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)