Portrayal of Mrs Danvers Character in Rebecca Book vs Rebecca Movie Adaptations
One of the characters, apart from the elusive image of Rebecca herself, that lingers long before the Rebecca book (1938) by the English author, Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989), has been read or a movie adaptation based on it has been watched, is Mrs Danvers - the housekeeper at Manderley estate. The power of this character is such that even though she is not the main heroine and plays a supporting role, in reality, she is one of the main story influencers.
The name of the housekeeper - ‘Danvers’ - is a referral to the port of Antwerp in Belgium, – d’Anvers. This is no accident, for Rebecca de Winter, the first wife of Maximilian de Winter and the mistress of Manderley, used to love sea and sailing. Mrs Danvers, who raised her and then moved with her to Manderley, was her symbolic 'harbour'. The one that Rebecca de Winter could always safely return to. The prefix ‘Mrs’ before the housekeeper’s name denotes that she was a married woman or at least was once, which is unusual for a housekeeper in service of a large estate. Normally, it was a job for life that took all the time and attention of the one who had it. But there is very little of ordinary about the character anyway.
Although Mrs Danvers is predominantly seen by the reader through the eyes of the book’s narrator(s) there are other characters, such as Maximilian de Winter’s sister, Beatrice, her husband Giles, Lady Crowan, and Mr de Winter himself, all of whom give Mrs Danvers their verbal testimonials.
‘How do you get on with Mrs Danvers?’ she [Beatrice] said suddenly.
‘I have not seen very much of her,’ I said, ‘she scares me a little. I’ve never seen anyone quite like her before.’
‘I don’t suppose you have,’ said Beatrice, ‘There is no need to be frightened of her’, said Beatrice, ‘and don’t let her see it, whatever you do. Of course, I’ve never had anything to do with her, and I don’t think I ever want either. However, she’s always been very civil to me.’
'Amazing woman, that Mrs Danvers’, said Giles, turning to me, ‘don’t you think so?’
‘Oh yes, ‘I said, ‘Mrs Danvers seems to be a wonderful person.’
‘She’s no oil painting though, is she?’ said Giles, and he roared with laughter.’
‘That amazing Mrs Danvers is still with you then?’ said Lady Crowan.
‘Yes,’ said Maxim.
‘What’s the matter?’ I said. ‘Who are all those people?’
‘I’m afraid you will have to face it now’, he [Maxim de Winter] said, in irritation. Mrs Danvers has collected the whole damned staff in the house and on the estate to welcome us.’
‘Don’t mind her’, he [Maxim de Winter] said, ‘she [Mrs Danvers] is an extraordinary character in many ways, and possibly not very easy for another woman to get on with.’
All the ‘testimonials’ referring to Mrs Danvers show her as a complex figure who has some wonderful characteristic but also some darker side too. Exactly what makes her three-dimensional and interesting. In the movie adaptations, however, the depictions of Mrs Danvers mainly portray her as one-dimensional character - scary, stiff, dark, unpleasant, overbearing, and intimidating, in other words a negative force of some sort.
In the book, Mrs Danvers, although has some scary elements, – mostly as seen by the main heroine – is not an altogether negative character. The negativity comes from the way the main heroine sees the housekeeper for the first time and imagines that she is being resented, not liked, and even despised. Although, there is some grain of truth in it, the reaction of the main heroine to the housekeeper shows her own low self-esteem and lack of any personality as opposed to strength, character, and power that Mrs Danvers has.
‘Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face parchment-white, set on a skeleton’s frame. She came towards me, and I held out my hand, envying her for her dignity and her composer, but when she took my hand, hers was limp and heavy, deathly cold, and it lay in mine like a lifeless thing. ‘This is Mrs Danvers’, said Maxim, and she began to speak, still leaving that dead hand in mine, her hollow eyes never leaving my eyes, so that my own wavered and would not meet hers, and as they did so, her hand moved in mine, the life returned to it, and I was aware of a sensation of discomfort and of shame. I cannot remember her words now, but I know that she bade me welcome to Manderley, in the name of herself and the staff, a stiff conventional speech rehearsed for the occasion, spoken in a voice as cold and lifeless as her hands had been. When she had finished she waited, as though for a reply, and I remember blushing scarlet, stammering some sort of thanks in return, and dropping both gloves in my confusion. She stooped to pick them up, and as she handed them to me I saw a little smile of scorn upon her lips, and I guessed at once she considered me ill-bred. Something, in the expression of her face, gave me a feeling of unrest, and even when she had stepped back, and taken her place amongst the rest, I could see that black figure standing out alone, individual and apart, and for all her silence I knew her eye to be upon me’.
The description of the first meeting of the narrator and Mrs Danvers tells a lot about the character of the woman. There are many symbolic references as well as perceptive notes that contrast with the narrator’s personality or rather lack of it.
The great, hollow eyes of Mrs Danvers on her skull-like face is a reference to Plutonian energies – the planet of underworld, secrets, transformations, deaths, and power. Pluto rules the sign of Scorpio and the black colour of Mrs Danvers dress points to her Scorpio sign traits which is disclosed by Daphne du Maurier later in the story. The dignity, composer, and coldness of the housekeeper refers to Saturn and the sign of Capricorn. In fact, the whole of Manderley is a theme of Capricorn – an army of servants, set rules and routines, the subordination, the structure, the tradition, and the class system. Being very Plutonian, Mrs Danvers raises fear in the heart of the unworldly, ‘ill-bred’, out of place, and characterless narrator. What the narrator fears is not Mrs Danvers as such but the transformation and the hard work and input associated with it. Mrs Danvers represents an opportunity for the narrator to look deeper into her own soul and find the desires and wishes that are hidden there from the world.
In the movie adaptations (1940, 1997, and 2020), this first encounter with Mrs Danvers is interpreted somewhat differently – mainly as an encounter with ‘dark and evil force’ that obstructs the entrance of the main heroine into her new life.
In the Rebecca British TV series (1997) and in the recent adaptation Rebecca (2020), Mrs Danvers greets the main heroine on her own without being part of the servants line up. This sets the housekeeper apart from the group and shows her dislike and resentment of the main heroine, but, at the same time, defies the purpose of the introduction scene. For Mrs Danvers is part of the servants yet an individual among the sea of faces. This should create a contrast with the main heroine who is more part of the group rather than an individual with an established personality. Unfortunately, in the movie adaptations this crucial element is missing due to the way the scenes are presented and filmed.
In the movie adaptations (1940, 1997, and 2020), the main heroine is perplexed and intrigued by the figure of a lonely housekeeper. She is even a bit scared of her, as she represents unknown to the narrator rules and structure of Manderley. The focal point of the housekeeper’s face in the book is her great hollow eyes that reflect so much of the hidden emotions and feelings. These eyes and her skeleton like figure make her face resemble a skull – a symbol of death and transformations. However, in the movie adaptations (1940, 1997, and 2020) physical appearance of Mrs Danvers somewhat differs from the book.
Only in the British TV series of 1997 adaptation, the looks of Mrs Danvers character are close to the original description, mainly because of the large and deep eyes of the actress, Dame Diana Rigg (1938-2020), playing the character. In the Alfred Hitchcock’s version, the housekeeper, played by Dame Judith Anderson (1897-1992), does not possess these great eyes, nor in the Rebecca (2020) adaptation – Mrs Danvers is played by Dame Kristin Scott Thomas (1960 - present). For some reason, the filmmakers of the 1997 and 2020 version bring more attention to the character’s lips that are rouged, making the housekeeper look like some sort of vamp-woman.
What for the certain behavioural patterns of the character, perhaps one of the closest depictions of it can be found in Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Rebecca (1940). He stays pretty close to the introduction scene of the book as intended by Daphne du Maurier. Hitchcock’s Mrs Danvers has dignity, strength, character and stamina. She stands out from the crowd of servants, appearing as a ‘hostess’ of Manderley, not merely a shadow, as in the movie adaptations of 1997 and 2020, where Mrs Danvers is deprived of this role by the means of giving more prominence and importance to Mr de Winter. One of such examples is Mrs Danvers’ welcoming speech on the arrival of Mr de Winter and the narrator to Manderley.
In the British TV series adaptation of 1997, the welcoming speech is made by Maximilian de Winter, not Mrs Danvers. He thanks the servants and then proceeds into the house where Mrs Danvers greets the couple. This gives her a secondary, non-important role of somebody who stands in the shadow of Mr de Winter. Such portrayal of the housekeeper diverts attention to Maximilian de Winter, assigning more prominence to him and, at the same time, giving the narrator his ‘protection’.
In the Rebecca adaptation of 2020, there is no welcoming speech at all – neither by the housekeeper, nor by Maxim de Winter. Instead, Maxim de Winter walks into Manderley, caring the main heroine on his shoulders. Having put her down in the hall, he starts kissing her, just to be interrupted by the appearance of Mrs Danvers from the depth of the house. This portrayal of the housekeeper makes her even less prominent than in the 1997 adaptation, not only she does not make a speech, she also appears to be part of the interior rather than an individual who stands out. Her ‘interruption’ of sweet kissing of the main heroine and Mr de Winter gives the scene a bit of sleazy feel – as if the housekeeper peeps at them through a keyhole of some sort, being an outsider rather than insider of the house.
Such mis-depictions of Mrs Danvers intentionally shifts focus and misinterprets the story and the behaviour of each of the characters. But mainly denies the main heroine a chance of possible transformation, presenting her as someone who does not need to do any work on herself. Not that in the book she does much work either, but at least there she was offered a multitude of chances to do so, and these ‘offers’ mainly came from Mrs Danvers.
The first encounter of Mrs Danvers is very important because it sets the tone of what is going to happen further in the story and assigns the powers to the characters involved.
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