You see her sometimes on the way to work. On the train, or on line at the coffee shop where, though you are late, you have stopped for coffee. She is wearing what you ought to have chosen that morning: something much more cool or much more practical or much more elegant than you. Her bag is from a shop you’ve heard about but haven’t gotten to yet or can’t afford. She is in Boston or San Francisco or Atlanta or L.A., but she is perhaps most indigenous to New York City. She is real and she is also a figment of your imagination.
As I carried a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca into a coffee shop recently, a woman stopped me to say it was one of her “favourites.” We spoke about it in a way that caught the attention of another woman in line, and the second woman explained the plot to the third. She told her that the book was about a lot of things, but that it was really about a house. As someone who has worked as a bookseller, I have gotten good at describing books I’ve read, and those I haven’t, to customers in four to nine words (which is as long as a person is willing to spend hearing about a book they probably aren’t going to read). To say that Rebecca was about a house seemed like the kind of stretch it would be to say Hamlet is about a marriage, and yet it is. It is about inhabiting a role you can’t quite play—the more I think about and read about Rebecca, the more I think this woman was right. It is about a house, only the house is a metaphor for a woman. Really, it’s a book about imposter syndrome.
Du Maurier’s 1938 best seller opens on a timid, painfully shy woman who goes to Monte Carlo, where she is a paid companion to an older American woman. Here she meets a widowed, sophisticated aristocrat, Maxim de Winter (a name dreamed up for sighs), and he asks her to marry him and return to his beautiful estate in Cornwall—but the fairy-tale ending is only the beginning of the story. The ever-after splinters when the unnamed protagonist finds that traces of Maxim’s dead wife, Rebecca, are everywhere: Rebecca has authored the menu that is followed by the kitchen each day, she is in the fiercely confident handwriting on the household labels, in the beautiful decoration of the enchanting rooms, in the memory of a blind dog, in the memory of the tenants on the estate and the villagers in the village. In every action, our protagonist feels inferior to the beautiful, gracious Rebecca. Rebecca’s shoes, as pointed out to the new Mrs. de Winter by the housekeeper, are literally too slender and elegant for anyone else to wear.
Our protagonist doesn’t gain confidence or learn to dress herself better. She doesn’t become a better hostess or more confident in advising the servants. There is a twist but no transformation. The book is a thriller but it depends on what thrills you, and (fair warning to all those who haven’t yet read it) I’m about to spoil it. The twist of Rebecca is that Rebecca is not someone you should aspire to be. Rebecca, it turns out, is a bitch.
And Maxim, he never loved Rebecca at all—in fact, he killed her. He doesn’t want “a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls,” he wants our dowdy protagonist, all lank hair and bitten nails and a clumsy mackintosh. Our protagonist is never reborn into a woman of elegance; she is just relieved to be loved the way she is.
Imposter syndrome is the psychosis du jour of millennials, women especially. A trend forecaster in the Times recently wrote about how in trends, thesis is followed by antithesis. We spent the first decade of our adulthood being told we were entitled, and so what could be more reasonable than to now become consumed by self-doubt. In the surreal spring weeks during which I trained alongside my impossibly cool predecessor for what is now my job at The Paris Review, the sensation was particularly intense. It wasn’t just the young women who preceded me in my role, it was that New York City, generally, and The Paris Review, specifically, are absolute castles both, and I dare you to find the woman who steps inside and thinks, Mine.
When I read the book, Rebecca is the one I aspire to become, not the second Mrs. de Winter. I don’t dream of discovering that the standards I’ve set for myself are too high, that I, imperfect and unglamorous, have been lovable all along. My greatest desire is to inhabit the unachievable with the wink and the drag, to slip on Rebecca’s elegant shoes and fool them all. The nightmare for me is not so much to be haunted by Rebecca, but to be the narrator who lies in bed, as the second Mrs. de Winter does in one scene, knowing that a better woman would jump to her feet and pick out a dress, yet is paralyzed by her own shortcomings. To me, it is one of the most sickening passages in all of literature. Because, for me, the jury is still out. Which Mrs. de Winter am I?
My mother likes to say that Rebecca was my grandmother’s favorite book. I wonder—did she dream of becoming Rebecca, too?
For most of the novel, Rebecca is a floater in the eye of the protagonist, superimposed rather than directly seen. Then the second Mrs. de Winter stumbles into the bedroom of the first. Mrs. Danvers, literature’s second-most sexually frustrated housekeeper, has kept the room more like a holy relic than a crypt. Here is Rebecca’s dressing gown and her slippers. Here is her nightdress, “thin as gossamer, apricot in color,” inside a nightdress case (the delight of a nightdress case made my heart pound more than the sinister azalea smell of the closets).
The room is beautiful, as are the things in it, but many of du Maurier’s descriptions of the space are vague. The clothing, on the other hand, is almost scientifically described, with a concentration of detail that is dizzying.
Perhaps the closest thing to erotica in Rebecca are the dead woman’s hairbrushes. Mrs. Danvers speaks reverently of the ritual: “I’ve come into this room time and time again and seen him, in his shirt sleeves, with the two brushes in his hand. ‘Harder, Max, Harder,’ she would say, laughing up at him, and he would do as she told him,” before passing the brushes to “Danny” herself to take over.
The Red Dress:
In her rapturous monologuing tour of Rebecca’s wardrobe, Mrs. Danvers pauses at the red dress. “I believe Mr. de Winter liked her to wear silver mostly. But of course she could wear any color. She looked beautiful in this velvet. Put it against your face. It’s soft isn’t it?” This wine-colored velvet dress wraps Rebecca in the solid material of the aristocratic past with the svelte cut of the shockingly modern future.
The Riding Outfit:
Rebecca was a commanding horsewoman. She won races against her cousin (the rakish Jack), and was painted on horseback for an award-winning portrait. The second Mrs. de Winter, of course, doesn’t even know how to ride. Before the thirties, women rode sidesaddle, a tradition that began when Princess Anne rode all the way across Europe with a twist in her back to preserve her virginity for her marriage to Richard II. Rebecca’s era marked the widespread acceptability of women riding astride, and Rebecca, needless to say, would have dominated in either position.
Jasper is the first and maybe only creature at Manderley who loves the second Mrs. de Winter. I, who have always relied on the kindness of dogs, can’t fault either of them for that.
The Sailing Outfit:
Rebecca dies in slacks. Both Mrs. Danvers and Max make a point of mentioning this: “she was wearing slacks of course and a shirt when she died,” and from Max: “hands in the pockets of her trousers. She looked like a boy in her sailing kit, a boy with the face like a Botticelli angel.” Is it the same as dying with your boots on? In his novel Underworld Don DeLillo describes a woman named Amy who was “tall and competent and looked good in jeans.” Amy is but a footnote in the 838-page-long book, but I think about her all the time. The rest of the description is about how capable she is, but it’s redundant—we already know she looked great in jeans. Was it Rebecca’s slacks that put Max over the edge? The boyishness? The self-sufficiency? Max shoots her and stages her drowning in a sailing accident, but her fans are unconvinced. The sea could never undo Rebecca.
The Costume Ball:
Rebecca’s costume for the final ball she hosted at Manderley becomes a pivotal plot point in the novel. The second Mrs. de Winter briefly feels happy in the costume she’s chosen for her debut Manderlay ball, before she realizes she has committed a fatal error—she is wearing exactly what Rebecca wore the year before. The quick morality tale of the book might be to love yourself as you are. But to the careful reader, Rebecca wore the costume best, wears every costume best, because she is better at masques than anyone.
Julia Berick is a writer who lives in New York. She works at The Paris Review.
Jenny Kroik is an illustrator and painter. She has created covers for The New Yorker, and made illustrations for The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Penguin Random House, and more.
If you want more, please enjoy the accompanying Franny paper doll below: