Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is 80 years old this month. It’s one of the best novels of the 20th century and yet I can never remember how it ends. Manderley is on fire, I remember that. But, in terms of the central “mystery” of the novel – the “Who killed Rebecca?” bit – it always feels like a blur to me. What I do always remember, though, in perfect clarity, is Maxim’s confession about Rebecca.
“You thought I loved Rebecca?” says Maxim to the second Mrs de Winter, a woman so removed from her own sense of self that she can’t even give us her name. “You thought I killed her, loving her? I hated her, I tell you. Our marriage was a farce from the very first.”
I wish this wasn’t my favourite bit of Rebecca, but it is. I can’t help it; every time I re-read it, my bones vibrate with pleasure at the realisation that the myth of Rebecca is an entirely false one. Everything we’ve gone through with the second Mrs de Winter – the tight-lipped smiling through the constant praise of Rebecca’s beauty, the agony of having to replace a woman who is up to date on her correspondence, the nerve-shredding pressure of planning a party when your predecessor threw the best parties – tumbles down in front of us in the most soothing, vindicating way. Maybe I get a little too much out of it because there are some myths in my own life that I need to see tumble down. Maybe every woman in 2018 could use a little more of this in her life, more people to say to her: “That life you think is so incredible? That vibrancy you are always on the outside of, looking in? It’s a lie.”
Rebecca is a novel about a lot of things. It’s about class anxiety and the agonising insecurity of being new money. It’s about gender and romance and how love conquers nothing. It’s about waiting for your life to start and learning that it started long before you were born. But re-reading it in 2018, I start to wonder if a new topsoil of meaning has developed and hardened over the crust of Daphne du Maurier’s novel. Is… is Rebecca about Instagram?
It’s a dumb thing to say. Rebecca is not about Instagram. It is, however, about all the emotions and issues that Instagram and platforms like it have heightened in all of us. There has always been jealousy between women, but our new world of 24-hour access to women who are more beautiful, more successful and better at parties than us has created the bubbling low-level frenzy of… of, well, a gothic novel. Just as the second Mrs de Winter could probably fire Mrs Danvers if she really wanted to, we could easily delete the social-media apps from our phones that are the source of so much existential misery. We delete and, days later, re-install. We let our anxieties bubble. We wait for Manderley to burn down.
“I wish I was a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls,” says our narrator, when she meets Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo. Long before she is folded into the myth of Rebecca, she lives outside herself – obsessed with the veneer other women are able to invent for themselves, confused that, despite being young and pretty and in Monte Carlo (“Most girls would give their eyes for a chance to see Monte!”), she can’t seem to enjoy a moment of it. Her employer, Mrs Van Hopper, is an irritating snob but is also highly biddable – a few well-placed lies about tennis lessons and she can be rid of her. Our narrator is not having a terrible time because of Mrs Van Hopper, although she likes this excuse. She is the one keeping herself from fun, always 10ft from what she is experiencing. She’s obsessed with her own shabbiness, her dowdiness, her lack of belonging, her fear that she will be mistaken for Mrs Van Hopper’s daughter.
It seems inescapable to me that Rebecca’s 80th anniversary arrives at a time when living vicariously through other people has never been more celebrated a hobby
Mrs Van Hopper, importantly, isn’t even enjoying Monte herself. “Her curiosity was a disease, almost a mania,” our narrator recalls, critical despite the fact she’s about to give in to the same mania. In fact, curious mania is the central emotion that she will be feeling for the next 250 pages, as she compares herself ceaselessly to Rebecca de Winter. It’s a mania I’m used to seeing, accustomed to experiencing – the mania of someone turning up to lunch with pin-prick pupils and the news that the Instagram heroine they have been hate-following has bought a new armchair.
This is a book where all of the women are obsessed with how the other women are doing it. After she is married, our narrator bites her nails through various visitors from country couples who are obsessed with how she’s keeping house. She is incapable of enjoying people who are being perfectly polite to her. “I wished I could lose my own identity and join them,” she says. “Eat hardboiled eggs and potted meat sandwiches, laugh rather loudly, enter their conversation… I went on sitting there on the cliff.”
Daphne du Maurier characters never feel anything lightly. Their hate burns hottest, their love turns to obsession, their jealousy destroys country houses. It seems inescapable to me that Rebecca’s 80th anniversary arrives at a time when living vicariously through other people has never been more celebrated a hobby. Jealousy and anxiety seep in through social-media images of women who claim to be exactly like us. We take photo after photo, dully aware of the fact that the more photos we take, the further we remove ourselves from the theme. If we could only learn to live in the moment, relax, take stock, be grateful. If only we could just eat hard-boiled eggs and enter conversation, focus on what we have, on the people who love us with no pearls, no black satin.
I want to press Rebecca into the hands of every 17-year-old girl I have ever met, lisping the words “a farce from the very first” into their ears in the hope it might help with the crushing feeling of being so far outside yourself because of the overwhelming amount of online examples of how the “self” ought to be. Because, sometimes, a gothic novel is an exaggeration of what you feel, a pantomime of feelings – and sometimes it’s exactly how it is.