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Jealousy In Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca

A screen shot Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson as the heroine and Mrs Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of Rebecca

Screen shot from Rebecca, copyright © 1940 Selznick International Pictures.

Personally I’m of the opinion Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is about identity however, as you may know, the author herself said that her book was a study in jealousy. It’s been said the work was influenced by the author’s jealousy of her husband’s first fiancée, Jan Ricardo – was he still attracted to her? – although Du Maurier herself said that whilst it was about jealousy, “it’s origins in her own life [were] few”1. The same source goes on to say that she had been toying with the theme for five years prior to writing. I find the apparent conflicts – between her marriage being inspiration or not – and the link to Jane Eyre, fascinating.

To me, and to many others if the plethora of articles on Du Maurier’s book are considered, jealousy is a less obvious subject. As a reader it does not loom as large when you’re watching a quiet woman living her life as a shadow (as much as that shadow suggests the possibility for jealousy) and the emphasis seems to be on finding that sense of self together with a way out of Mrs Danvers’ control and gaining Max’s love.

I wonder if perhaps the subtlety of the jealousy, as much as I presume the author might consider us all idiots for not seeing the book as she did, is part of the point. Jealousy can be sly, crafty, and if we become meta and take a page from Rebecca’s book, being crafty is something to uphold.

Was Du Maurier, in saying her book was about jealousy, being excessively open with us for effect? Did her own jealousy, that jealousy she reportedly based her book on, become enough that she wanted to set the record straight? Certainly Jan Ricardo’s suicide, which happened after publication, tied the author in knots – she wondered if her book had caused it2.

Let’s work with jealousy, then, and look at the story.

We can assume the heroine is jealous of Rebecca. Our heroine has difficulties getting Max to take notice of her and would be forgiven for thinking he adored Rebecca and simply loves or likes her, the heroine, less. ‘Perhaps he was more passionate then,’ she might think, ‘and the death affected him in a big way. It was a sudden proposal, after all.’

Our heroine sees all that went before her in the way the house is run. The rooms remain as Rebecca left them and Mrs Danvers persuades her to leave them as they are; Mrs Danvers tells the heroine every detail – how Rebecca structured her day, what her menus were – with the hint that, as the new wife, the heroine should leave everything the way it is. And as she’s not a strong person, the heroine complies, coming to live in Rebecca’s shadow. Anyone would be forgiven for feeling upset about that. The first source I used in this post says “The suspicion that [Frederick Browning, Du Maurier’s husband] remained attracted to Ricardo haunted Daphne”. Of course Du Maurier may not have said as such herself, in words, but we can suggest she shows her feelings through her heroine, who is haunted in the same manner. Rebecca’s past presence is always there just as, if the quote is true, Jan was for Du Maurier.

To the heroine, until that revelatory scene in the boat house wherein she discovers that Max never loved Rebecca but does love her – and gains a bit of a spine due to it, she no longer needs to feel jealous (was Du Maurier hoping for a grand gesture from her husband?) – Rebecca is the Other Woman.

Interestingly the heroine is the other woman herself – to Mrs Danvers. Could we attribute a sort of jealousy to Mrs Danvers’ actions? Perhaps a jealousy by proxy – if Rebecca can’t live at Manderley then no one will, those fires say. Mrs Danvers is always there in the background.

Lastly, and most obviously, we have Rebecca’s handwriting. In the book the author notes: “The name Rebecca stood out black and strong, the tall and sloping R dwarfing the other letters.” Kit Browning, Du Maurier’s son, noted in an interview that in the correspondence his mother had found between Jan and Frederick, the woman had signed her name “with this wonderful great R”3, flourishing his hand in the air to demonstrate the look of it.

I think we can consider bad feelings there for Jan Ricardo. No matter what the relationship between Jan and Frederick was really like, it could be said Du Maurier manipulated things to suit her purpose, at the very least she took her own feelings and melded them into a book.

It is in considering the author’s interest in Charlotte Brontë’s book and the influence it had on her own novel that we can add more to our theme work. We know Jane Eyre is in part about jealousy – I’ve said so myself – and we’ve extra evidence in the existence of Du Maurier’s biography of Branwell Brontë. She liked that Victorian family. Charlotte Brontë’s novel comes to a head when Mr Rochester commences a rushed wedding ceremony and Jane finds out the reason, after their nuptials are promptly cancelled by a stranger, is because he already has a wife. It’s not a stretch to align this with Max’s hurried proposal and marriage to the heroine and his status as a man on borrowed time.

Du Maurier was not faithful to her husband, nor he to her, but we can assume she respected him somewhat. She was angry when a film adaptation of an event he was part of portrayed him badly4. It’s that supposed loyalty despite problems that we see in our nameless heroine.

As for the father-daughter atmosphere in the book? Du Maurier said her work was based on her memories of Menabilly and Cornwall and her relationship with her father5. We could perhaps suggest jealousy there, too, though she has been described as her father’s favourite6.

I think with jealousy it’s a case of best intentions; there’s a disconnect, a difference, between what the author wanted to say and what she ends up saying more of instead. Still, it’s there and it’s endlessly interesting.


1 How Daphne Du Maurier Wrote Rebecca
2 Daphne: The Truth Behind The Story
3 Daphne Du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Was A Study In Jealousy
4 Daphne Du Maurier’s page on Wikipedia
5 Bull’s Eye For Bovarys (This article’s behind a pay wall, I found the reference on another site.)
6 The Original Gone Girl: On Daphne Du Maurier And Her Rebecca



March 28, 2016, 12:04 pm

I think, like you, the theme of identity was the strongest for me; especially as we never know the new Mrs DeWinter’s first name. Although there certainly is elements of jealousy as well. I suppose every reader, as individuals, will focus on different things.

p.s. I am loving the picture too, as I simply adore the Hitchcock film!

April Munday

March 28, 2016, 3:25 pm

It’s been years (probably decades) since I last read Rebecca and now I want to read it again to see what I think about the jealousy point. I think Mrs Danvers might have been insanely jealous in the true sense. Until now I’ve never thought about Mr Danvers. Was there one or did the ‘Mrs’ come with the job? I think the latter.


April 4, 2016, 11:31 am

Jessica: Yes, the name ‘problem’ is such a defining thing, it does kind of take over somewhat. You’re right – there are likely lots of readers who would say identity isn’t very important! Agreed – the film’s awesome.

April: I’m thinking of doing just that – I remember enough to see the jealousy in it in hindsight but reading the whole thing with that in mind would be an experience. I agree, I think the Mrs came with the job because you’d think with her importance, even if she’s technically a supporting character, we’d hear something about him.



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