To Tie Firmly

Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Rebecca (Ben Wheatley, 2020)

It may be, of course, that I read Rebecca years and years ago — I know I started it and I studied the opening paragraph, the dream of the Manderley mansion from years later, but I’m not sure I got much further. And when I bought two Du Maurier boxsets, I don’t think Rebecca was part of them. It took me a while to track down a copy — although naturally I found several since, as a battered paperback 1992 reprint got more battered as it got carried around.

The conceit should be familiar: lady’s companion Rebecca meets aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo and the two have a whirlwind romance, before returning to the ancestral pad in … where we take to be Cornwall but it isn’t named in the book. The new bride finds life at Manderley difficult and the ghost of the dead Rebecca hangs over her, especially through the behaviour of housekeeper Mrs Danvers. A ball would be useful, perhaps, but Mrs Danvers persuades her to wear the same costume as Rebecca had and then it seems as if a wedge has been driven between the loving couple. Then a body is discovered in a sunken boat…

Du Maurier’s narrative is sophisticated, but poses a couple of problems for the pedantic reader. We don’t know the name of … the second Mrs de Winter — just as we don’t have a name of Frankenstein’s creature — although we are told it is an unusual name. Rebecca even usurps her as the name of the novel. She is the only child of now dead parents and there seem to be no other living relatives, so there is no family rescue her or to give her identity beyind her husband. Rebecca as ghost is made explicit in the novel in a speech by Mrs Danvers and the story is told in retrospect, some years later, but when do the events happen, exactly? We also get Mrs de Winter imagining events that are going to happen from the point in the past, although after that first chapter we don’t really get events later than the narration.

We have a maximum age for Maxim and it seems as if the new wife is around 18, so if years have past we have to think about the First World War. The single mention of maroons — rockets used as signals during the First World War when she was young — perhaps pushes the narrative back to 1930 and Maxim would certainly have been old enough to fight in the war, but it’s not mentioned. Nor do any of the other characters. Maxim has killed before, so perhaps this is it. (Francis Thompson’s 1893 “The Hound of Heaven” gives a cut off point, as do phones and cars.)

For that matter, I’m not convinced Cornwall is a four or five hour drive from London, despite several characters doing it. It’s the best part of five hours to Barnet from Fowey, Du Maurier’s home, even with motorways. Of course, it doesn’t matter, but it is testament to Dy Maurier’s skill that it doesn’t feel like it matters. (There’s a town with a Roman name nearby, which seems unlikely.)

The novel is also haunted by the Bluebeard fairy tale and that adds to the sense that Maxim is a bit of a shit — Mrs Danvers would have tried her shenanigans anyhow, but Maxim could have said rather more about his first wife to his second to put her at his ease. But he sees the husband as patriarchal and clearly needs an heir. There are plenty of locked and lockable rooms, and young wives being left alone.

It’s easy to forget that Rebecca was a recent bestseller when David O. Selznick assigned it to his new hot British property, Alfred Hitchcock — who had already adapted Jamaica InnRebecca is as faithful to the source as The Birds isn’t to the named source, but he didn’t have as much power in the script. We get the opening paragraphs, signalling literary adapations and a burnt out Manderlay, but there’s a new first meeting of Maxim and his wife to be — presumably filmed at Big Sur rather than in Cornwall. Various scenes are cut or relocated — the confession seen is no longer in the house on the beach, there’s no meeting with Maxim’s mother, the encounter with Jack Favell are relocated and (spoiler!) Mrs Danvers is killed. The ball and the wreck come closer together and a sequence of watching a home movie of the wedding and honeymoon is added. The major difference is that Rebecca committed suicide — and we don’t have a sense of the couple after the crisis.

Would it be wrong to say it’s largely an improvement? Nothing really is lost. Later Hitchcock would have kept Maxim’s guilt and he might have pushed for the lesbianism as he has his killer gays.

Laurence Olivier does solid work as Maxim and so does Jane Fontaine — although the possibility of having Vivian Leigh in the lead role would perhaps had allowed for a less stable second wife. George Sanders is a hissable cad — blackly comic — whilst Nigel Bruce brings the comic timing of his Doctor Watson. There are Hitchcockian flourishes and it is in glorious black and white.

There must have been telly versions, but for reasons that escape everyone Ben Wheatley was given shitloads of money to remake it, with Armie Hammer and Lily James dependable enough actors out of their depths in what is now a fetishized period piece. It feels as if they worked from the same treatment, but it feels longer than the Hitchcock version (which it isn’t). They keep the death of Mrs Danvers and restore the lesbianism. I have to say I felt the pain when we get all the going to London to find a doctor business. The one saving grace of the film is Kristin Scott Thomas turns is a gothic villain worthy of Judith Anderson’s version under Hitchcock.

Wheatley is one of the names in the mix  for the British Folk Horror revival and I did like Kill List but bounced off A Field in England, and was not a fan of Free Fall. (I have yet to see High-Rise.) I guess some of the excess makes it into the film with some odd stuff at the ball and Rebecca’s bedroom, but it doesn’t fit the story. 

Look at all the shiny vintage cars!

I guess it’s a calling card, but In the Earth has clearly sunk without trace.

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