POV Pivot — Mrs. Danvers
Updated: May 19
The novel Rebecca is, without question, one of the best modern Gothic works we'll ever see.
For those who haven't yet experienced Daphne du Maurier's classic, it is the story of a young woman who enters an impetuous marriage with a wealthy widower, only to discover that his home, and his life, are haunted by memories of his deceased first wife. The first wife is so powerful, she gets title page. Rebecca. The wealthy widower has the kind of name that would take up two sides on a library card. George Fortescue Maximilian de Winter. With some, including his new wife, he is referred to as Maxim. Rebecca, however, got to call him Max. The new wife, who is also the narrator, has no name at all.
The second Mrs. de Winter is awkward, shy, and struggling to find her place at Maxim's grand manor. His estate is so important, its mention opens the novel with: Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Our new Mrs. de Winter is the story's narrator. Through her words, which are often held back by her own paranoiac imagination, we watch her weakly attempt to make a name for herself at Manderley. However, things aren't easy when even the housekeeper insists that the food and the flowers and the very atmosphere of Manderley remain as Rebecca fashioned it.
Ah—the housekeeper. Mrs. Danvers. What a study in black she is.
It is important to keep in mind is that Alfred Hitchcock planted a slightly different image of Mrs. Danvers in his film rendition by casting superb actress Judith Anderson in the role. In du Maurier's novel, Mrs. Danvers is noted as being elderly with a skull-like face. Indeed, that 'skull-like face' is mentioned with most of the housekeeper's entrances. In the 1940 film, however, Miss Anderson is far from resembling 'alas, poor Yorick'. She is also wearing fashionable heels under that floor-length dress that was unmistakably years out of vogue. Judith Anderson was already taller than leading character star, Joan Fontaine. No need to show more dominance there. Were the heels a statement, or merely a crafted actress' means of moving evil housekeeper style?
We discover that Mrs. Danvers had been in the service of the first Mrs. de Winter ever since Rebecca was a child. Rebecca called her Danny. Was there ever a Mr. Danvers? My humble opinion doubts it. Upper management females in estate staffs always had 'Mrs' in front of their last names. Over the years since Rebecca was published, there has been a readership speculation regarding a sexual relationship between Danny and her wild charge or, at minimum, a 'closeted lesbian's romantic fascination'. My only response is that Daphne du Maurier was a woman of secrets, and many of them could be whispering throughout her stories. As readers, that is one of the many gifts we get to unwrap in our own minds by reading.
But back to Danny. Mrs. Danvers is always eavesdropping behind corners. For example, she knows the new Mrs. de Winter is unhappy with her own dull and lank hair. So what does our conniving housekeeper do? In Rebecca's bedroom, which has been preserved as a well-staged shrine, Mrs. Danvers displays Rebecca's expensive brushes. She talks of Rebecca's beautiful hair, and how Maxim delighted in brushing it. "Harder, Max, harder," Rebecca would command. Mrs. Danvers notes that Mr. de Winter was always smiling and laughing then. With those kind of sexually charged comments, who wouldn't be? In this, and many other examples throughout the story, Mrs. Danvers beats down our unnamed narrator so expertly that the poor thing nearly jumps out a window at Mrs. Danvers' suggestion.
A spoiler warning: Hitchcock's film hints that Danny most likely perished in the fire she set at Manderley. In the novel, a fire occurs. However, our unnamed narrator wonders where Mrs. Danvers ended up.
I ponder the same, along with the thought of what an interesting partner novel there would be if Mrs. Danvers wrote it. If I had all the hours in the world, I'd love to try my hand at such a thing. That's the power of a POV. Like a diamond, it shines differently in various shades of light. Think of your favorite first person novel, and imagine how it would spin if another character told it. For me, as a reader and a writer, it's one of my constant fascinations.