a radical resistance to absence
Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison (screenplay based on an adaptation by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan of Daphne du Maurier’s novel), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Rebecca / 1940
A few days ago, I reread my 2008 review of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Rebecca, and was a bit astounded to note that I had relatively little to say about the notorious Mrs. Danvers, strange particularly given the major role she plays in the film. Below are my 12-year-old comments:
“Mrs. Danvers may still have illusions, but it is her delusions that dominate her relationship with the second Mrs. De Winter. Believing that Rebecca has returned to haunt the place, she keeps her mistress’s room as a perverse shrine, maintaining everything “just as it was” and attempts to destroy the usurper she sees in Max’s second wife.
In such a world of horrors, wherein no one knows the truth, is it any wonder that the fresh, young woman who has married the man who has put Rebecca to rest at the bottom of the sea, has no idea where or who she is? Knowing no one of Rebecca’s social class, what is she to do at that desk in that beautiful, fire-lit room.
If Mrs. Danvers had not gone mad, destroying the great mansion by fire, perhaps the second Mrs. De Winter might have had set those vaulted corridors aflame simply to find her way home to real identity and a place in which to enact it.”
One might accuse me, as Terry Castle has suggested in The Apparitional Lesbian, as being one of those many people who upon witnessing lesbian love in literature and cinema have “trouble seeing what’s in front of them.” However, I was not at all blind to the fact that one might see Mrs. Danvers as the lesbian admirer, if not exactly lover, of the first Mrs. De Winter. But why, even I must ask myself given my long propensity to interpret even films without an obvious LGBTQ sub-texts (The Third Man, Arsenic and Old Lace, Pillow Talk and many others) did I not even bother to mention the fact, particularly when so many critics have written extensively about those very issues?
I could excuse the oversight simply by arguing that, despite the film’s true focus being upon Rebecca and her past relationships, our attention nonetheless is very much given over to the second Mrs. De Winter’s attempts to simply adapt to the unknowable world into which she has suddenly been flung. With her own husband’s near constant disparagement of her intelligence and ability to survive in his world and, even as she puts it, the fact that she is constantly being eyed up and down by the locals as if she were some prize cow, along with the turmoil in George Fortescue Maximillian De Winter’s soul that she hopes to soothe, that Mrs. Danvers’ and Rebecca’s relationship may appear to be the least of this central character’s (if you argue that she actually is a central character) problems. In this film, the fact that Mrs. Danvers lives in a dead world of her own making makes us want to shift our eyes to the forlorn younger figure simply trying to discover how to survive in the present—which in fact was very much what my essay was about.
When Mrs. Danvers sets fire to the house in order to destroy any present pleasure Joan Fontaine’s version of Mrs. De Winter might find in the arms of Laurence Olivier’s Maxim she actually destroys the past, permitting their love to flourish. In short, Danvers unintentionally is a self-destructive force that allows us to accept this gothic-like travesty as a modern romance; with the destruction of Manderley so too are Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers transformed from ghouls haunting the present to become simply the cremated dead, particularly since Maxim has now no possibility, if he even had the desire, to replace the unknown woman buried in the family vault with Rebecca’s newly discovered body. As the second Mrs. De Winter puts it in the ambling prologue recounting her dream of Manderley and its grounds: “It seems has if nature had come into its own again.”
Yet that very observation seems to demand that we seek to discover what it was previously in that beautiful mansion that was so much against nature that it led to angst, delirium, fear, and death in the living figures entrapped within the house. Homosexuality and the sodomy laws were, obviously defined for centuries as being precisely that: against nature. Lesbian love, on the other hand was not legally outlawed in Great Britain, but it certainly would have been described, when perceived, as being against the natural expression of love by the society at large. Accordingly, it now appears to me to be crucial to explore those very issues involving Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca if we are truly to comprehend what this work is telling us.
Maxim’s lies about his relationship with Rebecca and his inability to explain facts about the condition of her boat are also against the law. In Daphne du Maurier’s original novel, more importantly, Maxim does in fact kill Rebecca, placing her corpse in her boat before he scuttles it. And, quite obviously, Maxim’s hatred of his first wife, his desire to kill her, and his active attempt to hide her dead body are all also “against nature,” and therefore, like any depiction of homosexuality, were outlawed by the movie industry’s Hays Code. The studio creators and producers were well aware of these problems. As the head of the Production Code Administration, Joseph Breen, wrote to the David O. Selnzick, Rebecca’s producer:
“We have read the temporary script ... and I regret to inform you that the material, in our judgment, is definitely and specifically in violation of the Production Code.... The specific objection to this material is three–fold: (a) As now written, it is the story of a murderer, who is permitted to go off "scot free"; (b) The quite inescapable inferences of sex perversion; and (c) The repeated references in the dialogue to the alleged illicit relationship between Favell and the first Mrs. de Winter [the script defines them as cousins], and the frequent references to the alleged illegitimate child–to–be.”
Breen later wrote, in a second letter:
"It will be essential that there be no suggestion whatever of a perverted relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca. If any possible hint of this creeps into this scene, we will of course not be able to approve the picture. Specifically, we have in mind Mrs. Danvers' description of Rebecca's physical attributes, her handling of the various garments, particularly the night gown....”*
As we now know Breen’s objection “a” was in fact changed in the script, allowing Rebecca—no matter how unbelievably—to trip and fall, dying quickly from a head injury. Yet clearly Hitchcock and Selznick felt the necessity of remaining close to du Maurier’s text regarding Breen’s second objection in order to maintain the integrity of the story they were telling. Just why the Hays office did not, in the end, reject the in respect to item “c” as outline above is fairly obvious. Perhaps Favell’s flippant remark to the second Mrs. De Winter, “Don’t you know, I am Rebecca’s favorite cousin” simply rendered any actual family relationship questionable, as if being a cousin meant nothing more than a coded way of saying I was like family or I was her best friend meaning obviously someone with whom she was sexually involved. Both heterosexual and LGBTQ individuals have often referenced their sexual partners as being “cousins” or “best friends” to hide their true relationship. And finally, Rebecca is not pregnant with Favell’s child.
Yet, it appears, little was changed regarding the central scene in which the Fontaine character encounters Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca’s sacrosanct bedroom shrine. Perhaps we shall never know why the Hays board did not censor the film on that account. Lesbians, even for the more puritanical citizens of the US, were not conceived as a big of threat to normative values as was homosexual sex. And, if nothing else, Rebecca appeared to be bisexual. Nonetheless, the scene to which Breen objected does seem to have been saved from the scissors.
But before I discuss that scene, perhaps we should explore a few other instances throughout the film that help to establish the significance of that scene and suggest the general awareness of Mrs. Danvers’ queer attachment to the woman she superficially served as a personal maid.
Von Hooper would have her even give up her eyes for a view of Monte (Monte Carlo) and remain mute during her own ridiculous attempt at conversation with Maxim De Winter. In her continued demand for attention and full commitment from her young companion Mrs. Von Hopper might almost be said to foretell not only Maxim’s own abuses toward the second Mrs. De Winter, who he clearly perceives as a kind of gauche innocent to engage him while he reminds her of her worthlessness. Even his proposal for marriage is a study in patriarchal abuse: “I’m asking you to marry me you little fool.” And once the second Mrs. De Winter arrives in Mandeley her husband leaves her pretty much to herself without even attempting to help her adjust to the new world that lay outside of anything she might previously have imagined.
But if Maxim can be defined by absence, so Rebecca can be recognized in her total presence, her “R” monogram stamped upon every napkin, handkerchief, and letterhead of the house in a kind of radical resistance (in chemistry R is the symbol for the organic Radical, while in electricity it is the symbol for resistance) to the DW (one is tempted to suggest “dead wood” were it not that death is already obviously linked to de Winters last name) that follows on her stationery headings. Most clearly Maxim stands for the tradition, the reason we later discover that he will never publicly reveal his hatred of her sexual aberrations, male or female. The only times that Max goes “off his head,” as his sister, Beatrice describes his brief temper tantrums, is when he is faced with something that might require him to move out of the passivity to which he has grown accustomed, to demand that he act in way different from the past. Of his new wife, he demands that she never wear a satin gown or pearls or ever become 36. In other words, she is to forever remain the naïf he has unearthed to take his mind away from the truths haunting him. It as if Maxim and Rebecca lived in an atmosphere that any moment might explode. In chemistry R stands for gas.
One has to wonder, moreover, in all these years of marriage to the woman he hated, what Max did precisely to relieve his sexual desires. The film is purposely opaque about this question. But we are given hints when, the day after he has raged against his new wife, Maxim runs off, his with is assistant Frank Crowley (Reginald Denny), to London on “estate business.” For reasons unexplained, Maxim refers to Crowley as “poor Frank,” perhaps related to the fact that Rebecca, at one point, even attempted to arouse Frank’s sexual desires. If Frank were homosexual, obviously De Winter might truly sympathize with his friend’s inability to deal with Rebecca’s flirtations. Near the end of the film, after he has just been cleared of Rebecca’s death Maxim begins to tell Frank, “There something you don’t know...” which his friend immediately interrupts by responding, “Oh no, there isn’t,” a rather assertive and inexplicable statement between a simple employer and his accountant. These two, we finally perceive are much closer to one another than we might have previously been led to expect. And a moment earlier Colonel Julyan, who has just told Favell that he intends to stay the night in London, tells De Winter, “You have a great friend in Frank.” In just a few words—a true intimate, a great friend, and a night in London—Hitchcock and his writers have told us, below the table so to speak, almost everything about Maxim’s and Frank’s relationship, something that clearly did sail right over the heads of the prurient Hays Code board members. Besides, given the British boarding school system male-on-male buggery was fairly traditional. If, however, the code might possibly allow the lesbian scenes to remain, no obvious homosexual allusions would ever have been permitted.
It is on that day that Maxim escapes with Frank to London that the second Mrs. De Winter unwittingly discovers the real truth about Rebecca’s Manderley. Brooding over Maxim’s departure, the young bride hears voices and for a few seconds spies on Favell’s leave-taking of Mrs. Danvers, who he and Rebecca call by her male nickname, “Danny.” As he starts to walk away he discovers Mrs. De Winter to be in the next room and before an open window stops to talk to her, calling back to Danny that their attempts to be discreet about his visit were all to no avail. Introducing himself, Favell so astounds her with his aggressive behavior that she invites him in for tea, to which Danvers vehemently shows disapproval. “You’re right Danny, we musn’t lead the young bride astray,” exiting the floor-length window through which he has just entered.
That brief encounter serves as a prelude to just what he has suggested, an attempt to lead the bride astray by Mrs. Danvers. I’m tempted indeed to describe this next scene of six long minutes (the later inquest of Maxim is of the same length, and the only longer scene in the film is the 13 minute long confession and backstory of his Maxim’s life with Rebecca played out in the beach cottage) as “The Seduction.” For immediately after Favell’s last words Mrs. De Winter moves almost urgently to the West wing room that she knows to have been Rebecca’s, having seen an open window flapping in the wind from the East wing which she and Maxim now live. She opens the door to that room, encountering a world of sheer beauty as the trees and sea combine to create a series of stunning shadows across the shimmering curtains.
Fast behind her Mrs. Danvers arrives to query the unexpected visitor, “Do you wish anything Madame?” and before the young woman can even speak suggests that she has been waiting to show her this room since the day the second Mrs. De Winter arrived.
There is an almost other worldly openness about the elderly woman as Mrs. Danvers shows the newcomer the wonders of this preserved tomb (“Nothing has been altered since that last night”), as one might almost describe it, where she and Rebecca spent long hours every night after the endless parties Rebecca attended. “I always used to wait up for her no matter how late,” Danny proudly announces. Ignoring the advice of Maxim’s sister Beatrice (speaking of Danvers, “I wouldn’t have much to do with her, if I were you.”) Fontaine’s character remains almost awestruck as Danvers goes through the various closets of her dead idol, taking out first her firs and holding them close to her face before ruffing the fur across her cheek and offering to do the same for her sudden acolyte (“Feel this!”)
“I keep her underwear on this side,” continues the woman we now recognize as Rebecca’s lover, displaying the panties and bras as if they were treasures spun of gossamer.
“While she was undressing, she’d tell me about the party she’d been to....
Everyone loved her. When she finished her bath she’d go into the bedroom
and over to the drawing table. [Signaling for Fontaine to join her] Come on
Danny hair drill! I’d brush it like this [imitating the movement of the brush]
for 20 minutes at a time. Then she’d say, goodnight Danny and step into
“[Revealing a nightcase with the letter R embroidered upon it] I embroidered this
case for her myself and I keep it here always. [Taking out Rebecca’s nightgown]
Did you ever see anything so delicate? [Motioning for Mrs. De Winter to join her]
Look, you can see my hand through it!
In these sentences, Danny has revealed that she perceives her relationship with Rebecca as a permanent one, as a kind of marriage by suggesting “I keep it here always” in the present tense.
Rebecca’s nudity is further revealed with the description of being able to see through her negligee. For Danny, we soon perceive, Rebecca is still living. She can hear her footsteps throughout the house, she declares. And for a moment, we suspect, that if her new acolyte were able to participate in Danvers’ adoration or, perhaps, even suggest she might replace the dead woman as a “friend of the bosom,” all might have been forgiven for the interloper’s presence in Manderley. Danvers even invites the young woman to lay down and rest for a while, to listen to the sea.
But like any timid heterosexual, the second Mrs. De Winter is horrified by the performance she has just witnessed and escapes from the room with Danvers shouting “The sea, the sea!” after her.
The sea, in its endless shifting fluidity obviously captures her and Rebecca’s lesbian sexuality.
As Anita Markoff has written about several contemporary lesbian films:
These films utilize rivers, lakes, and swimming pools to create a build-up of romantic tensions between women. This happens in a unique way in each film, but the one thing which is true across the board is that these queer relationships would be missing something vital without the presence of water. It is a fluctuating substance, in contrast to the more heterosexual constructions of solid and liminal spaces within these films. Water allows movement, and a lack of constriction of desire. It creates the prospect of a sexuality that is fluid, and a longing that is socially acceptable as the presence of water encourages nakedness. It splits bodies in half, allowing the alluring possibility of visually experiencing the secret parts under the surface.”**
I might suggest that this has long been true of lesbian films for a long while. Consider, for example, the film from 1944 which I review below, The Uninvited.
In any event, the new lady of the house in Rebecca has now retreated by to the East wing, where there is no view of the sea, and when Maxim returns from his “business” in London clings to his neck as if were a life raft.
One might think that Hitchcock, having so clearly made his case about Rebecca and Danvers’ queer and, accordingly, unnatural sexuality, need go no further.
Yet, the story reveals that Rebecca is so very dependent upon Mrs. Danvers that she actually transforms herself into her mother/servant/lover, invoking her name during her visits to a doctor in her escapes to London where, instead of engaging in outsider sex, she hopes to hear the news—in her final revenge against a husband who has stood against everything she represents—that she is pregnant with Favell’s child, making the sleazy monster’s son heir to his beloved Mandeley. If she seeks to rouse Maxim’s anger, she couldn’t have chosen better.
Rebecca’s full name in the Hebrew means “to tie firmly,” “to bind as in a noose.” And in that fact we can conjecture just how thorough her revenge will be. Not only has she planned a way to hang her husband through a lie which would eat away at his traditional values so deeply that in desperation he would have no choice but to kill her, but she has summoned up a witness by writing Favell to meet her at the cottage.
Yet this noose, alas, is also wound around her own neck, as she is diagnosed with cancer, clearly symbol of a disease that cannot stop consuming everything and everyone it touches, including herself and the one she truly loves. If she has previously shared everything with Danny, she now has broken the “marriage vow” between them by hiding the most important piece of information, her pregnancy which in this case symbolizes the end of her lesbian sexuality—and, in reality signifies the end of her bodily existence. As Mrs. Danvers screams out in being told of the facts: “It isn’t true! It isn’t true! She would have told me.” Danvers retaliates against the surrounding males, “Men were all a joke to her. She would sit in her bed and laugh at the lot of you.”
Finally, I suggest, it may have not been Mrs. Danvers attempt to destroy Maxim’s and the second Mrs. De Winter’s life through her ignition of the escaped “gas”—a substance known to have no fixed shape or volume—but to punish the woman who betrayed her, killing herself in the process as well. After all, she believed Maderley truly belonged to Rebecca not to Max, and in Danvers’ imagination Rebecca was still treading the floors of the house she had made over in her image. If the ties of the past holding back Maxim and his new wife were released through the fire, so was the noose worn so obviously by Rebecca’s suffering lover Danny.
Presumably Maxim and his bride have now discovered a new happiness, in part due to the formerly awkward bride’s sudden maturity; if not, living in London Maxim will be able to now see his dear friend Frank out of the confining public eye of Cornwall any time he desires.
*I have depended upon the remarkable research of Laureen Johnson in these passages.
**Markoff’s lovely essay should be visited for its excellent study of the films she suggests. See “Expressions of Desire and Water in Lesbian Cinema,” Screen Queens. December 1, 2019.
Los Angeles, November 3, 2020
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (November 2020).