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Daphne Du Maurier’s Transformation of Jane Eyre in Rebecca

La Transformation de Jane Eyre dans Rebeccade Daphne Du Maurier
Bernadette Bertrandias
p. 22-31


Cet article examine la transformation, dans Rebecca, du mythos que constitue dans Jane Eyre, la triade Jane/Rochester et Bertha Mason. Si l’autre femme fait figure ici d’obstacle à l’aboutissement de la quête de bonheur et de réalisation de soi de l’héroïne, son élimination opportune rend celui-ci finalement possible. Dans Rebecca, en revanche, la figure fascinante et complexe de l’autre femme est riche d’ambivalence et suscite chez la jeune héroïne narratrice qui l’a remplacée un désir d’exploration, puis d’identification, aboutissant finalement à une appropriation qui lui livrera plein accès à la maîtrise de sa destinée tout comme à son autonomie de sujet écrivant.

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1Although the intertextual link between Rebecca and Jane Eyre has been patently obvious to many readers, no reference, either explicit or implicit, can be found in the later novel. Moreover, Daphne Du Maurier, who admired the Brontës’ works, never made, as far as we know, any mention of her intention to write a transformation of Charlotte’s novel. And yet, similarities are so striking that such a —no doubt— perceptive reader as Angela Carter was able to declare in Expletives Deleted that Rebecca “shamelessly reduplicates the plot of Charlotte Brontë’s novel”. In similar vein, Patsy Stoneman lists the following plot similarities:

The young heroine is like Jane Eyre in being an orphan, humble, shy and diffident, and her occupation, as companion to a rich lady, is similar in status to that of a Victorian governess. Max De Winter is like Rochester in being rich and independent, the owner of a country house, and in having an unhappy secret which makes him moody and inward looking. The two secrets are similar (first wives who were brilliant but immoral), and both have attempted to rid themselves of their wives by illegal means. In both cases, the country house becomes oppressive to its owner because of its association with the mad, bad wife. In spite of being haunted and oppressed, however, by the houses which contain evidence of disastrous first marriages, both Rochester and Max De Winter try to establish new, young wives in the same houses and under the same domestic rules. (Stoneman 99)

2Patsy Stoneman’s argument proceeds to demonstrate that the parallel between the two novels concerns the woman’s challenge to the patriarchal system embodied by the house, the heroine’s future depending in both cases upon the destruction of the big house. This reading, drawing its reference from Virginia Woolf’s claim that woman has to  “kill the Angel in the House” to gain access to her autonomy of being, is convincing enough as far as it throws light on the line of progress followed by the heroines of the two novels : it falls into logic, so to speak, that both Thornfield and Manderley should be destroyed by fire, for, if one takes one’s cue from Virginia Woolf’s argument in Three Guineas, it is fire indeed which is apt to destroy the system that “sends men to universities and keeps women in private houses”(42). And the result in both cases proves that expurgation has indeed been achieved since both heroines are in the end able to set up “companionate marriages”, outside the bounds of not only social conventions but also of the public sphere altogether, an ambiguousness which still problematizes the ending of the two plots and leads Patsy Stoneman to the final claim that “because the heroine in Rebecca has no public role, the structure of that novel repeats the Jane Eyre triangle as if nothing had changed in the meantime”(100-101).

  • 1  I am much indebted here to Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, in Daphne Du Maurier: Writing, Identity a (...)

3Now, our claim is precisely that, on the contrary, a change is inscribed at the very heart of the plot similarities, and that precisely, what Rebecca will not do, is repeat the Jane Eyre triangle, for its major problematic is indeed displaced from the hero/heroine relation in which the Other Woman acts the obstacle, however multifunctional and polysemic, to the heroine/Other Woman relation which in Rebecca occupies the whole stage with the hero noticeably fading into the background. It is therefore upon this question of the Other Woman that, to my mind, the main issue of the transformation rests1.

4In this respect, what Du Maurier has transferred from Jane Eyre,and rather convincingly adapted to her own vision and requirements, is the Gothic atmosphere characteristic of the Thornfield episode, with the isomorphism which it establishes between the setting, the house itself and its “secret”. In both cases, the reader feels he/she is in presence of a real “patriarchal” house all right, with a secret, in the sense of a hidden element in it, but also, at the same time, that its reality is questioned, dislocated by the sense that it is the house itself which is a mystery, that its very existence resorts to the irrational. This process begins with the geographical setting itself which in both cases remains vague; even though in Rebecca we suppose it to be Cornwall, no sense of location is ever given and no trace of the environing world either. Moreover, most significant as far as dislocation of the real is concerned is the initial approach to Manderley in chapter one, in the guise of a dream vision where the description of a sleeping house completely secluded and half buried in wild all-pervading vegetation is evocative of fairy tales (such as the castle of Sleeping Beauty). Parallels can drawn with Jane Eyre’s description, not of Thornfield, but of Ferndean Manor which is set in a somewhat similar environment, as if manifesting a common essence, that both are residual houses: they are, symbolically, what remains after the fire and offers itself to the heroine’s vision. The difference —a major one at that— is that one is set at the end of the novel, while the other is given at its very opening, as a pathway to the novel’s world. Much more than in Jane Eyre, the world of Manderley is presented as a dream world, with areas specifically related to legend and myth, such as the Happy Valley with its evocation of Tristan and Yseult who are discovered asleep in such a place named “a paradise for lovers”; this of course is constitutive of the spellbinding atmosphere of the romance, which is also present in the garden scene in Jane Eyre when Rochester makes his declaration. Yet, the mystery, in both cases goes deeper than this. Indeed, what Daphne Du Maurier has artfully captured from the Gothic atmosphere prevailing at Thornfield is that the original house (as opposed to the residual) is at one and the same time, for the young outsider who is introduced there, a dream-place and a nightmare one.

5On the one hand, both are, on the face of it, dream-places where fantasies, such as the poor orphan girl marrying the seductive rich landowner, can be acted out, and where, at a deeper level, desire can be gratified, be it desire for love or access to autonomy of the self. On the other hand, however, they derive their spellbinding force from the suggestion of horror which they contain. In both novels, the heroine’s acquaintance with the premises is soon accompanied by the sense of the presence of dark secrets concerning both the house and the Master. It has often been observed by critics that in the first stage of the Thornfield drama, Rochester with his mysterious and seemingly sulphurous past life shares some characteristics of the Gothic villain, as the vicious lecherous and greedy seducer of women; this same image is built by the narrator of Rebecca when Max De Winter intimates in Monte Carlo that he had wished to kill his wife. The reader can thereby realize that, like Jane Eyre, and beyond appearances, Rebecca is not so much a story of romantic love as one of initiation; its deeper issue also concerns the unveiling of a mystery, the mystery of the house and the mystery of the Master. Progress is sought in both cases by the innocent heroine who is driven by curiosity: what is it that Thornfield, Manderley and their respective owners hide with such intent and what is the secret of their lives?

6The passage from ignorance to knowledge which, in Jane Eyre, occupies the length of the Thornfield section, runs throughout the entire narrative in Rebecca. The same tropes referring to the dynamic of exploration are used again, as the heroine rambles along corridors and comes up against locked doors; similarly, and more powerfully, locked is the access to Rochester’s or Max De Winter’s minds. In a striking parallel, considering the time gap between the two novels, both men construct their beloved into a figure of innocence and purity in which they are determined to keep her enclosed. Let us however specify that such ideology is much more developed in Rebecca, where the narrator is deliberately kept in a childlike state than in Jane Eyre where Rochester’s attitude oscillates ambiguously between the construction of Jane as an “elf” or “doll”, or as a potential mistress: in either case, this will be resented by her as a desire to dehumanise her, a failure to accept her as an autonomous human being. So at bottom, the situations are identical, as far as both heroines are barred access to the knowledge of human experience to which the Masters only possess the key. Rebecca raises to explicitness what is only obliquely suggested and hinted at in Jane Eyre, that is the sexual nature of such knowledge. De Winter recurrently invokes the harmony of a father/daughter relationship to be preserved between them, by which he of course emphasizes his need to over-protect her and guard her against developing into an adult woman: for the ball, he would consider it fit for her to dress as Alice in Wonderland, for example. From the ambiguous figure of Rochester, it seems that Du Maurier has removed the whole sexually attractive force to keep only the plain patriarchal power which he tries to enforce upon Jane.

7We are now in a position to see why De Winter cannot play such a central part as Rochester, why the later novel moves away from the love romance pattern, why its main dynamic will be reoriented, more axially than that of Jane Eyre, towards the notion of discovery of the unknown, opening of the locks, and trespassing into forbidden ground. If the discovery of Rochester’s secret occupies one chapter, finding out what De Winter keeps secret from her concerns the entire story of the unnamed narrator in Rebecca. In other words, what Du Maurier has sensed as latent, yet forcefully suggestive, in Jane Eyre and has chosen to expand upon in her own vision, is what has come to be known as the Bluebeard myth, which Anne Williams, in Art of Darkness, describes as follows:

Bluebeard’s secret is the foundation upon which patriarchal control rests: control of the subversively curious female, personified in his wives […] Bluebeard forbids her the room in order to be sure that she will open the door, for the contents of the room represent patriarchy’s secret, founding ‘truth’ about the female: women as mortal, expendable matter/mater […] In Bluebeard, narrative techniques subtly side with Bluebeard, with the unquestioned reality of the male power that makes such murder possible, even sometimes necessary. (Williams 41-43)

8What is at stake here, and what is also at work in the two novels we are concerned with, is the harsh conflict between patriarchal law and what can be termed either “woman’s natural curiosity” or woman’s desire to fulfil herself as an autonomous being, depending upon the point of view. Of course, the difference is that our two novels, in different ways, rewrite the Bluebeard myth from the woman’s viewpoint. Then, the main question becomes how to satisfy one’s curiosity, that is desire, and reach autonomy and fulfilment, in other words how to escape the murder that is the inevitable lot of Bluebeard’s wives.

9At this point, comes in the figure —a necessary one— of the Other Woman. We shall not return here to the many interpretations that have been put forward ever since the publication of The Mad Woman in the Attic concerning the secret bonds connecting Jane to the dark Bertha, envisaged as the reservoir of everything that must be rejected from the heroine’s consciousness including her rage and rebellious impulse as much as her female sexuality. It is enough to remember the quality of Bertha as figuring both the obstacle that prevents the union with Rochester, and the acting out of Jane’s unavowed desires against such confinement as the patriarchal codes hold her in. She is everything that Jane cannot accept about herself as well as a monitory figure of the risks entailed by the unleashing of passion and instinct.

10This is nothing like the beautiful, flamboyant, eponymous figure of Du Maurier’s novel. And yet, again, we can assert that Rebecca is everything that the narrator is not: while the one is plain, socially awkward, timid and naïve, the other is superlatively beautiful, sophisticated, confident, well-liked and admired, and archly knowing. This latter quality is connected both with a capacity to control the lives of others as well as her own, and with an extremely active and diverse sexuality, as her affair with Jack Favell, along with her ambiguous, half-lesbian bond with Mrs Danvers, suggests. Sexually voracious and dominant, attractive and repulsive at the same time, Rebecca stands forth as a true avatar of the Fatal Woman. That she embodies the conjunction of Eros and Thanatos appears in her being also associated with the figure of the Vampire through her voracious sexual appetite again, her physical features —plentiful hair and pale face— and the fact that her death is not definitely acknowledged for a long time; metaphorically, in spite of different versions and various attempts, she is hard to kill indeed. This last aspect may be the one which most clearly points out the relation to Bertha who, likewise, by her physical aspect and blood sucking activity inspires in Jane the same identification. It would therefore appear that to Daphne Du Maurier the mad woman in Jane Eyre is an abject avatar of the same mythic figure of the Fatal Woman which she herself elaborates into a more complex figure of power. And the specific power with which Rebecca is endowed with in the eyes of her successor is precisely the one which Bertha Mason is completely deprived of, the power of writing.

11While Bertha can never be a source of terror, or even of anxiety when she is disclosed as a poor lunatic who can only howl and cry, Rebecca’s grip over the narrator’s mind becomes ever stronger as the latter comes across various samples of her handwriting, especially her most impressive signature which exudes a strong vitality, confidence and even aggressiveness, explicitly contrasted with the narrator’s own timid and immature script. A connexion is here implicitly suggested between Rebecca’s independent and transgressive sexuality and her handwriting; and therein lies her true force. For if she is physically absent from the eyes of the narrator, she is powerfully present through her handwriting; the secret of Rebecca’s force being in her capacity to transmit the energy of her mind and her body to that writing which represents her. Unlike Bertha, who loses her phantasmal power over Jane’s mind once she is disclosed as a mere physical presence, Rebecca not only maintains hers through remaining physically absent but magnifies it as, through the trace that she leaves, she is transmuted into a pure sign: the sign that contains her secret and that the narrator applies herself to discovering. Rebecca’s handwriting inscribes her presence at Manderley in spite of her absence through death, and this presence, indelible as it seems, becomes an uncanny one. Destroying it by fire, the narrator attempts to persuade herself that she has taken on some of her enemy’s strength; but she soon learns that in fact getting rid of the letter is not enough, for she has to gain access to the power that it signifies. And it will indeed be the narrator who, availing herself somehow of the same capacity, will undertake the writing of Rebecca’s story. And she will only be able to do this by deciphering the sign that Rebecca is.

12In this exploration, we already know that access is barred by Maxim who imposes upon her a vision of Rebecca as the negative pole in the patriarchal ideological construction where she, the narrator, is the positive pole: she is a child, Rebecca is a whore, she is an angel, Rebecca is a demon. In the Bluebeard myth, knowing about Rebecca is precisely what is forbidden to the young wife. But she will get assistance, on the other hand, from another quarter: if Max De Winter closes the doors, Mrs Danvers is the bearer of keys and she opens them. The character of Mrs Danvers as an efficient housekeeper can of course be related to that of Mrs Fairfax in Jane Eyre, but the resemblance stops here: for it would seem rather that Du Maurier here radically subverts the Mrs Fairfax type of faithful and obedient servant of the patriarchal law – Mrs Fairfax never betrays her Master’s secret and sees to it that the doors are kept locked. Mrs Danvers, on the contrary, functions as a very different type of mediator: not only does she connect, like Mrs Fairfax, the downstairs and upstairs worlds in the house, but she also opens the door for the dead transgressive Rebecca to make herself still present in it. It is indeed she who brings Rebecca to life for the narrator, constantly referring to the “real Mrs De Winter”, and, by her perfidious suggestion of a fancy dress for the ball, she “recreates Rebecca at her moment of triumph”. It is through her action that the narrator is drawn into an identification of herself with Rebecca ― she is even almost seduced into committing suicide. By constantly tempting her to meet the challenge of an apparently impossible identification, Mrs Danvers plays an ambivalent role, for she brings the narrator to the very threshold of the forbidden room, which she must cross in order to avail herself of Rebecca’s strength, or, in the terms of the Bluebeard myth, to reach knowledge. The underlying message therefore would be that, in opening access to Rebecca, it is Mrs Danvers, much more than the revelation of the circumstances of her death, who moves the narrator on from her state of naivety. The woman Mrs Danvers reveals is nothing like the one presented by Max De Winter. She is far removed from the angel/demon polarity as well. The Rebecca presented by Mrs Danvers is a complex amalgam of attributes which, above all, transgress gender boundaries: on the one hand, a beautiful, sensual woman enjoying fine clothes, she also displays masculine courage and spirit, to the extent that “she ought to have been a boy”, and her sexuality is, as already hinted at, diverse and ambivalent. So, through Mrs Danvers, the narrator gains access to the clue of Rebecca’s strength as she finds it inscribed in the handwriting: it amounts to a rejection of the social and cultural one-dimensional definition of femininity and the assertion of a multifaceted, complex and independent personality.

13Once she has discovered this, the narrator will be able to cross the threshold and absorb some of those qualities, as the opening of the novel shows. The start of her narrative is also a counterpoint to the end of the story, for the novel has two endings, so to speak: one is closed, and the other open, and here we are back to the parallel with Jane Eyre. On the one hand, the novel actually closes upon Manderley being set on fire, which is a direct echo, although, of course, the fire is not lit by the Other Woman herself, but by her alter ego, Mrs Danvers. We can read here the revenge motif through the destruction of the patriarchal house; and as in Jane Eyre, the revenge may be attributed, either to the Other Woman or to the heroine on behalf of whom she acts, or both. This closure signifies liberation from constraint, finally getting away from Bluebeard’s castle, and, of course, liberation from the uncanny power of the Other Woman. But this closure is displaced, paradoxically, to the very opening of the novel which introduces the reader to the after Manderley life of the De Winters, where he is presented with a marriage situation which strongly resembles the one at the end of Jane Eyre.Their marriage is a companionate one, although sexuality is now present and, as exiles, they live in social marginality; like Jane, the narrator now employs her time reading aloud to Maxim (although it is unclear why as there seems little possibility that he too might have been blinded in the fire) and writing. Although it is not only her story that she writes, like Jane, she offers the story of how autonomy of self can be gained through overcoming obstacles, the story of herself and Rebecca, herself versus Rebecca, herself chiefly through Rebecca. Indeed, this opening chapter begins with a dream: the dream in which she revisits Manderley become that dark, tangled, confused world which so well pictures the unconscious, and in the depths of which there comes up the vision of Rebecca again, more satanic than ever attempting to choke Maxim with a coil of her hair that strangely resembles the imperious and energetic R of her signature. The initial dream belies the whole narrative logic which follows, as much as it deconstructs the parallelism with the ending of Jane Eyre. What it suggests, instead, is that Rebecca is not dead and vanished, but lives on now as a secret disruptive force in the narrator’s soul: and the condensation of the body —through the hair— and the writing manifests that the power which is now assimilated relates both to sexuality and language, and that she will now be able to control the narrator’s and Max’s lives in more ways than one.

14The suggestion, which may also be a buried one in Jane Eyre, is that writing is associated with strength, power, and knowledge for women, and it destabilizes gender boundaries. What Rebecca claims from the start is therefore poles apart from the narrative discourse of Jane Eyre: the figure of the Other Woman, however threatening, is not to be cast out, because she is not so much destructive as disruptive, and finally liberating. Through incorporating Rebecca instead of rejecting her the way the lunatic is abjected in Jane Eyre, the young, immature, impotent woman has become a user and a controller of language herself. The difference is that Jane has been endowed, from the start, with the use and mastery of language. Jane intrinsically possesses that strength and autonomy which allows her to overcome obstacles —among which the Other Woman looms up ominously— by projecting them outside herself and confronting them rationally. Yet this might also be read as legerdemain that in the end fails to dispel all the complexity of the experience as the never-ending ambiguousness of the Jane/Bertha relation amply proves. So, in the end, Daphne Du Maurier’s intention may not be so far from Charlotte’s in so far as she raises to more explicitness a problematic which is latent and which concerns the nature of female identity. On the face of it, Rebecca is the figure of a completely negative identity, while the inscription of her name is forcefully impressed on the imagination of her rival who, precisely, has no name that she can call her own. And while it seems to threaten the uncertain, externally-fixed boundaries of her identity, it, on the contrary, will prove able to extend them into a recognition that the self has to live on with its inner otherness, the otherness that contains manifold other possibilities, such recognition —as is offered in the opening dream— being presented as the prerequisite to the mastery of both life and language.

15So it would seem that Du Maurier’s reading of Jane Eyre concerns a reassessment of the division between the two personae that the heroine and the Other Woman represent: in this case, the latter is endowed with both a body and a capacity for speech and this turns her into an empowering force rather than an obstacle. So, like Jane Eyre, Rebecca is a discourse about the transgressions of the feminine Other, but, unlike Jane Eyre,it chooses to embody those transgressions in the writing itself, for, in a way, Rebecca is also the teller of her own story. We may then imagine that the avatar of Jane in Du Maurier’s novel is not the unnamed narrator alone, but that there are two of them: she who comes to gain a voice, and the other one who instils the adventure of the self with the same indomitable energy and autonomy that has made our little Victorian governess so famous, challenging and perhaps timeless? What if Du Maurier had sensed that the Other Woman in Jane Eyre was not entirely contained in the external projection of the lunatic but also held a secret place and part in the sovereign voice of the eponymous heroine? It would then be the authority of the speaking subject as a homogeneous entity that would be questioned, asserting that female identity is multifarious and that the writing of that identity must needs require the acknowledgement and voice of the other within the self.

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Horner Avril and Sue Zlosnik,Daphne Du Maurier: Writing, Identity and the Gothic Imagination,London: Macmillan, 1998.

Stoneman Patsy, Brontë Transformations, Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Williams Anne, Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Woolf Virginia, Three Guineas, Harmondsworth: Penguin, (1938) 1977.

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1  I am much indebted here to Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, in Daphne Du Maurier: Writing, Identity and the Gothic Imagination.

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Bernadette Bertrandias, « Daphne Du Maurier’s Transformation of Jane Eyre in Rebecca », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. IV - n°4 | 2006, 22-31.

Référence électronique

Bernadette Bertrandias, « Daphne Du Maurier’s Transformation of Jane Eyre in Rebecca », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. IV - n°4 | 2006, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2009, consulté le 24 juillet 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.1774

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Bernadette Bertrandias

Prof. (Clermont-Ferrand, France)
Bernadette Bertrandias is Professor of English Literature at the Université Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand. She wrote her thesis, as well as many articles on Charlotte Brontë, and has recently published a monograph on Jane Eyre entitled La parole orpheline (Ellipses, collection Marque-Page, Paris, 2004). She is also the author of a book on Karen Blixen (Izak Dinesen) entitled Afrique, autre scène : les récits africains de Karen Blixen (Presses de l’Université Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand, 1996).

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