Madwomen in the Attic

Sarah Durban 15 November 2007

The inspiration Daphne du Maurier drew from the Bronte family, and the work of Charlotte Bronte in particular, is evident in her focus on the lesser-known Bronte, Branwell, in the biography The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte. The influence this interest had on her fiction, most notably Rebecca, is not a vague feeling that a reader familiar with both texts may or may not come to, but rests upon specific similarities in theme and plot that plagiarism charges were brought against Du Maurier when her novel was published in 1938. The most striking of these parallels are twists in the plot due to information about former wives and the destruction but also redemptive power of fire. Therefore, Rebecca can be read not as a work entirely separate from Jane Eyre, but as a translation of the key points of the original plot into another time and genre.

In translation from one literary work to another, it is not obvious what the author is translating from and into. In the case of Jane Eyre and Rebecca, this could merely be a translation from one era into another-the moral loftiness of the Victorian era deflated by the twentieth century, perhaps as a result of the First World War. Jane’s unattainably impressive moral defiance becomes the self-doubting uncertainty of the heroine of Rebecca, the second Mrs de Winter (following Mr de Winter’s much-celebrated first wife, Rebecca, now dead), who accepts a man with far more serious moral failings than Mr Rochester.

The reader accepts these lapses in conventional morality largely because of the shift in genre from the earlier novel. Jane Eyre could be described as a Bildungsroman, charting the development of its eponymous heroine since childhood. In Rebecca, on the other hand, the genre would more accurately be described as a detective story, but one is which the reader is on the side of the detected rather than the detective. We are introduced to the key characters while they are already adults, and therefore are perhaps not overly concerned with their behaviour being consistent with the morality of their early life. Conversely, the child Jane has an extraordinarily passionate sense of morality:

The cut bled, the pain was sharp: my terror had passed its climax; other feelings succeeded.

‘Wicked and cruel boy!’ I said, ‘You are like a murderer-you are like a slave-driver-you are like the Roman emperors!’

I had read Goldsmith’s History of Rome, and had formed my opinion of Nero, Caligula, &c. Also I had drawn parallels in silence, which I never thought thus to have declared aloud.

The reader expects, and is satisfied to see, such moral courage in the adult Jane: “I must leave him, it appears. I do not want to leave him-I cannot leave him”.

The diminutive heroine of Rebecca, appropriately nameless to the reader, seems to draw upon certain aspects of how Jane Eyre is perceived, by herself as much as anyone: “Jewels for Jane Eyre sounds unnatural and strange: I would rather not have them”. However, the second Mrs de Winter’s personality seems to be warped by this lack of physical and social presence, rather counteracting it, which is especially evident in her relationship with Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper still fervently devoted to her beloved former mistress:

I, who had never known Rebecca. Mrs Danvers knew how she walked and how she spoke. Mrs Danvers knew the colour of her eyes, her smile, the texture of her hair. I knew none of these things, I had never asked about them, but sometimes I felt Rebecca was as real to me as she was to Mrs Danvers.

Therefore, she welcomes anything that is to tarnish the brilliant presence of this dead woman-who from the reader’s perspective places her name on a book ‘belonging’ to the second Mrs de Winter-regardless of its moral implications. It demonstrates the genius of du Maurier’s presentation of this ‘everywoman’ (and ‘no woman’) character that we do too.

In both novels the husband’s home-Thornfield in Jane Eyre and Manderley in Rebecca-is more than a building, but is embedded with additional meaning from the values of the people it houses and the secrets it holds. However, the reactions Jane and the second Mrs de Winter have to these homes and what they represent are very different. When Jane Eyre discovers the morally disturbing truth about Thornfield she leaves it, preferring to be a penniless beggar, whereas it takes comparable knowledge of the house and its inhabitants’ dark past for the second Mrs de Winter to feel fully a part of Manderley. Translating a novel from one time and genre to another, and shifting the main character’s personality traits in the process, can create a work that tests the sympathies and moral beliefs of the reader in very different ways from the original.

Sarah Durban