The Reluctant Traveler: du Maurier vs Bronte

We’re talking about Rebecca and Jane Eyre.

Two naïve young women come to live in lavish English houses owned by older men with secrets.

One, a dead wife, and one a living wife who is insane.

It’s the same story.

Jane and du Maurier’s never-named heroine are both orphans—both tales are told from first person points-of-view—and rootless. Jane teaches at the same orphanage she was sentenced to as a child with a forthright tongue who is grossly misunderstood by her guardian, and Maxim de Winter’s second wife drifts on the edges of glamor as the paid companion of a wealthy matron.

The two men who turn their lives upside-down are by all appearances well-traveled, rich, single and troubled. Edward Rochester of Thornfield Hall and Maxim de Winter of Manderly both are edgy, bitter and appear to become entranced by these two young women, Maxim seeking welcome escape from memories of his former marriage and Edward seeking escape from everything. They are worldly men and the women know nothing of the world. All that recommends them are a sort of freshness. Jane’s clear, unwavering life-opinions and Mrs. de Winters’ innocent guile are tonics to two men who have been horribly disappointed in love.

The dramas unfold in the setting of isolated country estates that, in the end, burn to the ground. The lovers are torn apart by Edward’s and Maxim’s terrible deeds. That these two couples love each other is expressed clearly by du Maurier and Bronte, but the journey to happiness is long and costly. Both heroines approach death and escape. For both heroines, love conquers all.

Both women exemplify naiveté cloaking deep courage. They find within themselves—especially Mrs. de Winter, as Jane is clearly brave—a steely strength. Both men personify the Byronic hero, “That man of loneliness and mystery, Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh”. This pairing is surely a classic trope that readers never tire of, especially female readers.

Both novels are timeless, the story told over and over in various settings by many authors. Easily Jane Eyre has been reproduced on film and video more than a dozen times, and Rebecca at least half as often.

Bonus question, dear reader. Which versions are your favorites? Mine are Ruth Wilson’s Janeand Toby Stephens’ Rochester, BBC, 2006 and Joanna David’s Mrs. de Winter and Jeremy Brett’s Maxim, BBC, 1979 (nearly impossible to find). This is not to mention Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Rebecca and Jane Eyre, (1943, director Robert Stevenson—see it if only to catch a glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor as Helen)—both staring Joan Fontaine. Oh, and Laurence Olivier and Orson Wells respectively.

It’s interesting that literature experts classify heroes of such works a as the Byronic hero, but is there such a description for the Janes and Mrs de Winters? A Bronte heroine? A du Maurier naif?

What term would you choose?

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About Jill Zeller

The author of numerous short stories and novels, Jill Zeller lives near Seattle, Washington, with her patient and adoring husband, two English mastiffs, and one self-centered tuxedo cat. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination were as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Maybe it is because she was raised as a Christian Scientist. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison
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4 Responses to The Reluctant Traveler: du Maurier vs Bronte

  1. Msb says:

    I’m afraid I haven’t read or seen any Du Maurier, though I’m looking forward to the new movie of My Cousin Rachel. I love Jane Eyre (novel and character), for Jane’s courage and her inisistence on maintaining her self-respect. I think one can see the story as a series of tests,with Jane first resisting oppression from “parents” who insist she owes them respect, then refusing what she knows to be wrong from the man she loves, then refusing what she believes to be right because it is not right for her, and finally actively choosing a life right for her.
    The old BBC version was the only one to fully spell out Rochester’s evil as well as love, and to fully show the conflict with StJohn Rivers. It also had great actors: Zelah Clark & Timothy Dalton. Other than that, I really liked the recent movie with Mia Warshowski (spelling that wrong, I’m sure) and Michael Fassbender, who did his usual excellent work on showing what’s both right and wrong with Rochester. Mia W was a bit too tall and beautiful for little and plain Jane, but you could see she had a spine of steel.

  2. I watched an old movie of Rebecca years ago, but it was too gothic horror for me, and had none of the good bits of the writing. I’ve never seen Jane Eyre as a film–again, the appeal for me is the writing.

    An interesting comparison. Du Maurier is mostly anti-romantic, with a vengeance, but this one is her most romantic novel, if it can be called that. Bronte was an influence. And yeah, none of the sisters quite broke away from their Byron thing. You see that “type” show up in all their novels, in various forms.

  3. Foxessa says:

    I much prefer My Cousin Rachel (the new film is splendid) because it is not a mysterious broody dark fellow at the center, but a complicated, mysterious woman, who has a clear sense of how the world works and has taken it on with the only weapons a woman has to make it work for herself — and isn’t at all afraid to deal with sex as both weapon and desire for a woman. It’s a remarkable work. But then, so is Frenchman’s Creek, in a much more “romantic historical fantasy” mode. Du Maurier and her skills are indeed remarkable!

  4. tuppenny says:

    Then there is Sharon Shinn’s “Jenna Starborn” which is a wonderful space opera version of Jane.

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