The Mousy Heroine

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.

15 thoughts on “The Mousy Heroine

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  1. This is one of those books that I’ve determined I don’t ever want to read, because I know I won’t like it. 😉

    Regarding your larger point, though: I totally agree that a variety of realistic female characters is a far greater good than having our female characters fit a single mold of the current culture’s Female Role Model. I don’t want ALL the women to be mousy [the old model] but I also don’t want them ALL to be bold and assertive 24/7 [the new model]. That’s boring. That doesn’t match my real-life experiences, where women come in a huge array of different types.

    1. I knew you wouldn’t like this book because you feel the same way about “Jane Eyre.”

      Writers seem to struggle with female characters. Some stories and scripts do the feminist for her time well but… adding in feminism where there was none in an original story is tricky and does not always work. So I’m hoping the new script does not make that mistake.

      1. That’s exactly it! They’re in the same category, in my mind.

        I hope not, too! Wouldn’t you have to change this particular story REALLY RADICALLY to make it truly feminist? Because that’s not at all the point of the original? And if you’re gonna do that . . . why not just write your own story? More respectful, and probably more effective in the long run at conveying the point you want to convey.

        1. I realize dishonesty is a big thing for you (and why you wouldn’t like Edward or Maxim) but… I would think you would like Jane Eyre because she values her moral integrity over her baser passions. Even though she burns with love for Edward, she’s willing to leave him rather than betray her sense of integrity and her faith through an adulterous / immoral relationship.

          You could arguably make this heroine a bit more independent without hurting the narrative too much, but the entire point of the story is that she only finds her own when external forces threaten her husband. I’m also hoping they don’t sex it up, as they seem to do with a lot of the modern remakes. 😛

          1. Yeppers. Dishonesty is huge for me; probably at least partly because I’m already kinda mistrustful by nature . . . so when people [real or fictional] validate my mistrust by being dishonest, I get Angry.

            *muses* I think I would have a really hard time getting past the fact that she HAS all those burning feelings for Edward in the first place, though? It’s difficult for me to understand passion just on a basic level, and if it’s directed at somebody I don’t like, even more so.

            Sheesh, I hope not. 😛

          2. I guess that’s never bothered me. I kind of like the Beauty and the Beast trope — a pure and good woman being a man’s redemption, even though it’s not realistic and doesn’t happen in real life. That was a big thing in the middle ages in particular — the idea of women as higher than the base men; that men strive to be worthy of them. And I think that’s what’s the undercurrent of Jane Eyre — a religious vs. passion thing.

            I get it. I even… am attracted to it. I may not have the sx social variant, but some stories make sense when you build it around them. Jane and Edward are one of those couples that just… fit. They are “one soul.” Even if he is a jerk. 😉

          3. I think I’m just basically incapable of separating it from real life . . . ?

            Well, that, or I just don’t believe purity exists, even in MYSELF, and what little I have is so hard-won that I ain’t sharing it with any guy. But, no, there I go again, intrinsically linking it to my own life!!! Okay, that’s the answer, then. I can’t accept the trope in fiction because the idea of it scares me too much in real life. I’m glad to have that answer settled.

            Okay, I’ll take your word for it. 😉

          4. I’m very aware of separating fantasy from reality, and indulgent of things in fantasy I’d never tolerate in real life. Which is good, because if I wasn’t able to differentiate, I might wind up in all kinds of trouble — what with my penchant for villains and anti-heroes. 😉

          5. I almost wonder if this is an Si thing??? I could be totally wrong here, but I see a pattern of my Si friends being able to do it and me being almost totally NOT able to.

            Thank goodness for that 😉 😉

  2. BRAVO.

    I agree — this is not a “good” book, but I love it anyway.

    Lily James did very well as sweet and kind and naive in Cinderella. I’m more worried about Armie Hammer finding enough broodfulness to be Maxim, cuz I love Armie, but he’s awfully happy and bright.

    1. Yeah, I’m not sold on them casting Armie Hammer either. I don’t think he fits the role… but maybe he will prove us wrong and show us some acting chops he hasn’t shown us before?

      1. Don’t get me wrong — I’m very much an Armie fan. I think he has better chops that a lot of people give him credit for — it’s hard to get past that pretty face. But I’ve never seen him go dark, not even as the troubled Illya in Man from U.N.C.L.E.. So I’m having trouble envisioning it. But possibly I just haven’t watched the right Armie movies. I mean, I haven’t seen Nocturnal Animals or Birth of a Nation, which I suspect he might be darker in than in The Lone Ranger or Mirror Mirror, heh.

        Then again, Maxim is more troubled than dark in a lot of ways, so maybe it will work beautifully, and I’ll want to rescue Maxim more than ever.

        1. You’ve hit on exactly why I can’t entirely buy Armie as Maxim — he looks too pretty… like a Ken Doll. But hey, I have no trouble accepting a handsome Maxim as long as he plays it well. 😉

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