The afterword in my version of Rebecca mentioned that the book reflects Jane Eyre. As an amateur reader, I’m very hazy about terms like ‘intertextuality’, but I thought it’d be fun to compare and contrast the two books. I didn’t re-read both books for the purpose of searching out every small details to compare. These are all from memory so sorry in advance if there are inaccuracies. Here we go.
Mrs de Winter vs Jane Eyre
In both books, the main character and the first-person narrator are the second wife. They are both young and inexperienced in the world. They have both been under the tyranny of an older woman: the nameless Mrs de Winter as a ‘lady’s companion’ at Monte Carlo and Jane Eyre when she was little in Gateshead Hall. They both have no family to fall back on. They are poor, alone and quite vulnerable in the world.
When they move into the new environment – Mrs de Winder to Manderley and Jane Eyre to Thornfield Hall – both are extremely sensitive about their inferior social position and as a result worry extensively about saying or doing anything inappropriate. However Mrs de Winter blunders all the time in very stereotypical manners, e.g. knocking over a vase of flowers and getting soaked by the water, smashing a valuable item and trying to get away by hiding it; Jane Eyre doesn’t.
Their backgrounds might have similarities but they are very different in essential ways. Jane has a fierce spirit even though she looks plain and submissive on the outside. She wants to be loved but not at the cost of independence, dignity and integrity. Mrs de Winter is a pitiable soul without much backbone. Jane makes choices. Mrs de Winter gets swept along. Mrs de Winter cannot very convincingly say, “I am a free human being with an independent will” (p247)*.
Maxim de Winter vs Mr Rochester
Both of our heroines are in a relationship with a much older gentleman, who possess unspoken pasts and live in dark and haunted mansions. Both men married their first wife and hoped for happiness but soon found out their wife was not how she appeared to be. They decided against revealing the truth about their wife to the world and had to hide and deal with the consequence and hardship alone.
Both men are uncomfortable in their house and away from it at the beginning – there is silence and a feeling of discomfort when Manderley is mentioned in the presence of Mr de Winter and Mr Rochester does not come to Thornfield Hall often according to Mrs Fairfax. Both return to it because of the second wife.
For their second relationship, Maxim de Winter genuinely loves his second wife as does Rochester Jane. Maxim says something that frames both of their relationships nicely, “I’ve enjoyed this hour with you more than I have enjoyed anything for a very long time. You’ve taken me out of myself, out of despondency and introspection… (p26*)” Maxim would have very likely gone on the same kind of wandering life as Rochester did if he didn’t meet the nameless girl (so annoyingly inconvenient when you have to refer to her so often!), “You have blotted out the past for me, you know, far more effectively than all the bright lights of Monte Carlo. But for you I should have left long ago, gone on to Italy, and Greece, and further still perhaps. You have spared me all those wanderings.” No doubt the same type of wandering Rochester did before he met Jane.
Manderley vs Thornfield Hall
Manderley is one of the most famous houses in English literature. I’d say Thornfield Hall is less so even though Jane Eyre is more widely read and loved than Rebecca. Both houses are huge, beautiful, mysterious and haunted. More significantly, both mansions burn down directly or indirectly because of the first wife.
Rebecca vs Bertha Mason
Both first wives are unconventional, exotic and mad. I know there are a lot of theories about the mirroring between Bertha Mason and Jane Eyre, and between Rebecca and the nameless Mrs de Winter. Again, I haven’t studied it so can’t comment on it. Both first wives are a forbidden topic for a large part of the stories and both women caused mayhem when discovered, alive or dead. I feel the dead one (Rebecca) caused more mayhem than the living one (Bertha).
It’s also worth noticing that both first wives are in fact victims. But both books are written in such a way that the readers sympathise with the ‘murderer’ and the ‘jailor’. Jane Eyre is less problematic in this sense because firstly, although Rochester locked Bertha up, he treated her as well as her condition allows; secondly, Jane makes a morally correct choice and leaves him.
But this irrational sympathy is more obvious with Rebecca. I realised this when I tried to retell Rebecca to my husband in brief. It sounds absolutely absurd: (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT) ‘A wealthy gentleman married a young girl and brought her home to an English manor house. His first wife died by accident but kept haunting the house and the new bride. It turned out the man killed his first wife and the rest of the book is about how the truth is concealed and how he avoided ending up in jail.’ It’s completely mad looking at it in this cool detached matter-of-fact way, but then say I’m glad the couple get out of it free. I guess that’s the magic of literature for you.
Another worthy subject about Rebecca would be the theatre in Mrs de Winter’s head. I can completely understand her daydreaming disease because I do exactly the same thing, weaving alternative realities in my head at sixty yards per minute. It’s very impressive how the author put it all on paper – maybe I should try too!