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Law and Mrs. de Winter

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I recently read Daphne DuMaurier’s novel Rebecca.  I had started reading the novel several times before, while visiting my grandmother, but I always had to leave before getting much beyond the first two or three chapters.  It is a suspenseful book–and even knowing the basics of the story did not detract from the tension.  What did surprise me, however, was the number of legal issues that littered the book’s landscape: divorce, inheritance, blackmail, and murder.

The book begins with one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”  The book is narrated in the first person by the second Mrs. de Winter, whose Christian name is never revealed.  She is looking back on the events that led to her marriage and her time at her husband’s estate, Manderley.  At least 20 years younger than her husband, she is shown as naïve, shy and unsophisticated when she meets her husband, Maxim de Winter at Monte Carlo.  He is the owner of a famous estate in Cornwall.  When she meets him, he is seemingly mourning his wife, Rebecca, who died in a boating accident.

Spoiler alert:  After their whirlwind courtship and marriage, the de Winters return to Manderley where the second Mrs. de Winter quickly comes to feel she is a most inadequate substitute for Rebecca.  Rebecca–as she learns from the servants, her sister-in-law, and neighbors–was a wonder.  She was beautiful, intelligent, charismatic and largely responsible for the success of Manderley.  She begins to feel her husband regrets their hasty marriage and that he does not love her.  Things come to a crisis with a masked ball where Mrs. de Winter unwittingly replicates Rebecca’s costume from her last ball, as she was urged to do by the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers who was Rebecca’s devoted servant.  The day after the ball, Rebecca’s sailboat is found with a skeleton in the cabin.  Max de Winter then confesses to his wife that the skeleton is Rebecca’s.  He had shot her and sunk the boat.  He reveals that far from being the saint they all believed her to be, Rebecca lived a sordid, secret life with lovers.  But, to save his pride, Max had agreed to the pretense of a loving marriage;  however, tensions grow until in their final confrontation Max kills her.

Although the novel was written during World War II, the action of the novel itself takes place during the interwar years in England.  Divorce in England had theoretically been made easier in these years by the 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act.  This law made adultery by one spouse or the other the sole grounds for divorce.  However, this had to be proved in court, as Rebecca reminds her husband: “‘Have you ever thought,’ she said ‘how damned hard it would be to make a case against me?   In a court of law, I mean.  If you wanted to divorce me.  Do you realize that you’ve never had one shred of proof against, from the first?  All your friends, even the servants believe our marriage to be a success.'”  She taunts him further saying, “‘If I had a child, Max, [. . .] neither you, nor anyone in the world would ever prove that it was not yours.  It would grow up here at Manderley, bearing your name. [. . . ] And when you died Manderley would be his.  [. . .] The property is entailed.'”  It is this thought that finally drives Max to shoot his wife–the idea of his property being inherited by an illegitimate child.  Curiously, concern over an illegitimate child was referenced in the House of Lords debate on the Matrimonial Causes Act.  Lord Buckmaster said: “I should think there can be no greater tragedy in domestic life than the tragedy of the man of unfailing fidelity to his wife, and of deep devotion [. . .] who looks into the face of a child born in his own household, and is tortured by doubt as to whether it has the right to call him father.”

There is also the question as to whether Max has committed murder or manslaughter.  According to An Introduction to Criminal Law, voluntary manslaughter “covers cases in which the accused intended to do grievous bodily harm to the deceased but the law, in its clemency, treat the crime as manslaughter [. . .] because of the presence of gross provocation.”  Yet, the only type of provocation which would provide this exception is if a husband had caught his wife in the act of adultery.  Max hints that he expects to find his wife in this situation when he says, “I thought I’d take a gun and frighten the fellow, frighten them both.”  However, it is more likely that Max acted with “malice aforethought,” as he deliberately took the gun with him–an act “which is intrinsically likely to kill.”

Having murdered his wife, a capital crime in England, which would have led to Max’s hanging, he then works to cover his tracks:  he places his wife’s body in  her sailboat and sinks the boat.  He continues his obfuscation when several months later he identifies the body of another woman as Rebecca’s.  His confession to the second Mrs. de Winter does not produce revulsion or horror in her towards Max; rather, it produces happiness in her knowing that he loves her and never loved Rebecca.  According to An Introduction to Criminal Law, this also makes her an accessory after the fact, “one who, after the commission of a felony [. . .] receives, comforts or assists the felon.”  The second Mrs. de Winter gladly comforts and vows to stand by her husband: “I would fight for Maxim.  I would lie and perjure and swear, I would blaspheme and pray.”

After the inquest, Rebecca’s cousin and lover, Jack Favell turns up. Apparently, Jack had concealed evidence of a note he received from Rebecca the day she died.  The inquest found that Rebecca’s death was a suicide, but Jack believes the note would overturn that verdict.  But, rather than turning it over to the police, he goes to Manderley and “demands with menaces.”   An Introduction to Criminal Law defines “demanding with menaces” as “a person is guilty of demanding money [. . .] with intent to extort or gain any property or valuable thing from any person accuses or threatens to accuse [. . .] that person [. . .] of any such crime.”  In other words, Jack attempted to blackmail Max de Winter, implying that the Rebecca’s note would prove Max murdered her.

Max calls Jack’s bluff and summons the local magistrate.  The rest of the novel is a cat and mouse game with everyone believing Max had murdered Rebecca, but no one was able to produce hard evidence.  In the end, a doctor, who Rebecca had secretly seen, reveals that she was dying of cancer; unfortunately for Jack Favell, this information supports the suicide theory.  Max, however, speculates that she had provoked him into shooting her as an easy way out:  “There was only one thing ever worried her, and that was the idea of getting old, of illness, of dying in her bed.”

Rebecca of course has her revenge against Max, ensuring that he will never be entirely free of the suspicion of her death: “‘It’s curious and very irritating,’ [. . .] ‘how long stories spread in country districts. [. . . ] People are inclined to say the wildest things if they are given half a chance.'”  Moreover, Max–who has killed and lied again and again just in order to ensure his control of Manderley–loses it in a fire set by Rebecca’s devoted servant, Mrs. Danvers, so that justice is finally served.

[Illustration of English country estates, ca. 182-?]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
[Illustration of English country estates, ca. 182-?]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

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