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Mentored by Her Nemesis: The Second Mrs. de Winter
Jennifer Taylor


As she comments on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Virginia Woolf remarks that the relationship between the rival women in the play is rather flat. She observes, “Cleopatra’s only feeling about Olivia is one of jealousy” (1024). However, Woolf hints that women’s relationships here have been impoverished. After all, she hypothesizes, “how interesting if the relationship between the two women had been more complicated” (1024). In Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier analyzes the relationship between two rivals as fully as Woolf dreamed of it being done. She presents not only rivalry, but also a dynamic, creative relationship between women that goes beyond stereotypical jealousy and competition. The title character is a ghost who exists only in the psychological turmoil of the second Mrs. De Winter’s imagination. However, though their relationship is antagonistic, each has a part in creating the other. In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the relationship of Rebecca de Winter to her successor reveals the astonishing positive influence of a negative mentor.

It is clear that Rebecca has a negative influence over the second Mrs. de Winter. First, Rebecca’s presence in the house begins to stifle her successor. Before her arrival at Manderley, Mrs. de Winter is able to imagine being the mistress of her own great house, doing all the things that Rebecca did. She had imagined that she “would be Mrs. de Winter. . . .[She] heard [herself] talking on the telephone ‘Why not come down to Manderley next week-end?’ . . . . [She] saw the polished table in the dining room, and the long candles. Maxim sitting at the end. A party of twenty four” (49-50). However, once at Manderley, Rebecca’s presence is everywhere, kept alive by Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper. For instance, household management is run according to Rebecca’s routine, the Morning Room is kept just as Rebecca arranged it, and the bedroom in the West Wing is a shrine, preserved just the same as the night Rebecca slept in it for the last time. Confronted by so powerful a presence, the second Mrs. de Winter cowers. She dares not alter the routine of the house. She says to Mrs. Danvers, “You must just run things as they have always been run, I shan’t want to make any changes” (68).

In addition, everything Mrs. de Winter sees and hears confirms in her mind Rebecca’s inimitable perfection and her own flaws. For example, in the Morning Room, Mrs. de Winter confronts physical evidence of Rebecca’s intelligence and beauty. When she sees Rebecca’s writing desk, she observes, “This . . . was no pretty toy where a woman would scribble little notes, nibbling the end of a pen, leaving it, day after day, in carelessness, the blotter a little askew. The pigeon-holes were docketed, ‘letters-unanswered,’ ‘letters to keep,’ ‘household,’ ‘estate,’ ‘menus,’ ‘miscellaneous,’ ‘addresses’ each ticket written in that same scrawling pointed hand that I knew already” (78). The new Mrs. de Winter criticizes herself when sitting here (“She who had sat here before me had not wasted her time, as I was doing” [78]). However, with all its efficiency, the room is yet expressive of a powerful feminine charm. Everything is “graceful, fragile, the room of someone who had chosen every particle of furniture with great care, so that each . . . infinitesimal thing should be in harmony with one another, and with her own personality.” The result is “perfection in a strange and startling way. . . . [The room is] vividly alive” (77). In this incident, the perfection of Rebecca’s taste intimidates Mrs. de Winter, and the room’s vitality underscores Mrs. de Winter’s growing feeling that she is an intruder, and that Rebecca is still the mistress of the house.

Mrs. de Winter continues to encounter Rebecca through the neighbors and the staff. The Bishop’s wife reveals Rebecca’s talent for entertaining, saying, “everything always so beautifully done. . . . Of course, she was so clever” (115). Frank, a close friend, admits that Rebecca was “the most beautiful creature [he] ever saw in his life” (125). And in some of the most damaging encounters with the past, Mrs. Danvers vividly describes Rebecca as she was in life, with her dazzling personality and unmatchable beauty. Mrs. Danvers remembers,

“She was lovely then. . . . She had all the knowledge then of a grown person, she’d enter into conversation with men and women as clever and full of tricks as someone of eighteen” (228). . . . “Spirit, you couldn’t beat my lady for spirit. She drove a four-in-hand on her fourteenth birthday . . . [and] she cracked her whip over her cousin’s head” (227-28). “She had a beautiful figure. These are her slippers. . . . They are quite small and narrow, aren’t they?” . . . “You never would have thought she was so tall, would you?” . . . She was every bit as tall as me. But lying there in bed she looked quite a slip of a thing, with her mass of dark hair, standing out from her face like a halo.” (156)

These descriptions of Rebecca make Mrs. de Winter feel second-class, ugly, and gauche. Having been exposed to Rebecca’s taste, intelligence, talent, and beauty, she begins to redefine femininity according to Rebecca’s character. Now, “grace, beauty, intelligence wit . . . [are] the qualities that mean most in a woman” (123), and she doesn’t have them.

Eventually, Rebecca becomes such a powerful nemesis to Mrs. de Winter that she is nearly paralyzed with inhibitions. She cannot perform the simplest actions without feeling that Rebecca is watching her invade. For instance, she reports, “[In the library] I shivered. . . . I was sitting in Rebecca’s chair, I was leaning against Rebecca’s cushion, and the dog had come to me and laid his head upon my knee because that had been his custom, and he remembered in the past, she had given sugar to him there” (72).In fact, she feels so overshadowed by her predecessor that after a while she hardly feels human. She distances herself from her husband and describes herself like the spaniel, Jasper, begging Maxim for affection. Eventually, her inhibitions become so strong that external realities become subordinate to the realities of her inner life, and she nearly goes mad. She writes, “Rebecca, always Rebecca. Wherever I walked in Manderley, wherever I sat, even in my thoughts and in my dreams, I met Rebecca” (218). Rebecca, though a phantom of Mrs. de Winter’s imagination, is a living presence to her. She begins to feel that “[Rebecca is] the real Mrs. de Winter . . . [and that she] is the shadow and the ghost” (230).

However, though initially marked by fear and jealousy, the relationship between the two Mrs. de Winters turns out to be a highly constructive one. In fact, it is prescient of Helene Cixous’ idea that “there always remains in woman that force which produces/is produced by the other—in particular, the other woman. . . . There is hidden and always ready in woman the source, the locus for the other” (2045). Though a minor point, it is interesting to note that in this case, the relationship literally creates Rebecca. Rebecca the woman has already died when the story begins. Readers know of her existence only through the second Mrs. de Winter, who is the locus for the first. Through the second wife’s perception, Rebecca revives, lives, breathes, dies, and is finally buried, all within the readers’ experience.

Further, the exercise of struggling against Rebecca transforms the second Mrs. de Winter in a positive manner. After all, finding out about Rebecca ultimately helps Mrs. de Winter to fully know herself, both the good and the bad. While it is clear that Rebecca’s perfections help the second Mrs. de Winter to be acutely aware of her own limitations, it is also true that knowing her limitations is only Mrs. de Winter’s first step towards adult maturity. Once she is intimately acquainted with her own faults through Rebecca’s strengths, she is free to know and appreciate her own strengths when she discovers Rebecca’s weaknesses. The turning point is Maxim’s confession that for all of her beauty and talent, Rebecca was a monster. Max exclaims, “You thought I loved Rebecca? . . . She was vicious, damnable, rotten through and through. We never loved each other, never had one moment of happiness together. Rebecca was incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency. She was not even normal” (254). He proceeds to describe how in one last ugly joke, Rebecca had induced him to kill her by claiming to be pregnant with an illegitimate child which she could successfully pawn off as Maxim’s own. When Maxim describes Rebecca, Mrs. de Winter experiences an epiphany. She writes, “The jig-saw pieces came together piece by piece, and the real Rebecca took shape and form before me, stepping from her shadow world like a living figure from a picture frame” (154). When the reality that Rebecca was evil and vicious, and even more importantly, that Max never loved Rebecca, sinks in, the spell is broken, and Rebecca as she has known her is dead. In her place exists a new, vastly inferior creature, and suddenly, Mrs. de Winter herself begins to live.

When Mrs. de Winter thoroughly knows her rival, she is finally capable of being the confident mistress of the house. First, she walks into the Morning Room and rings for the under-housemaid, Maud. “This room has not been touched this morning,” she says, “Even the windows were shut. And the flowers are dead. Will you please take them away” (271). Next, she glances over the menu of cold leftovers from the ball, and for the first time, feels capable of giving orders to Rebecca’s formidable housekeeper. “Tell Mrs. Danvers to order something hot,” she says, “If there’s still a lot of cold stuff to finish we don’t want it in the dining-room” (271).She also begins to feel as if Manderley is her own home. In the afternoon, she goes to cut flowers. She spends an hour or so making an arrangement in a vase she has chosen herself.

In addition, with Rebecca’s “second death,” Mrs. de Winter is finally able to forget herself. When Rebecca’s body is found in the ship, she begins to think for Maxim. In order to protect him, she thinks ahead for him about the inquest, saying, “You must say that body in the crypt was a mistake, a ghastly mistake. You must say that when you went to Edgecoombe you were ill, you did not know what you were doing” (266). She takes charge of the telephone calls from the newspapers and she prevents Maxim’s sister from motoring down to disturb them. This confidence is all the more remarkable since Mrs. de Winter displays it in the face of catastrophe. Rebecca’s body has been found, her husband faces charges of murder, and to make matters worse, he has confessed to her that he is utterly guilty. In the face of these shattering events, Mrs. de Winter’s astonishing and uncharacteristic presence of mind can only be understood as the influence of her negative mentor. When she fully knows her rival the real pressure is gone, and she is no longer self-conscious. Instinctively, she knows exactly what to do.

Finally, once Mrs. de Winter knows Rebecca both inside and out, she is absolutely certain of her own identity. Throughout most of the book, the second Mrs. de Winter is not named, which seems to underscore the dominance and seeming triumph of Rebecca. However, since Rebecca ultimately fails to destroy her rival, this interpretation is not complete. A better conclusion is that the second Mrs. de Winter’s first name is irrelevant to the person she becomes. She is raw material that develops throughout the novel according to her relationships with different women, especially Rebecca, into the mature Mrs. de Winter. Just as a child is not named until he or she is fully formed, so the second Mrs. de Winter does not assume that name until the events of the novel have ended and she has come out in a different shape. Perhaps the most significant incident in Mrs. de Winter’s transformation is her final confrontation with Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers complains when Mrs. de Winter sends a message to her about the menu through Robert. She says, “I’m not used to having messages sent to me by Robert. . . . If Mrs. de Winter [i.e. Rebecca] wanted anything changed she would ring me personally on the house telephone.” Previously, the second Mrs. de Winter would have cowered and apologized. However, this time she is in complete control. Undaunted, the new mistress of the house introduces herself for the first time by name. She retorts, “I’m afraid it does not concern me very much what Mrs. de Winter used to do. . . . I am Mrs. de Winter now” (272).

Rebecca chronicles the creative force exerted by two rival women on each other. The second Mrs. de Winter creates a memorable woman with her careful memoirs, and Rebecca’s influence on her successor molds the second Mrs. de Winter into the mistress of Manderley and a literary artist par excellence. Significantly, Mrs. de Winter’s eventual triumph is complete when she communicates her story through writing. Only through the novel does she, like Rebecca, have an identity. Cixous writes, “By writing [herself], woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has turned into the uncanny stranger on display—the ailing or dead figure, which so often turns out to be the nasty companion, the cause and location of inhibitions” (2043). Mrs. de Winter has accomplished this “return” by writing her story, and thus reclaiming herself. Through reading Mrs. de Winter’s struggle all women can find hope of deliverance from an oppressive female influence. And because Mrs. de Winter’s nemesis, the ghostly Rebecca, is her muse, her first-person account has a psychological depth uncommon in traditional stories of female jealousy.



Works Cited

Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 2039-56.

Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. N.p.: n.p., 1941.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1021-29.

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