I read the book Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, on the recommendation that it was a modern day Jane Eyre, the Charlotte Brontë classic. Remembering Jane Eyre, my first foray into classic literature, which attracted me as a young teen with its deep burgundy cover, patterned with fleurs-de-lis and a mysterious old lock, and how it altered my thinking so dramatically, I pocketed a second-hand copy of Rebecca with some relish, imagining dark secrets and frightful revelations verging on the supernatural to be contained within its blood red covers. Alas, Rebecca is not that book.
Rebecca begins charmingly enough, with a young, painfully shy girl on the verge of womanhood; poor, obscure and friendless; working for her keep. Her dizzying anxieties and excruciating social interactions are endearing enough, she is so sweet and so inept that one is transported to that youthful period of feeling one’s way and learning about the world in a halting manner. Likewise, Mr de Winter, though somewhat bitter and distant and twice the girl’s age, has without a doubt locked some dark secret in the depths of his soul, and the scene is thus set for a gothic romance, scaling the passions and the pits of thwarted love.
It is some surprise, then, that only a few pages into the book, this artless proposal of marriage takes place between the two:
‘If you think I’m one of the people who try to be funny at breakfast you’re wrong,’ he said. ‘I’m invariably ill-tempered in the early morning. I repeat to you, the choice is open to you. Either you go to America with Mrs Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me.’
‘Do you mean you want a secretary or something?’
‘No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.’
And a little fool she is, the nameless anti-heroine that wafts half-heartedly through Rebecca’s pages. Her namelessness remains her most interesting feature. A pitiful modern counterpart to the gutsy, rational and self-sufficient Jane, who, at nineteen, is conscious enough of her own youthful shortcomings, and sensitive enough to her humble position in society and her lack of beauty, but bold enough to defend herself with reason when treated unjustly.
Where Mrs de Winter cowers from human interaction and allows her flimsy will to be trampled, Miss Eyre embraces her lot and works it, like the servant entrusted with one tenant, multiplying it rather than burying it in the ground:
Still indomitable was the reply—‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when the body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be.’
Jane has spunk. Poverty does not crush her, nor force her into abrupt marriages. So strong-willed is she, despite her mild and usually obliging character, that she defies marriage to the man she loves on a point of principle, knowing she could not hold herself in esteem if she agreed to less than optimal terms:
‘Never,’ said he, as he ground his teeth, ‘never was anything at once so frail and so indomitable. A mere reed she feels in my hand!’ (And he shook me with the force of his hold.) ‘I could bend her with my finger and thumb: and what good would it do if I bent, if I uptore, if I crushed her? Consider the eye: consider the resolute, wild, free thing looking out of it, defying me, with more than courage—with a stern triumph. Whatever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it—the savage, beautiful creature!’
Her unbeatable spirit pursues a feminism before its time. Unsatisfied with sewing and knitting and other such feminine accomplishments, Jane devours what knowledge comes her way, perfecting her French, acquiring some German, trying her hand at ‘Hindostanee’ when a tutor presents himself. She is chided for her masculine mind, though this makes her a desirable companion to the men in her life who, whatever role they attribute to women generally, feel that Jane is of a more admirable stock.
Indeed, upon marrying, after a prolonged and tumultuous romance and several obstacles, near deaths, religious frenzies and bodily mutilations, Jane declares, ‘No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh.’ Godly vengeance resulting in tragedy levels Jane and her beloved to an equal footing—he needs her as surely as she needs him, and with no embarrassment or self-revulsion. That he loves Jane and that she should love and aid him is the world to him, and no cause for feeling weak and unmanly.
Her own religious fervour that guides her harshly principled steps is matched and augmented through a second man, St John Rivers. Were the blood-red moons not enough, and eerie wails rolling across the hills, and disfigured faces of demonic creatures roaming the old mansion, the supernatural meets the religious head-on. St John, brooding and Calvinist, his eyes fastened on the hell opening up like a chasm beneath his fellow beings, recognises this potential for religious ecstasy in Jane and morphs into a demonic being himself, using it to manipulate her:
‘I want a wife: the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death.’
I shuddered as he spoke: I felt his influence in my marrow—his hold on my limbs.
‘Seek one elsewhere than in me, St John: seek one fitted to you.’
Jane resists his commands that she and her talents give themselves up to God to be a missionary’s wife. His proposal is all the more frightening because his sound arguments about her capabilities are laced with chilling and domineering threats: ‘Do you think God will be satisfied with half an oblation? Will he accept a mutilated sacrifice?’ Religion is amplified to a fearful climax, a parody of itself, a satire of a crucial theme of the book—it is religion has led us here, and now we see it as a beast devouring its best and truest follower. The spell is broken by a supernatural voice carried across the winds—or as Jane considers these inexplicable forces that delve into her life, ‘preternatural.’ Religion, though able to incite frenzy, remains natural, and defeated by something far less definable, and external to the realm of nature.
I have forgotten our unnamed girl. She comes of age as well. It goes something like this: though she heard mysterious things in the forbidden west wing of her mansion, there is no one living there, mad or deformed or otherwise. Her aimless wanderings through darkened passages yield no hidden wives. Rather, her husband admits to her that he murdered his first wife, the elusive Rebecca, and upon realising she never had a rival, our girl is content and grows some self-esteem. She and Mr de Winter are suddenly in love, just in time for their house to get burnt down in a last-ditch echo of Jane Eyre:
There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew toward us with the salt wind from the sea.
Jane Eyre is filled with countless improbable happenings, overly spooky moonlit scenes, abrupt changes and inexplicable coincidences. None of these detract from the narrative. It is a torrent of a tale kept on the ground by a level-headed heroine, though augmented by fantasy that blurs with fast-held religious belief. Jane lets you imagine a little bit, and get swept up in something, and increases your heart rate at exciting junctures, without inventing any magical creatures or unfamiliar terrain.
Rebecca gives us insight into what it is to be a shy girl married to a murderer, happily forced into exile since there is no society with which to contend. Perhaps if I’d known all along, I would not have expected any more from it. It is for this reason I am seeking to distinguish it from Jane Eyre as a shallow read with gothic pretensions.
Perhaps the most appealing thing about Jane is that it is not purely a gothic work, but one that came out of the Romantic period. The darkness is met by grandeur; the emotive skies—far more expansive than the earth—are sublime renderings of pitiful human passions, as the heavens peering between the boughs of a lightening-struck tree illustrate, a sombre presage of the future of Jane and Mr Rochester:
The cloven halves were not broken from each other; … though community of vitality was destroyed—the sap could flow no more: their great boughs on each side were dead: … as yet, however, they might be said to form one tree—a ruin; but an entire ruin.
‘You did right to hold fast to each other,’ I said: as if the monster-splinters were living things, and could hear me. ‘I think, scathed as you look, and charred and scorched, there must be a little sense of life in you yet; rising out of that adhesion at the faithful, honest roots: you will never have green leaves more; … but you are not desolate: each of you has a comrade to sympathise with him in his decay.’ As I looked up at them, the moon appeared momentarily in that part of the sky which filled their fissure; her disk was blood-red and half overcast; she seemed to throw on me one bewildered, dreary glance, and buried herself again instantly in the deep drift of cloud. The wind fell, for a second, round Thornfield; but far away over wood and water, poured a wild, melancholy wail: it was sad to listen to, and I ran off again.