My lawyer book group (read more about the lawyer book group here) recently read Daphne Du Maurier’s classic, Rebecca. The book is a suspense/thriller about a young woman who marries a widower whose first wife was lost at sea. After the narrator marries Max de Winter, she becomes mistress of Manderley, a mansion in an isolated area. Roughly twenty years younger than her husband and of a different social class, she feels constantly overshadowed by her predecessor, Rebecca, and nervous around his family and staff. She is constantly told how beautiful, engaging, and personable the first Mrs. De Winter (Rebecca) was. Her husband is distant, and the narrator becomes convinced that Max never loved her but married her as a balm for his grief. The mood darkens as questions about Rebecca’s character and death emerge.
After discussing the book, I started thinking about whether the story would change were the characters’ genders reversed. I’ve tried not to include too many spoilers in my thoughts below, but if you haven’t read Rebecca, proceed with caution.
- The age difference between the narrator and de Winter would be a more pivotal part of the story and would be addressed directly if Maggie de Winter, a fortyish widow, married a young male about twenty years old. As written, while a few comments are made about Max marrying a “young bride,” and the narrator’s youth combined with her social class makes her uncomfortable running Manderley, the age difference is rarely remarked upon. Further, no one questions that the narrator in Rebecca truly loves with Max de Winter. Understanding her actions at the end of the book turns on that. Readers might speculate far more about whether a young male narrator with no resources of his own married Maggie de Winter solely for her money.
- If the first spouse were named Reginald rather than Rebecca, he might never have married. We eventually learn that Max de Winter was shocked and revolted when soon after their marriage Rebecca told him of horrible things she had done and expected to continue to do. While not spelled out, her “awful” behavior is that she was sexually active. Given the desire to continue to have multiple sexual partners, a man in the 1930s would be more likely to be able to support himself or to have inherited money or property, making it less likely that he would choose to enter a relationship that is by definition monogamous. Also, it seems more likely Reginald’s sexual exploits would have been forgiven or at least tolerated even after marriage, thus avoiding the central conflict between de Winter and Spouse No. 1.
- The issue that most enrages de Winter—that Rebecca might have a baby that is not his who would then inherit his estate—also would disappear for biological reasons. If Reginald had sex resulting in progeny, Maggie de Winter would know the child was not hers, nor would the child inherit from Maggie.
- The underlying premise of the book would fail. Next to the opening line about Manderley, the most well-known aspect of Rebecca is that the reader never learns the narrator’s name. When she is named at all, she is the “second Mrs. De Winter.” (Rebecca at least gets a first name, as well as having the novel named after her, though we don’t know what her last name was before de Winter.) One of the most striking scenes to me is when the narrator answers her first call at Manderley and, when the caller asks for Mrs. de Winter, says in confusion that Mrs. de Winter is dead. All of that changes if a male narrator marries Maggie de Winter, whose first spouse was named Reginald. First, “de Winter” probably wasn’t Maggie’s name, as she no doubt changed hers to her husband’s when she married the first time. So Reginald’s first and last name become known, and Maggie’s original last name is unknown. Second, when Maggie married again, she almost certainly would have changed her last name to the male narrator’s. And if she didn’t, it’s highly unlikely the male narrator would change his to match hers. Even today, 70-80% of women in the U.S. take their husband’s last name on marriage, and I could not find statistics on how many men take their wives’ last names (so I’m guessing not many). In short, a book about a “second Mr. de Winter” would be far more likely to be about, say, the son of a president than the second spouse of an older, well-to-do woman.
- Finally, were the book named Reginald rather than Rebecca and the protagonist male, the book might have gotten a better reception from critics. Critics dismissed Rebecca as a romance and of no consequence. Happily for du Maurier, readers loved it, and Alfred Hitchcock, master of suspense, made it into a movie. Published in 1938, the book is considered a classic and has never gone out of print. As I write this, out of over 20 million paperback books on Amazon, Rebecca’s Amazon Best Seller rank is 4,248.