Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) radiates contempt for most ‘types’ and for both sexes, but it seems to reserve particularly harsh judgement for women. Like its literary antecedent Jane Eyre, the fairytale heroine triumphs at the expense of every other woman in the novel. These women are at best caricatured and at worst condemned, often aligned with sinister, perverse connotation. From the loathsome vulgarian Mrs Van Hopper to the hideous Mrs Danvers, female presence is regarded in this novel as a threat, a dangerous encounter requiring ruthless counter-tactics and survival strategies. In no character is this dangerous horror surrounding femaleness more acutely realized than in the snake-like, subversive Rebecca, and her danger is echoed in nuanced terms in the voice of the storytelling narrator herself.
The question is, though, why would a female novelist write women in this way? So frequently dismissed as a Gothic ‘romance’, that death knell to literary pretension in women's writing, Rebecca is, as feminist critics have been constantly aware, a rather more complex affair in its occupation of liminal territories relating to psycho-sexual desire and patriarchal relationships, and in its narrative tactics that call into question issues of subjectivity, identity, and readerly tactics. Less emphasized in critical discussion, but no less crucial to this text's meaning, is the comment passed within it on an old order in its death throes. Written in 1938 on the eve of war, but set in 1931, Rebecca is a ‘memory text’ that expresses nostalgia for a world of class privilege, excess, and splendour, but that also celebrates its demise. In this sense, the Manderley estate is a ‘monument’ to a past recalled, but its foundation is insecure and the beautiful façade is fissured by flawed masculinist values, acts of bad faith, and shabby moral corruption. This less discussed current in Rebecca is, this essay argues, fundamentally implicated in the expression of misogynistic animus that chiefly concerns the debate here, since it is central to the ironic conversion of the female body into a site of dis/ease, and into a carrier of ideological meaning, and in coded signification gathering around questions of ‘transgressive’ sexual desire.