I don’t remember the first time I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, but I feel in love with it as a teenager. I read the novel, then saw every other available adaptation. Mrs. Danvers, the serene housekeeper that slowly undermines the psyche of the nameless heroine, stands out in my memory as one of literature’s great female villains. Or is she?
Mrs. Danvers has a point. (Spoilers.) The secretive and sinister older woman resents her lively young mistress being replaced by a pale imitation. Rebecca had beauty; the heroine does not. She had style; the heroine does not. She had force, presence, passion, and power, all things the mousy second Mrs. de Winter lacks. Midway through the book, they find Rebecca’s sunken boat after a storm with her body in it. Mrs. Danvers, with Rebecca’s first cousin (and lover) Jack, suspects her murdered… which she was. Maxim killed her in a fit of rage, then sunk her boat to make it seem like an accident. Though he evades the law, thanks to the help of his new wife, Mrs. Danvers has the last laugh. She burns down his famous, picture-postcard-perfect house, Manderlay, and leaves town, never to be seen again.
The narrative asks us to root for Maxim and his wife. We want them to succeed, for their love to endure… but let’s think about this for a moment. See it from Mrs. Danvers’ perspective. In another story, she would be the lonely housekeeper mourning the woman she loved. Rebecca’s murderer comes back to the house with a pallid mouse of a wife, a daily insult and reminder to Rebecca’s absence. Then, he gets away with his nefarious crime! Why not burn down the house? If the law won’t help you, take matters into your own hands!
Mrs. Danvers is iconic, no matter which version you watch. While the book places much of the emphasis on Rebecca overshadowing its intentionally nameless heroine (to diminish her in our senses), Mrs. Danvers also overshadows her. She’s the icy fortress against which the new Mrs. de Winters feels battered. She’s so cowed by her, after she breaks an expensive figurine in her own office, she hides the pieces rather than admit to what happened.
Pondering Mrs. Danvers, I thought about what drives female villains. What do they have in common? They are the evil stepmother or a spinster. Different shades of different fears, dating back to the middle ages. It’s the latter kind I want to talk about. Throughout history, the “normal” thing to do has been to get married, produce children, be under your husband’s influence. Stories about witches make them single. They prey on children, in a symbolic reversal of the “woman’s role.” There’s an implied bitterness to spinsterhood, both in the implication that no man wanted them (rather than it being their choice) and in fears about women having their own agency. In a patriarchal society, men didn’t want independent women, particularly those with money, so they discouraged it by painting the ones who dared defy cultural norms as witches. Over time, this became not a literal witch like in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but an evil, conniving spinster of some sort—like a housekeeper. Thus, we have Mrs. Danvers, an ironic representation of a symbolic trope, a woman who, by choice, sexuality, or happenstance, remains single in her later years. (A housekeeper went under the title of “Mrs.”; they need not be a widow or married.)
Mrs. Danvers is a terrific villain. She has truly nefarious aims. She deliberately attempts to wreck Maxim’s marriage through convincing his wife to dress up and emulate Rebecca’s last party frock. Plants sinister ideas in her head, by showing off all of Rebecca’s beautiful things, just to intimidate her and make her feel small. And even suggests, in a roundabout way, it wouldn’t be so hard to commit suicide by flinging oneself out of an upstairs window.
A filmmaker’s impression of Mrs. Danvers heavily influences how the script and the actress treat her. Hitchcock coded her as queer, a sexually frustrated woman obsessed with a dead non-lover, by emphasizing how much Rebecca mocked her dead male lovers. She “cared about none of them!” Our last scene finds Mrs. Danvers having set the house on fire, wandering through Rebecca’s flaming room with a terrified look on her face, before the ceiling collapses on her. That version also changed Maxim to innocent, to abide by the Code at the time (no murder can escape without punishment for his crimes; thus, Mrs. Danvers also must die). It also softens Maxim, downplaying his nefarious temper and bringing out more of his romantic traits.
A miniseries version in the 90s gives us a more emotional and sympathetic Mrs. Danvers, reduced to tears through the loss of her beloved Rebecca. She comes across as a bereaved woman mourning a lost lover. There’s no subtlety or ambiguity about it. It doesn’t shy away from Maxim’s bluntness, unlikable nature, or terrible temper, either; Charles Dance brings it to the forefront as arguably the most consistent Maxim with the book. Though, it changes the nature of the murder, making it more visceral and violent than in the novel, which makes him getting away with it even more squeamish for the audience.
The most recent version stars Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. She blows all previous versions of the villain away for me. The script makes her much more manipulative in how she plays the new Mrs. de Winter. Distraught by the problems between them, her new mistress approaches her and asks to become her friend; Mrs. Danvers agrees. A montage shows them doing things together, laughing together, talking to each other… which makes the eventual discovery of her deliberate sabotage to ruin Mrs. de Winter’s ball even more heinous. It dives into the loneliness a housekeeper suffers. She has no friends, since she’s not allowed to eat with the staff (being higher than them) or the family (being a servant). As she points out, if she’s turned out of the house, at her age, she has nowhere to go. She has no family, and no friends except for Jack. Which makes her decision to commit suicide even more powerful. It was such an unexpected departure from the novel it took my breath away. She and Mrs. de Winter share a moment on the cliff beside the sea, before she jumps.
I don’t know why I love that so much, but I do. Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance elevates an otherwise average adaptation into something truly special, by showing us the torn-up woman behind the serene malicious force in the house. She even turns up in the new Mrs. de Winter’s dreams. Before her performance, I considered Mrs. Danvers an interesting literary villain… but I’d never fallen in love with her as a villain before, enough to want to save her. She got what she wanted. Revenge, and to end her life on her own terms, since she had no one to live for anymore. Which is more than a lot of villains.