I don’t know why, but whenever I visit Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca, I always get to the end and feel like starting all over again. It’s a peculiar sensation because nothing about the story is moral or upstanding—but it haunts me. Draws me in. So back I run to Manderley.
If you have never read or seen the story, “Rebecca” refers to a dead wife that overshadows the heroine. This nameless girl meets and marries the problematic Maxim de Winter, a man tormented by memories of his dead wife. She returns to his country estate of Manderley to find herself surrounded by Rebecca’s memory. Most often, the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers brings her to mind, always to contrast the bold, witty, narcissistic Rebecca (who “toyed with men”) against the drag, diminutive, shy heroine.
The book is brilliant at overwhelming its nameless heroine and dwarfing her in the shadow of her predecessor. The various film adaptations are also wonderful. They are filming a new adaptation with Lily James. I wonder how they will take her charismatic appeal and lessen it into the heroine the story needs. I cringed a little when a reporter asked if the screenwriter would “modernize” the heroine, make her less cowed.
I hope they don’t do that, make her feistier, because that’s what makes her so powerful within the narrative. All she wants is love. Others easily intimidate her. Maxim treats her like a child—and it’s true, she’s naïve, sweet, innocent. Not sexy, not ambitious, not determined to have the upper hand. Modern heroines are often rebellious, strong, and defiant, but not all books need a “modern” heroine. And not all women are strong, rebellious, or defiant. Some, like this nameless heroine, are meek and compliant. And that’s fine. They should no more conform to boldness than the bold should stay silent. There’s room for both in life and literature.
If the heroine did not start out meek, she could not find her strength—a fierce protectiveness, calm, and resolve when the crisis arises. She stands by her man to the end. And regardless of what the reader thinks about her choices, she is unapologetic in them. She suits the story. It would not be the same without her.
Let us have real women in our stories—bold and timid, soft and strong, cynical and romantic, fearless and afraid, all unapologetic in who they are—just like the heroine of Rebecca.