There are many ways of celebrating books and reading in the National Year of Reading and this is one of them : last Friday’s Adelaide screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous black-and-white film Rebecca (1940). Based on Daphne du Maurier’s best-selling 1938 novel, Rebecca is a classic of twentieth-century Gothic fiction.
Although her book was originally promoted as a ‘love story’ , that popular category of women’s fiction, du Maurier always maintained that Rebecca was a ‘study of jealousy’ rather than a traditional romance. She was right – the beautiful Rebecca is not a conventional heroine, entitled to a husband and a happy ending. She is a ghost. She is dead.
Her presence at Manderley, the great house that provides the unforgettable setting of the novel, is the impetus for du Maurier’s study of obsessive jealousy. The second Mrs de Winter, the widower’s young bride, finds traces of Rebecca throughout the house – her monogrammed stationery; her clothes in the wardrobes; her choice of flowers (blood-red rhododendrons) on display in the morning-room. She believes that her husband is still passionately in love with his beautiful first wife. She knows that Mrs Danvers, the sinister house-keeper, maintains a virtual shrine to her adored dead mistress, keeping Rebecca’s bedroom exactly as it was on the night she died.
Hitchcock adapted the film in a way that remains reasonably faithful to the plot, characters and atmosphere of the novel. Joan Fontaine plays the vulnerable second wife, Laurence Olivier makes a romantically moody Maxim de Winter and Judith Anderson is a grimly frightening Mrs Danvers. The only character that we don’t see – in this version of the film – is Rebecca. But then, she is a ghost.