Rebecca and The Idea of History

The young Daphne du Maurier

The young Daphne du Maurier

During our vacation, Mrs Acilius and I read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.  At the same time, I was reading R. G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History.  These two books were both written in the mid-1930s by English authors; otherwise, they seemed to have nothing in common at all.  Rebecca was a popular novel, intended for a mass audience; The Idea of History is a rather austere work of philosophy, which its author never even attempted to publish.  It was found among Collingwood’s papers after his death, and brought to his publishers’ attention by his friends.  We wanted to read Rebecca because we had seen Hitchcock’s movie and were curious about some themes hinted at there; I’d been meaning to read The Idea of History for several years.  They just happened to turn up on our reading lists at the same time.  

I was surprised to find that the two books complement each other rather nicely.  The narrator and main character of Rebecca is a woman who never gives her own name; we know that her husband is named Maxim de Winter, and that Maxim de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, died suddenly about a year before the story begins.  Rebecca was a powerful personality, and once the second Mrs de Winter arrives at her husband’s estate to start her new life with him she finds that everyone she meets there seems to be obsessed with her predecessor.  Having spent her life up to the moment when she married Maxim in a modest station, the second Mrs de Winter had already been intimidated by Maxim’s great wealth and prestige.  She was also keenly aware of the fact that she had none of the skills required to manage Maxim’s immense household.  The second Mrs de Winter hides from the servants and comes to feel that the contrast between her own homely self and Rebecca’s great brilliance must be a painful disappointment to everyone.  To escape from her fears and find her place in her new home, the second Mrs de Winter must come to understand her husband’s relationship with his late wife. 

The challenge facing the second Mrs de Winter was one that Collingwood would have diagnosed as a task for historianship.  Collingwood sees a great deal of historianship in everyday life.  To quote from the 1968 Oxford University Press paperback I read (hereafter I’ll just call this book “Collingwood”):

If we look out over the sea and perceive a ship, and five minutes later look again and perceive it in a different place, we find ourselves obliged to imagine it as having occupied intermediate positions when we were not looking.  That is already an example of historical thinking… (Collingwood 241)

So, regardless of the sort of evidence Mrs de Winter might use, her inquiries into the past she would qualify as historical research.  And:

If it is by historical thinking that we re-think and so rediscover the thought of Hammurabi or Solon, it is in the same way that we discover the thought of a friend who writes us a letter, or a stranger who crosses the street. (Collingwood 219)

This passage takes us to one of Collingwood’s chief ideas, that the goal of history is to reenact in one’s own mind the thought of the person who performed some past act.  For example:

[H]istorical knowledge is simply the reeanctment of past experiences in the mind of the present thinker. (Collingwood 326)


History cannot be scientifically written unless the historian can reenact in his own mind the experience of the people whose actions he is narrating. (Collingwood 39)

This is certainly Mrs de Winter’s goal.  Eating dinner with Maxim one evening, she so far succeeds in immersing herself in thoughts of some previous evening when he and Rebecca dined in that same room that she unconsciously acts the scene out in pantomime while her husband watches in alarm (pages 168-169 of the 1942 Doubleday edition, Three Romantic Novels of Cornwall; I’ll call this book “du Maurier” from here on out)  We learn subsequently that her idea of the relationship between her husband and Rebecca was entirely false; the thoughts in her mind that evening were not those that had passed through the minds of Maxim and Rebecca.  She had failed in her goal, and was as much a prisoner of the past after that episode as she had been before it. 

Another point of contact between Collingwood’s argument and the second Mrs de Winter’s experience is the relationship between memory and history.  Here’s Collingwood on the difference between the two:

If I say “I remember writing a letter to So-and-So last week,” that is a statement of memory, but it is not an historical statement.  But if I can add, “And my memory is not deceiving me; because here is his reply,” then I am basing a statement about the past on evidence; I am talking history. (Collingwood 252)


Bacon’s definition of history as the realm of memory was wrong, because the past only requires historical investigation in so far as it is not and cannot be remembered.  (Collingwood 58)

And, after summarizing Giambattista Vico’s demonstration that older writers are not necessarily better informed about events closer to their own time than are newer writers:

This is the explicit denial that history depends on what Bacon called memory, or in other words the statements of authorities. (Collingwood 69)

The second Mrs de Winter needs knowledge about the past, and seems to wish helplessly that she could remember it.  Had Collingwood been a character in the novel, he might have counseled her to give up her idle wishing and do herself some good by working for historical knowledge.  To quote from the 1942 Doubeday edition of Rebecca I read:

“If only there could be an invention,” I said impulsively, “that bottled up a memory, like scent.  And it never faded, and it never got stale.  And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.” (du Maurier 38)

The narrator made this impulsive remark before she became the second Mrs de Winter.  She was a nameless girl in Maxim de Winter’s car then, enjoying herself and wanting to preserve the moment.  Maxim replied that “All memories are bitter,” and referred to his first wife’s death (du Maurier 39.)  

Again, had he inserted himself into the novel as a character Collingwood might have helped the narrator (and ruined the plot) by pointing out that memories are not only bitter, but necessarily incomplete and deceptive.  Historians make discoveries because they have a different perspective than do the historical actors who remember events (Collingwood 270).  The narrator’s bottle of memories might preserve the savor of happy emotions, but it would not be likely to give her the knowledge she needs. 

Mrs de Winter’s equation of memory with knowledge leads her down a path quite different from Colllingwood’s.  Tormented, beaten, by the certainty that Maxim could never love her as he had loved Rebecca, the second Mrs de Winter is shocked when Maxim tells her that he never loved Rebecca.  He hated her.  In fact, he killed her.  Her response to Maxim’s confession:

I had listened to his story and part of me went with him like a shadow in its tracks.  I too had killed Rebecca… Now, at the ringing of the telephone, these two selves merged and became one again (du Maurier 238.) 

Collingwood might have been thinking of this passage when he wrote:

[T]he way in which I incorporate Julius Caesar’s experience in my own personality is not by confusing myself with him, but by distinguishing myself from him and at the same time making his experience my own (Collingwood 174.) 

For Collingwood, historianship does not create a double self, does not divide the mind into parts that must be reunited.  On the contrary, the process of historical research is precisely a means of integrating the self.  When we speak of historical judgement, “It is the historian himself who stands at the bar of judgement” (Collingwood 219.)  Quoting F. H. Bradley’s dictum that “Critical history must have a criterion,” Collingwood avers that “it is clear that the criterion can only be the historian himself.”  If our ideas about the past leave us divided and indistinct, we must take it that those ideas have not met Collingwood’s criterion.  Split in two, unable to distinguish herself from Maxim, Mrs de Winter has not achieved the goal Collingwood sets for the historian. 

Collingwood might find the cause of Mrs de Winter’s inner conflict in her methodology.  She has been questing after memory.   Maxim remembers his relationship with Rebecca; he reports those memories to the second Mrs de Winter, who then behaves as if they were her memories.  Maxim confesses that he took a loaded gun to a house where he expected to find his wife and her lover, that he found her alone there, and upon quarreling with her he drew his gun, took aim at her, and fired.  Having satisfied himself that she was dead, he took steps to conceal the killing.  It is rather striking that Mrs de Winter’s response to this confession contains nothing of  disapproval, still less of fear.  On the contrary, she rallies to his support without hesitation.  Unable to reconstruct events from any perspective other than his, she cannot see what we might see, that a man who has killed his first wife is likely to repeat the performance with his second.   

Considering that Rebecca is, at the end of the day, a romance novel, we cannot really be surprised at Mrs de Winter’s devotion to her husband, or at the novelist’s assurance in the opening chapter that their relationship after the events of the story was a happy one.  The genre would hardly permit it to be otherwise.  It would have been a clear violation of the conventions of the romance novel and quite disappointing to du Maurier’s intended audience if the second Mrs de Winter had read Collingwood’s book and approached her problem according to his guidance.  However, the book is really extraordinarily good.  Starting about a quarter of the way in, each chapter could stand on its own a a well-crafted, powerfully evocative short story.  The second Mrs de Winter herself emerges as a character so plausible and so well realized that it is difficult not to search her story for some tragic moral.  Read in conjunction with The Idea of History, Rebecca takes shape as a cautionary tale.

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