In the summer of 1937, Daphne Du Maurier’s husband was assigned as the commanding officer of the Second Battalion of the Grenadier Guards in Alexandria, Egypt. Du Maurier left her two daughters with their nanny in England and accompanied him to Egypt. Perhaps because of homesickness, Du Maurier spent this time abroad working on a new novel, one inspired largely by her beloved Cornwall. She described her mental process for the project: “Seeds began to drop. A beautiful home…a first wife…jealous, a wreck, perhaps at sea, near to the house…But something terrible would have to happen. I did not know what…”
Du Maurier completed the novel shortly after she and her husband returned to England, after making a few crucial changes. In “The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories,” she writes, “The husband was no longer Henry but Max--perhaps I thought Henry sounded dull. The sister and the cousin, they were different too. The narrator remained nameless, but the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, had become more sinister…The original epilogue somehow merged into the first chapter, and the ending was entirely changed.” The novel was published in April of 1938 under the title IRebecca.
Many aspects of Rebecca were based on elements of Du Maurier’s life. In her description of Manderley, Du Maurier drew upon two houses in her life: Milton, a grand estate that she had visited as a child, and Menabilly, a 17th-century mansion with sweeping grounds and a beach. Du Maurier was particularly entranced by Menabilly and often explored the grounds during her youth. Ironically, Du Maurier was able to use the proceeds from book sales to rent Menabilly in 1943.
Du Maurier was also inspired by her own experiences in terms the primary conflict of the novel: the presence of the first wife. Du Maurier’s husband had been previously engaged to a glamorous dark-haired beauty named Jan Ricardo who had committed suicide by flinging herself in front of a train. Du Maurier struggled with jealousy and insecurity about Ricardo, especially after she discovered a several love letters that Ricardo had written to her husband. Considering these parallels, it is not difficult to hypothesize that Du Maurier viewed herself in the role of the nameless narrator in Rebecca. Du Maurier even admitted that the novel should be categorized as “a study in jealousy.”
Another crucial element of Rebecca is Du Maurier’s liberal use of stereotypical Gothic elements, such as a secluded mansion, a brooding hero, a dark secret, a vulnerable heroine, and supernatural occurrences. As an example of Gothic literature, Du Maurier’s novel is also noteworthy for its similarity to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the pinnacle of Gothic fiction in the 19th century. In both novels, an unassuming heroine falls in love with a sophisticated older man who is tormented by a terrible secret. For Maxim, it is the guilt of murdering his first wife and the fear of her continuing presence at Manderley; for Mr. Rochester, it is the guilt of Bertha’s insanity and her imprisonment in the attic at Thornfield Hall. At the end of each work, the heroine achieves personal happiness, but only after the estate (and thus, the lingering presence of the first wife) is destroyed by fire.
Although the novel was well received by the public, it received little consideration from critics, who perceived the work as an inconsequential, old-fashioned romance novel. V.S. Pritchett, one reviewer of the work, asserted, “It would be absurd to make a fuss about Rebecca. It will be here today and gone tomorrow.” Author Gilbert Adair derided the work as “popular middlebrow fiction,” while even Alfred Hitchcock described the book as nothing more than a “novelette.”
Despite criticism from the literary world, Du Maurier’s novel maintained its popularity and success, especially after the release of Hitchcock’s film adaptation in 1940. Rebecca has been continuously in print for eight decades; in 1993, the American publishing company, Avon, estimated book sales at a steady 4,000 copies a month. The work also inspired three sequels: Susan Hill’s Mrs. De Winter, Maureen Freely’s The Other Rebecca, and Sally Beauman’s Rebecca’s Tale.