The classic novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier was first published on this day in 1938! The bisexual Daphne’s magnum opus and its film adaptation has lingered in LGBT culture for decades due to its heavy lesbian-coding of the character Mrs. Danvers.
Ever since it first hit shelves, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca has been a best-seller and is even still in print in the year 2017 (x).
Inspired by events in Daphne’s own life, Rebecca tells the story of a woman named Mrs. de Winter who finds herself being psychologically haunted by the ghost of her husband’s first wife whose name was, you guessed it, Rebecca. Having married Mr. de Winter just a year after Rebecca’s tragic death in a boating accident, the new Mrs. de Winter (who is never given a first name) is a very unwelcome addition to the family’s home and social circle. Her primary tormentor is Mrs. Danvers, the creeping housemaid who is resentful of the fact that the new Mrs. de Winter is encroaching on Rebecca’s memory. Painted as a vindictive villain who has been obsessed with Rebecca ever since she was a child, Mrs. Danvers has long been read as a lesbian character; albeit a derogatory stereotype of one, but a lesbian all the same. When the novel was adapted to the screen in 1940, the lesbian subtext became even more prominent. Before the film was completed the Motion Picture Production Code sent a message to its director regarding the subtext: “If any hint of this creeps into this scene, we will of course not be able to approve the picture.”
The iconic scene from the 1940 film adaptation where Mrs. Danvers clings to Rebecca’s lingerie was featured in a 1995 documentary about the history of LGBT characters across film history titled The Celluloid Closet for its obvious lesbian subtext.
Although Daphne du Maurier was happily married to her husband, she also had multiple affairs with women and wrote in her private diaries about preferring both men and women. The titular character of her novel My Cousin Rebecca was highly influenced by Ellen Doubleday, the wife of Daphne’s publisher and also her lover of several years. We have also written about Daphne’s affair with the British actress Gertrude Lawrence in the past. Sarah Waters, who is arguable today’s most popular lesbian author, has cited Daphne as a big inspiration for her own work and has spoken publicly about her belief that Daphne wrote lesbian-coded characters as a way of working through her own “unruly feelings” about women or perhaps releasing her own feelings of internalized homophobia.