It was a lovely, rainy afternoon. I’d finished up work, Mom had finished up work, and Rebecca had just come in for me at the library. Mom saw it and said, “Let’s watch it together,” so we did.
The story had been on both our minds, for the same reason – Rachel’s excellent article on it for the latest issue of Femnista. It reminded me that I hadn’t seen an adaptation of it (or read the book) in quite some time. I’d actually seen Hitchcock’s version since the miniseries version, so I chose that. I sat there, I answered any and all of my mother’s questions throughout to the best of my ability, we reached the end and after a minute, I said, “Good grief, it really is a lot like Jane Eyre, isn’t it?”
I have no idea why it never occurred to me before, but this time around it slapped me plainly, I think because it’s much more evident in the three-hour Charles Dance adaptation than the shorter Olivier version. (Up front, I’ll say both of them are good. Props go to the Olivier version for a brilliant condensed adaptation, and for the sheer chill factor Hitchock brings to it, but the miniseries has some beautiful nuances to it as well.)
Essentially, they are both about young women found attractive by much older men, fighting to overcome the indiscretions of a past wife. But the first wife is still very present, both as a “ghost” in the household and in the imagination of the young heroine. For all intensive purposes, what both Maxim and Edward see and admire in the heroine is her sense of innocence, a sense of innocence that by the end is gone, because their own actions have forced innocence aside. For Edward, it is the revelation of his deceit, lies, and the literal mad wife locked in the attic. For Maxim, it is the realization that he is responsible for his wife’s death.
The houses play a role in the story as well – Jane is quite overwhelmed at times with Thornfield, while the “new” Mrs. de Winter is both entranced and intimidated by Manderley. In each, the respective husbands (or would-be husbands) lose their ancestral home and all memories and physical presence of their wife in a fire, both set by madwomen (though one is a wife, another a housekeeper). Each suffers physical and emotional scars as a result, nevertheless find peace and contentment in the presence of the woman they love. She brings stability to them, as well as through these circumstances finds her own footing in life.
But that is, in many ways, where the similarities end… the unnamed heroine of du Muaurier’s work is much more timid and shy than the plainly spoken Jane, and the differences between Maxim and Edward are dramatic and complete opposites. Edward put up with his wife’s behavior and then took great care to help her in her illness, not having the heart nor ambition to “lose her” in an asylum; Maxim on the other hand was driven into a murderous rage, a rage we later discover was forethought by his wife. And the psychotic, evil Mrs. Danvers and her systematic manipulation and desire to destroy Maxim’s new wife is a far cry from the compassionate and protective Mrs. Fairfax. Then too, is the dramatic difference in morality. In Jane Eyre, goodness, virtue, and faith are rewarded, whereas in Rebecca, the hero unequivocally gets away with murder.
Similarities aside, I like them both, as literary works and film adaptations. I enjoy the nuances and ideas explored in each, particularly in their original book forms.