringing her boyfriends back to the house, where she had a small cottage near the ocean. One night, she never came home. A few weeks later, Maxim identified a body that had washed up on the shore some miles away as hers. But that body isn’t really Rebecca’s, and the true story of what happened between her and Maxim is much more complicated. I’ll leave that for you to discover when you read the book.
While Rebecca isn’t your typical ghost story, it’s certainly the story of a haunting. How many of us wonder, in anxiety or torment, about our partner’s life before us? Some exes are unfortunately present, some merely flit about like ghosts, leaving only a photo or some kind of object behind. Rebecca’s narrator is insecure with her relationship and with herself; she can’t believe that Maxim could ever truly love her. With her anxieties she reanimates Rebecca as a threatening figure in their lives. DuMaurier may have wondered why this novel was so popular, but I think it’s a no-brainer. No one wants to be ruled by the ghosts of marriages past. Rebecca is the story of a young woman coming into her own, losing her innocence and forging her identity against all odds. Even if those odds may have the face of Angelina Jolie -- they’re history. You, baby, are the present.