“She did get so irritated with people calling it a romantic novel. Because she always said it was a study in jealousy.”
Upon Rebecca’s publication in 1938, Royal Society wünderkind and critic V.S. Pritchett made a prediction that was the literary equivalent of saying that the future would be full of nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners; that Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, which has never been out of print, would be “here today, gone tomorrow.”
Her dismissal by literature’s elites was a theme of Du Maurier’s career. Rebecca was “unashamed melodrama,” and The Times, to the embarrassment of hindsight, opened its review by opining that Rebecca was “a lowbrow story with a middlebrow finish.” Even the more sympathetic view of its sister paper, The Sunday Times, reduced her tale of uxoricide to “[a] romance in the grand tradition.” Her popularity with the reading public – and the idea that she might be a real rival to her male contemporaries – was simply not to be borne. Her friend Q (Cornish author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch) put it rather more succinctly: “the critics will never forgive you for writing Rebecca.”
Yet, it seems, not every figure of creative male authority felt the same.
Alfred Hitchcock’s connection with Du Maurier did not begin with her. Aside from being Daphne’s father, Gerald Du Maurier was a celebrated stage actor who had originated the dual roles of Captain Hook and Mr Darling in J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play Peter Pan, and managed Wyndham’s Theatre for 15 years. His friendship with Hitchcock birthed one on-screen collaboration: Lord Camber’s Ladies, produced rather than directed by the man himself, and, to phrase it mildly, not a favourite. “This was a poison thing,” Hitchcock said. “I gave it to Benn Levy to direct.”
Perhaps it’s a fallacy to say that Gerald and Alfred’s friendship birthed a single collaboration, because Hitchcock would never adapt another author as much as he would Gerald’s middle daughter; but to consider as much is to rob Daphne Du Maurier’s work of the power it had over Hitchcock, and to reduce a creative alliance which would far eclipse and outlast her father’s.
By 1939, Hitchcock had made the cycle of British spy thrillers which would solidify key elements of his auteurship; voyeurism, ordinariness and innocence, even the suspenseful descent or ascent of a staircase. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) followed each other like rapid gunfire, an announcement that Hitchcockian filmmaking — and the moniker “Master of Suspense” — were in it for the long term. Hitchcock’s films were dark, and not just because they were black and white.
In the same decade Du Maurier made marks of her own. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931 and concluded with (spoilers) a suicide and attempted murder. The title was, tellingly, taken from a poem by Emily Brontë. Two others followed, and then, in 1936, Jamaica Inn. At first glance an 1820s Cornish period piece might, for a BBC audience, call to mind something more akin to Poldark, all shirtless scything and windswept romanticism; but Jamaica Inn contained the ghoulish seeds that would go on to form Rebecca. Mary Yellan, much like Rebecca’s never-named narrator, finds herself beholden to an unstable older man (her drunk and violent uncle, Joss Merlyn) and eventually witness to murder. Du Maurier’s thematics — young heroines, volatile older men, a constant sense of creeping danger — were in the mainstream.
What the critics could not see, perhaps Hitchcock could. Du Maurier was a writer of the macabre, twisting the knife and turning the screw as Hitchcock himself had learned to do.
It was Du Maurier’s work which would, in the end, bisect Hitchcock’s career between Britain and Hollywood. Like Maxim de Winter’s first marriage to Rebecca, 1939’s Jamaica Inn was a film beset by hidden struggles and internal power plays. It was a star vehicle for the man in front of the camera rather than behind it; a 1930s celebrity, Charles Laughton was star, co-producer, and, as much as the name on the director’s chair began with an “H”, the creative driving force of the film. Laughton played with the script, engineering greater screen time for himself to the detriment of Hitchcock’s vision, so that Laughton’s role as villain was revealed far earlier than his director intended. Du Maurier, returning from Egypt (where she had been writing Rebecca), was not enamoured; she particularly commented that “the role of the squire [Laughton] proved to the detriment of the film as a whole.”
It could so very easily have been the end. Throughout Jamaica Inn Hitchcock had half an eye on his move to Hollywood, signing a deal with Selznick International and, more importantly, with a producer about to enjoy the still-unbeaten success of Gone With The Wind (1939), David O. Selznick. Indeed, Hitchcock later opined to François Truffaut that Jamaica Inn had been “an absurd thing to undertake,” and his mind was focused elsewhere. Du Maurier, writing to Selznick’s colleague Jenia Reissar, was “weeping bitter tears” over the film. Their creative collaboration seemed to be at a disastrous end.
But then: the Titanic project Selznick and Hitchcock had initially agreed transmuted itself into a chase for the rights to Du Maurier’s next novel: Rebecca. Hitchcock had read the galley proofs as early as 1938 (ironically on the set of Jamaica Inn); it was agreed that Hitchcock would use his leverage as old family friend to extract a lower price for the rights than Du Maurier might grant Selznick, and they would make the film together. They paid Du Maurier $50,000, ten thousand more than they had originally intended.
Where Selznick’s taste for epic love stories and female stars informed his view of Rebecca, much in line with the literati who had dismissed it as women’s romance, Hitchcock’s interest lay in “the film’s psychological and atmospheric qualities” and “the prospect of infusing [it] with a sense of foreboding and suspense.” He recognised the tale of marital hatred and murder for what it was, even if it didn’t stop him trying to impose the creative authority he had lacked on Jamaica Inn. His attempts at humour were vetoed by Selznick, but it was the Hollywood Production Code which denied Hitchcock the one thing he was loyal to; the ending. In Du Maurier’s novel, Maxim de Winter confesses to murdering his first wife, Rebecca; in its wrong-headed half-guise as a romance, the Production Code could not accept an unpunished murder, and so instead Maxim only (“only”) kills his first wife by accident. It was a compromise which belied the darkness Hitchcock had recognised and others had missed.
In commercial terms, the fundamental change mattered very little. Rebecca won two Oscars (though not Best Director) and received the kind of contemporary critical acclaim which had evaded the novel. The New Yorker, ever eager to misread Du Maurier’s work, gushed at “a romance which is… even more stirring than the novel.” With critical and Academy acclaim and a $6,000,000 box office in war-torn 1940, it was nothing short of a success. Yet, like Maxim de Winter’s second marriage to the unnamed I, this happiness could not last forever; looking back with Truffaut in 1962 (ironically in the middle of filming his third and final Du Maurier adaptation, The Birds), Hitchcock said of Rebecca, “there was a whole school of feminine literature at that period, and though I’m not against it, the fact is that the story is lacking in humour.” It was, he said, “not a Hitchcock picture.”
Perhaps it was lingering resentment at being denied creative control over Du Maurier’s work for the second time in a row; perhaps it was simply the reflections of a man with an extra 20 years of experience under his substantial belt. Unlike Maxim de Winter, Hitchcock would get a third try. 23 years after Jamaica Inn, Hitchcock constructed The Birds from the carcass of Du Maurier’s short story, retaining only the basic premise and fashioning it entirely to his taste. His revenge against Laughton and Selznick was complete; Du Maurier and her work, like Rebecca‘s heroine, were caught in the crosshairs.