It’s no secret that Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier was inspired by Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel of love and madness. Rebecca is a book that I probably reread at least once a year – I can recite the opening paragraphs by heart. But Jane Eyre I don’t know so well.
Last year, I reread Jane Eyre for the first time in a few years (since having to study it at university) and was struck by how many comparisons I could make to Rebecca. Perhaps I was looking for them, but I found myself thinking a lot more about how previous stories can influence writers and how those key elements of a story feed into your subconscious and filter out in your own writing, whether you consciously choose to or not.
I’m currently working on a Rebecca inspired story, so it seemed particularly apt to consider these similarities and differences. It is inevitable that countless essays and pieces will have already been written about this, but here are my thoughts.
Jane Eyre was published nearly a hundred years before Rebecca, in 1847, the work of a woman who signed the work Currer Bell (aka Charlotte Bronte). Rebecca was published in 1938, just before the outbreak of war in 1939. It was quickly made into a film by Hitchcock, staring Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Two years later, a film of Jane Eyre was made, also starring Joan Fontaine, alongside Orson Welles. It is striking that both films have the same actress in the lead role, especially as in many ways the characters are the same.
Of course, both books embrace as their heroines, young, nervous second wives. In Rebecca, the heroine is left unnamed, merely embracing her new name, whereas Jane Eyre is the autobiography of Jane’s life and so we follow her throughout her life.
The titles of the novels are interesting. Both are of course names of characters, but create different focuses. Jane Eyre is named after the second wife, whereas Rebecca is named after the ghost of the first wife. Would it have same effect if the book was called Mrs De Winter? Or if Jane called Mrs Rochester or even Bertha? But that would give the whole twist away – and the twists are very different.
Both the main characters are orphans, allowing them both freedom to do what they want and yet, the feeling that they are bound to their situation. Both characters are timid – or at least they are at the start of the novels. It’s the knowledge of Mr Rochester and Maxim’s secrets respectively and the change in circumstance that allows them to change their situation and raise themselves up.
Both main characters sketch, a character detail that is interesting. Was this on purpose, or just something that seemed culturally appropriate for both characters? Both characters say that they are not very good at it, and that it’s merely a hobby – the second Mrs de Winter is scorned for not hunting – an activity that is deemed more appropriate for someone in that position.
There is the mystery around the house. Both Manderley and Thornfield Hall are characters in their own right, and the novels could easily have been called Manderley and Thornfield Hall. Thornfield is gothic and creepy, and Jane hears many strange noises that she can’t attribute to anything. Manderley is a shrine to Rebecca, maintained by the unnerving Mrs Danvers. It is Mrs Danvers who embodies Mrs de Winter’s unease about the house. In Jane Eyre, it is only the mysterious Grace Poole, who turns out to be the caretaker of Bertha, that she can attribute the strangeness too.
So both first wives have their protectors too – Grace Poole and Mrs Danvers. The housekeepers are key to the stories. In Rebecca, the protector and the housekeeper are the same person, and this makes the character of Mrs Danvers even more unnerving to both Mrs de Winter and the reader. The housekeeper in Jane Eyre, Mrs Fairfax, is a friendly, elderly woman, who takes Jane under her wing and guides her through life at Thornfield. Despite their differences, both housekeepers are very important to the stories.
Rebecca of course is transplanted in Cornwall, rather than the wild Yorkshire moors and reflects a different sort of wildness – it has the wildness of the sea and the unknown power and pull that it has. The difference in location gives the stories very different feels.
A tiny detail that I noticed on my reread of Jane Eyre, was the mention of black satin and pearls. Jane sees the glamorous women wearing black satin and pearls and it is clearly significant to her because she notices it. The second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca, says passionately to Maxim that, ‘I wish I was a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls’. Maxim tells her that he wouldn’t be talking to her if she was, and in some ways the same idea is present in Jane Eyre. Jane is so different from Bertha that Mr Rochester takes an interest in her.
What does this leave us with?
Of course, both of these novels are ultimately different stories, despite their similarities. It is evident that du Maurier was inspired by Bronte in the writing of Rebecca and it’s a similarity that cannot go unmissed.
Both books are treasured by readers. Both stories create passionate responses in readers and they are stories that are retold, and still debated. People flock to Yorkshire and Cornwall to imagine the stories unfolding and both books remained constantly in print. Neither book has ever been out of print. This tells us something about the connection that these stories have made with readers.
I know that I’ll be rereading both of these books for a long time to come, and will be constantly questioning and wondering, just how far those similarities go.
Please do share your thoughts with me in the comments!