It’s not a coincidence that the protagonist of Daphne Du Maurier’s most successful novel, 1938’s Rebecca, is known only as the second Mrs de Winter, no first name ever given. She’s not the leading lady in her own life, let alone the book she narrates. Instead, the second Mrs de Winter is relegated to the outskirts, living in the shadow of a ghost. Rebecca, her husband’s enigmatic and mysterious first wife, takes centre stage in her thoughts, in her dreams, and in the stately rooms and darkest corners of Manderley, the Cornish manor house that Rebecca called home before her untimely death. Rebecca — which over the years has yielded multiple film adaptations including an Oscar-winning 1940 film by Alfred Hitchcock, and the latest Netflix version directed by Ben Wheatley — is the ultimate story of imposter syndrome. It’s a novel about a woman dreaming of a certain life, then finding herself feeling completely out of place once she gets it. Perhaps that’s why the book has never once been out of print in the 82 years since its initial publication: It speaks to the jealous and intimate fascination that can exist between women, and the poisonous insecurity that follows. In other words, it feels real in the way only very raw, secret emotions can.
Rebecca isn’t exactly a true story; rather, its duelling portrayals of womanhood undeniably reflect the many compelling facets of its author and her own complicated inner life. To understand the story, one must understand Daphne du Maurier, her family history, and her road to becoming one of the most enduring English authors of all time.
Du Maurier was born in London in 1907, the middle child of three sisters in a family that encouraged and nurtured the arts: Her father, Sir Gerald du Maurier, was an actor and manager, and her mother Muriel was an actress; her grandfather, George du Maurier was a cartoonist and novelist who came up with the character of Svengali, a word now ubiquitous to the English language; her cousins, the five Llewelyn-Davies brothers, were the inspiration for J.M. Barrie’s popular play, Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. (Yes, that Peter Pan.) So, when a young du Maurier decided to start putting pen to paper, she was already ahead of the curve.
In fact, the family lore was so fascinating that it would inspire her many times over. In 1934, she wrote a biography of her own father, called Gerald: A Portrait. Du Maurier’s third book, published the year before Rebecca is a novelised fiction based on her own quirky relations, called The du Mauriers. In 1954, she’d write a novel about the tumultuous life of her real great-great-grandmother, Mary Anne Clarke, who rose from a penniless birth to become mistress to the Duke of York and an author in her own life. Given that, it’s not a stretch to believe that the inspiration for Rebecca would also hit fairly close to home.
Many of du Maurier’s books focus on mysterious — often unlikeable — women. Along with Mary Anne and Rebecca, 1951’s My Cousin Rachel centres around a seemingly charming and guileless widow who seduces her cousin before completely taking over his life and fortune. Over the years, some have attributed this fascination with complex and dangerous femininity to the author’s fraught relationship with her own sexuality. All three du Maurier sisters are thought to have had sexual and/or emotional relationships with women throughout their lives. But where Angela and Jeanne acknowledged these relationships in their writings, Daphne never did. Still, biographers agree that her crush on Ellen Doubleday, the wife of her American publisher to whom she wrote countless letters, appears to have been romantic in nature. In one such letter, she refers to a male alter ego named Eric Avon, whom she “locked in a box put away forever” upon entering adulthood, which has led some to speculate that she might possibly have been transgender.
Beautiful, rich, and charismatic with glamorous family connections, it’s easy to imagine Daphne du Maurier as a stand-in for the tempestuous Rebecca. The very name Daphne du Maurier sounds like an exhale from an expensive European cigarette (fun fact: Du Maurier cigarettes were actually named for her father, Gerald), evoking a life filled with silk backless dresses, trips to exotic locales, and intrigue. Still, knowing all we do about her, that seems like too simple of a reading. Rather, du Maurier lives inside each of the three main characters of the novel: Rebecca, the second Mrs. de Winter, but also Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper who’s so fiercely and jealously protective of her former mistress’ legacy.
Still, that hasn’t stopped readers from continuing to speculate about the identity of du Maurier’s source of inspiration for the ruthless and glamorous ghost. As legend would have it, the idea for Rebecca was born while du Maurier and her husband Tommy “Boy” Browning were stationed in Alexandria, Egypt. (In a full-circle moment, the Netflix movie ends with Maxim de Winter and his wife exiled there after Manderley burns.) Tommy had been once engaged before, to a woman named Jan Ricardo who apparently liked to sign her name with a flowery “R”. Du Maurier reportedly became obsessed with her husband’s former flame, going as far as reading their old love letters, scouring the papers for mentions of Ricardo, and hoarding pictures of her perceived rival. In an eerie coincidence, the latter died in 1944 by throwing herself in front of a train, a death that echoed Rebecca’s own tragic demise.
The other obvious parallel lies in the work of du Maurier’s literary idols. Much like the Brontë sisters, the du Maurier siblings would all pursue artistic careers of their own: Daphne and her older sister Angela became writers (although Daphne was undeniably more talented and successful), and her younger sister Jeanne became a painter.But that’s not the only thing du Maurier and the Brontës have in common – over the years, many have pointed out that the plot of Rebecca relies heavily on Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Young innocent ingenue? Check. Grumpy older man? Check. Magnificent but eerie house that ends up in ruins after a fiery blaze? Check. Problematic ex-wife who haunts the main character? Check. The similarities are undeniable, and it seems more than likely that there are elements of Brontë’s Bertha Mason character in Rebecca.
In fact, Jane Eyre isn’t the only book du Maurier is said to have borrowed from. In 1941, three years after Rebecca’s runaway success as a best-seller, du Maurier was sued by Edwina DeVin Macdonald, who claimed the author had stolen the plot of her short story, Blind Windows, published back in 1926. (Asked if she had ever read the book during a sworn court testimony, du Maurier responded: “I laboured through it.”) She was cleared of the charges in 1948.
Much easier to discern is the inspiration for Manderley, the de Winter family seat that acts as a living, breathing character in the novel. While on vacation in Cornwall in 1926, du Maurier came across an unkept and somewhat rough old estate known as Menabilly, owned by the Rashleigh family. She became obsessed with the idea of living there and restoring it to its former glory. In 1943, after her return from Egypt with Tommy, she finally rented it, and lived there for over two decades.
Unlike Rebecca, du Maurier lived a long and full life. She died at 81 years old, leaving three children and a legendary literary oeuvre that’s firmly entrenched in Hollywood history. Along with Rebecca, Hitchcock would direct her 1936 novel Jamaica Inn, and her 1952 short story The Birds inspired the 1963 horror classic by the same name. To this day, the most striking similarity between the author and the ghost she forever immortalised lies in their ability to continue to capture young women’s minds and dreams, leading them into haunting worlds of self-discovery, thrilling desires, and unknown mysteries.