The other Rebecca
A Sucessora (1934, ‘The Successor’) opens with a couple returning from their honeymoon trip. The first chapter unravels through an extended scene that feels like cinema: within a few paragraphs, we watch as the ship anchors in Rio de Janeiro, the couple disembarks and enters a limo; then, they cross the city as the sun sets, and drive through the palm grove in their garden; and finally, the couple sees their house from a distance. Roberto Steen, the husband, immediately turns to Marina, his new wife, to try to capture her first reaction to his mansion.
The book is narrated in third person, but follows Marina’s point of view. When getting out of the limo, her first reaction is to look up at the treetops in the garden, rather than at the house. This small detail gives us a first glimpse into our protagonist’s personality: Marina is a 20-year-old girl from a traditional family of landowners in Rio’s countryside. Worldly affairs do not interest her, and she prefers to spend her time alone, either reading or in close contact with nature. Her husband, on the other hand, enjoys a good party. Roberto is an industrialist who belongs to Rio’s bourgeois elite. He is fifteen years older than Marina, and had previously lived in the same mansion with his deceased first wife, Alice.
Back to our cinematic extended scene: it’s our protagonist’s first day at her wealthy husband’s mansion in Rio de Janeiro, and, as soon as they get out of the car, Roberto’s voice calls her back from her revery in the garden, to introduce her to the servants – Antonio, the butler; and his wife, Julia, the housekeeper.
They then enter the house, and Marina’s eyes fall on a couple of flower pots full of lilies and roses. Roberto, thinking that these were all too common flowers, immediately tries in vain to draw her attention to another vase with exotic greenhouse flowers. This is yet another subtle glimpse into one of the novel’s central topic: the contrast between Roberto and Marina’s views, as a mirror of the clash between two different elites and ways of being in Brazil at the beginning of the 20th century.
In this particular aspect, the book felt very reminiscent of North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854 – 1855), in that we also have a tension between rural and urban lifestyles and between tradition and progress; not only that, it is a tension embodied by the novel’s romantic couple – Marina, more or less like Gaskell’s Margaret, represents (and struggles with) the decline of a rural, traditional (almost feudal) elite in Brazil; Roberto, on the other hand, like Gaskell’s Mr. Thornton, represents the rise of a bourgeois, industrialist elite.
Nabuco’s book will masterly explore this larger social and cultural clash in a character study of Marina’s struggles with her own values – a clash which will, in turn, mirror her personal struggles with the memory (or the ghost) of Roberto’s first wife, Alice. But I am getting ahead of myself here.
Let’s go back, once again, to our cinematic sequence in the first chapter. As you might have gathered by now, if we look closely to Marina’s gaze in this extended scene, we will be able to understand much of the novel’s core topics. When we left our romantic couple, Roberto was trying to draw his wife’s attention to a vase of exotic flowers, but she was clearly more interested in the everyday roses. No matter how much Roberto tries to direct Marina’s gaze, she will always maintain her own perspective; their marriage will be a clash between their different worldviews, and, although many times tempted to give in, Marina will fight back against the lure of abandoning her family’s values.
Roberto then asks her whether she likes her new house, and Marina’s gaze moves from the roses and falls on her reflection in the mirror: for a split second, she cannot recognize herself in the young married lady facing her, dressed to her sister-in-law’s taste. From the mirror, Marina’s gaze finally turns to the house.
Meanwhile, Roberto keeps talking to her about it, congratulating himself on the luxury of his abode, but we never hear what he is saying. As Marina begins to pay attention to the house, two things start to happen in parallel: she remembers that the mansion had been decorated by the previous wife; and she starts to compare it with the austere countryside house where she had lived most of her life.
From the roses to the mirror, then to the house, Marina’s gaze finally lands on a painting placed prominently in the hall: a portrait of Alice, made by a famous French artist. “On the central wall, with her bright black eyes directed towards the door and her hand raised warmly, Alice, acting as a hostess, seemed to receive her successor as a passing guest (…).” (My translation. Original: “Na parede central, com os olhos pretos e brilhantes dirigidos para a porta, com a mão levantada acolhedoramente, Alice, fazendo de dona de casa, parecia receber a sucessora como a uma hóspede passageira…”)
Marina’s gaze immediately turn’s to Roberto, and we are thrown into a flashback to the moment when the portrait had been painted. Roberto then comes back from his revery through the past, and finds his new wife at his side. He is angry that his orders to remove the painting had not been obeyed. Marina, on the other hand, felt curious: for a long time, even before she had met Roberto, Marina had heard of Alice – who was then the famous Mrs. Steen (Madame Steen) – and had wanted to see a picture of her. “Whenever she referred to Alice, Marina said “she”. She didn’t think she was authorized to call her by her name, with an intimacy that had never existed. She once said to Roberto ‘your wife’, but he corrected her immediately: ‘You are my wife’.” (My translation. Original: “Sempre que se referia a Alice, Marina dizia “ela”. Não se julgava autorizada a chamá-la pelo nome com uma intimidade que nunca existira. Uma vez dissera a Roberto “tua mulher”, mas ele corrigiu logo: — Minha mulher és tu.”)
As the couple goes from room to room, Marina sees her image reflected in a succession of mirrors all over the house. In an interplay between what is said and what remains, as a ghost, hidden between the lines, a conversation takes place between Marina and Roberto, where she simultaneously listens to what he is saying and to what she imagines he is refusing to say out loud.
From then on, our protagonist’s obsession with what she sees as her rival – the hidden presence of the deceased first wife – will take over all aspects of Marina’s life with Roberto. In her eyes, Alice had been the perfect wife: charming, magnetic even; unusually beautiful and sophisticated; an impeccable hostess, and, as such, a perfect match for Roberto’s worldly lifestyle. In our protagonist’s mind, Alice is the embodiment of everything that Marina never will be; as well as the embodiment of the rising urban, bourgeois values that would come to vanquish everything that Marina’s family and background stand for.
We will follow Marina as she unsuccessfully tries to live up to what she imagines as Roberto’s expectations, using her fantasies about Alice as a template. Another masterful cinematic sequence will take place on Chapter V, where Marina will dream that Alice is laughing at her, in a menacing way: “Me, dead? Dead, do you really believe it? What a joke!” (My translation. Original: “Eu morta? Morta, achas? Que pilhéria!”)
Alice’s sardonic laugh will echo throughout the house, and everyone (Germana, the servants, Roberto’s friends, even Roberto himself) will start to laugh at Marina – as if they were throwing stones at her with their laughter. Eventually, she will wake up, but Alice’s voice will continue to haunt her, as if coming from the famous painting.
The novel is at its best as a character study centred on Marina’s identity crisis mirroring a larger exploration of early 20th-century Brazil’s own ‘identity crisis’ and cultural clash. For as long as Marina keeps trying to fit inside the frame, Alice’s painting will maintain her hold over the household – and over the successor’s mind.
Unfortunately, in-between its moments of brilliance, the novel also has some very low points. It paints a romanticized, oversimplified pictured of Brazil’s cultural clash – which is conveyed with significantly less nuance than in Gaskell’s North and South, for instance. Nabuco’s book is also peppered with racist depictions of black characters and stereotypical representations of working-class people.
The ending is also a big blow: the psychological exploration of Alice and Marina is suddenly reduced to a stereotypical view of women as beings solely driven to domesticity and motherhood. Alice’s inability to conceive a child is a fatal flaw in a society where women have no other reason to exist; in such a society, death is not enough, and only a fatal flaw can set the successor free from her all-consuming obsession with the predecessor. Unfortunately, this is also a fatal flaw that mars this novel’s otherwise intricate psychological portrait of a woman trapped in a role she refuses to accept.
The successor’s predecessors
Nabuco’s A Sucessora (1934, ‘The Successor’) is frequently studied alongside another Brazilian classic, José de Alencar’s Encarnação (‘Incarnation’, posthumously published in 1893). Alencar’s novel follows 18-year-old Amália’s obsession with her neighbour’s obsession with his deceased wife.
Hermano is, in Alencar’s words, a strange guy: he seems to be able to see and hold conversations with Julieta, his dead wife. As if it weren’t enough, he always has an extra dish for her in his dinner table; later, he even orders two wax figures in the shape of Julieta in two different positions (which he then keeps in her room alongside all her furniture, clothes, and personal objects). He likes to take his afternoon tea in the company of Julieta’s wax figures…
Despite all this, his best friend, the medical doctor Dr. Henrique Teixeira, is convinced that Hermano is the perfect match for Amália, and believes that she will be able to cure him. Hermano and Amália will eventually fall in love, but much of the novel will centre on their shared guilty feelings over betraying Julieta. Will they get married? Is Amália in love with Hermano, or with Julieta? To make matters more complicated, Hermano’s butler, Abreu, who brought up Julieta when she was a child, does not see the successor with good eyes (very much like du Maurier’s Mrs. Danvers).
Alencar’s book is a perfect ball of obsessions, and its openly gothic elements are very reminiscent of Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) – more so than Nabuco’s A Sucessora (1934).
The highlight of Alencar’s novel for me is its bizarre sense of humour. I will give you one example. As Amália languishes in spleen over betraying Julieta by being loved by Hermano, her parents, oblivious to the true nature of the girl’s crazy machinations, decide to take her to Europe, to lift her spirits. However, once her mother hears that Hermano is willing to marry Amália, she quickly and gladly cancels the whole travel (which she saw as a burden rather than a pleasure). In her view, getting married was much better for a girl of eighteen than travelling to Europe: “‘Vichy, as if!’, she said to the doctors, ‘There is nothing better than tap water!’”. (My translation. Original: “— Qual Vichy!… dizia aos médicos. Não há como água da pia.”)
The novel’s apotheotic ending is also a masterclass in weirdness: as a fire consumes Hermano’s house, Julieta appears to him as a ghost; then, incarnated in Amália, Julieta enters in Hermano; and, finally, they become one single being, united by what feels like a threesome death kiss. Yep, you read it right, my friend: if you have a gothic spark left in your heart from your long-forgotten teenage years, you cannot help but love this scene – trust me.
Júlia Lopes de Almeida’s A Intrusa (1905, ‘The Intruder’) is another Brazilian classic that touches on the topic of a deceased first wife and a widower’s promise never to marry again. Despite the efforts of Argemiro’s mother-in-law to force him to keep his promise, the widower will inevitably fall in love with his daughter’s new governess, Alice, who is kept hidden from him. Here, instead of the invisible presence of the first wife, we have the invisible presence of the intruder, who makes herself felt by the quality of her work, in “a caress without hands”. Lopes de Almeida’s novel is, in some aspects, very reminiscent of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), which, in turn, will be a strong inspiration behind Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938).
In all of the novels mentioned above, we have a deceased first wife whose memory, as a ghost, hovers over a widower’s new relationship. The first wife’s presence is embodied in a luxurious house, peopled with characters who try to maintain her memory alive: Roberto’s sister Germana, in A Sucessora; Mrs. Danvers, in Rebecca; Abreu, in Encarnação; and Argemiro’s mother-in-law, in A Intrusa.
In Jane Eyre, A Sucessora and A Intrusa, we have racist depictions of non-white people. In Rebecca, A Sucessora and Encarnação, there will be a fire in the mansion. In all of these books, domesticity will be reinforced: a younger woman will be perceived as someone who is stealing the place of the first wife; and will later surrender her true identity to conform to whatever frame her husband wants or needs her to fit (even when this is a husband who shows some murderous predispositions, such as in Jane Eyre and Rebecca).
Which book is a rip off of which here? Did A Sucessora plagiarize Encarnação? Did A Intrusa plagiarize Jane Eyre? Did Rebecca plagiarize A Sucessora?
Since Nabuco’s novel has been reissued in 2019 (it was out of print since the late 1980’s), and since Du Maurier’s book has been rediscovered among Brazilian readers through its Netflix adaptation (Rebecca, 2020, dir. Ben Wheatley, IMDb), the charge of plagiarism against Du Maurier has resurfaced, mainly on social media.
I am too sceptical and blunt a person to be able to engage in social media debates without becoming obnoxiously snarky or boring myself to death – but, curiously enough, this topic has resurfaced among random readers who turn to my 2014 post via Google search and ask me for details.
Engaging in public displays of moral outrage is not generally my thing, and that may or may not be a form of moral failure on my part, in and of itself – but, hopefully, we still live in a world where there is value to be found in pursuing a question rather than mechanically accepting a given answer – even if it’s the good guys’ answer. Sometimes, it’s worth taking a step back and learning to live with a question for a while.
The other Alice
As I already mentioned on my first post about Rebecca, published on the blog back in 2014, the claim of plagiarism against Du Maurier’s novel is not new.
In an article published in the periodical Correio da Manhã, on April 21, 1940, titled “Rebecca e A Sucessora: Um plágio sem cerimonias de que é vítima uma escritora brasileira.” (‘Rebecca and The Sucessor: An unceremonious plagiarism suffered by a Brazilian writer’), Brazilian literary critic Álvaro Lins claimed that there were many similarities between Rebecca and A Sucessora: in both novels, we have a young woman who marries a widower and feels intimidated by the strange presence of the deceased first wife; in both, we have a fire in the house.
Lins claims that, while Nabuco’s version was ‘more literary’ for taking the form of a psychological novel, Du Maurier’s belongs to the sensational genre, which he seems to see as a ‘minor one’. Here, we could argue that both his prejudice against genre and his categorization of Rebecca as a sensational novel are deeply problematic, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and read on, to see whether his article stands on its own, regardless of its problematic views on genre and literature.
Lins makes the interesting point that, while Rebecca’s plot is built upon the deceased wife’s amorality, in A Sucessora, Alice’s amorality is a mere figment of Marina’s imagination. Lins goes on to claim that, while Du Maurier flirts with the detective genre (here, once again, he seems to be dismissive of genre literature as something ‘minor’…), Nabuco solves the plot’s main conflict “in a high-minded and normal way”.
This is indeed a crucial difference between Rebecca and A Sucessora: while Du Maurier is deeply uncomfortable with domesticity and creates an amoral, transgressive first wife, Nabuco makes sure that all the female characters conform to what is morally demanded of them as women. However, if it is true that Lins is right in identifying this crucial difference, his moralizing assessment of it is deeply problematic: to him, because Nabuco’s characters prove to be morally superior to those in Du Maurier’s book, and because Nabuco’s novel conforms to what is seen as ‘more literary’, her book is to be judged as a superior piece of literature.
Lins then goes on to explore the circumstances surrounding Rebecca’s publication. He claims that Nabuco had translated A Sucessora to English and sent it to various publishers in the USA, without success (however, he never provides us with a source or documental proof for such a claim). He suggests that Nabuco’s translation of A Sucessora may have been read by many people in the English-speaking publishing industry. “How many?”, he asks himself. However, he never mentions Du Maurier by name, as one of these people.
Going back to Rebecca, Lins argues that it borrows A Sucessora’s main topic, adapting it to the ‘American public’ (the fact that Du Maurier was British and, further, was writing within a very recognizable British literary tradition seems to have completely eluded him…). Then, he goes on to claim that Rebecca “copied a number of episodes and details that are central to” A Sucessora. To support his claim, he picks out Alice’s painting, and argues that Rebecca makes a slight mention to a similar painting but does not explore the topic in its full psychological scope, as Nabuco had done. If we have indeed read Rebecca, we will be reminded of the painting that inspires the narrator’s choice of costume in a pivotal scene; and, if we have indeed read Rebecca, we will be all the more perplexed at Lins’ dismissive assessment of it and at his conflation of the role of the paintings in the two novels.
He then goes on to argue that (1) the Carnival party in A Sucessora had been transformed into a costume party in Rebecca (true, but in Nabuco the scene has a different scope); (2) Nabuco’s palm grove had been transformed into an American rhododendron park (here, again, the fact that the book does not take place in the USA but in England seems to have completely eluded Lins); (3) in both novels, the second wife reacts in a similar way to the first wife (true, the protagonists are obsessed with the idea of the first wife both in Rebecca and A Sucessora – such as Amália had been obsessed with Julieta in Encarnação); (4) some exchanged confidences are identical (we need more details here – Which confidences? When? By whom? – Lins, in a rhetorical move, does not provide us with answers to these questions); (5) the servants’ attitudes are the same (false, Júlia is no Mrs. Danvers and she and her husband barely appear in the book. Once again, in a rhetorical move, Lins does not provide us with more details for his claims); (6) in both novels, the second wife reads a manuscript left by the first one (not completely true – in Nabuco’s version, Marina reads Alice’s marginalia in books, a sentence on a piece of paper, and a shopping list…).
Lins concludes that both novels centre on an obsession with a previous wife, and that Nabuco’s is a “superior and more balanced” book (here again we have a moralizing assessment). While, in Nabuco’s version, the second wife decides to escape, in Du Maurier’s, the narrator considers suicide (a ‘morally inferior’ form of escape in the eyes of Lins).
Finally, Lins argues that the American literary critics consider Rebecca Du Maurier’s best book (again, he does not provide us with crucial details – Who? Where? – and completely forgets that the book is British. While Rebecca is Du Maurier’s most popular book, it is arguable whether the critics consider it to be her best – Nina Auerbach is one, for instance, who disagrees; she wrote a whole book about it).
This is yet another rhetorical move: Lins seems to suggest that the fact that Du Maurier ‘didn’t write anything better’ would be ‘a proof that the plagiarism happened’. Well, Lins certainly had not read Jamaica Inn (1936) by the time he wrote this article… I would go further and suggest that a reading of My Cousin Rachel (1951) is enough to dispel any doubts about Du Maurier’s mastery over her craft – but perhaps it is not wise to discuss matters of taste on the internet.
Lins concludes his article by saying that the periodical Brazilian-American had claimed that Du Maurier had read the English translation of A Sucessora, while working for a publishing house (again, he does not mention which publishing house, nor when, or how, let alone provides us with a concrete source for this piece of information beyond hearsay). I was not able to find the periodical he mentions; so, once again, we are not given the source of the accusation, nor its concrete terms. Given that Du Maurier never worked for a publishing house as a reader, the information is even more elusive.
In a second article published in the periodical Correio da Manha, on August 31, 1940, titled “Rebecca, um plágio” (‘Rebecca, a plagiarism case’), Lins begins by saying that it is very rare to find a Brazilian author who has not been accused of copying a foreign writer, but no one believes when the circumstances are reversed (here, once again in a rhetorical move, he generalizes and doesn’t mention specific cases). Then, he goes on to say that Nabuco had publicly charged Du Maurier with plagiarism (given that Nabuco claims not to have sued Du Maurier because it would have been beneath her aristocratic family’s typical way of acting with discretion and avoiding publicity, the fact that she might have accused the author publicly in Brazil is a bit contradictory…).
Lins goes on to say that A Sucessora was ‘an incomplete novel’, but a fine psychological study nonetheless. Then, he argues that Du Maurier had complemented Nabuco’s book with the pieces it was lacking, and that Rebecca was an extended version of A Sucessora. He seems to imply that everything that Du Maurier added or changed was somehow already inside Nabuco’s book (as if it were a ghostly book inside the book…). He says, for instance, that Rebecca’s ending was already suggested in A Sucessora, when Marina imagines (and wishes to prove to herself) that Alice was an amoral woman.
He then repeats the assertion that Rebecca and A Sucessora are the same book, and claims that Nabuco wrote her novel both in Portuguese and in English, and that the manuscript had been sent to the USA and to the UK (once again, he does not provide us with names nor documents, nothing to support such assertion in a more objective, traceable manner). Then, Lins says that Du Maurier’s novel was published and she confessed that she had written it in 90 days (she never said that).
Now begins the juicy part: Lins argues that all of the books previously published by Du Maurier were ‘mere crime novels and melodramas.’ (Another of his deeply problematic assessments not only of her books, but also of genre literature as something ‘minor’) Instead of mentioning which books and analysing them, he then jumps to the assertion that Rebecca had been qualitatively much superior to her previous novels, and that UK critics hava noticed this change (once again, he doesn’t provide us with details – who? Where? How? Why? I am sceptical about Lins assessment of Du Maurier’s oeuvre, but I should not counter a conspiracy theory with another conspiracy theory, so let’s just leave it at that…).
Then, Lins argues that there are two books inside Rebecca: in the first part of the novel, which, according to him, follows The Sucessora closely, we have a psychological novel; in the second part, where Rebecca strays from Nabuco’s novel, we have an ordinary detective novel (which, once again, he deems as something ‘inferior’. I would suggest that this change in the second part is constitutive to the novel’s main point on domesticity, and colours not only our understanding of the first part, but also the way we read the narrator’s voice).
Lins finally goes on to properly compare the novels, entering into specifics: both are driven by a first wife that is no longer there; in both, the second wife is obsessed with her predecessor’s invisible presence; the successor believes to be inferior to the predecessor, who, in turn, is admired by everyone; in both novels, the storyline is the same, comprising a sudden marriage to a fiancée who had been previously engaged to someone else; we have a mansion decorated by the first wife; the servants are the same in the two books, and are introduced in a similar way to the second wife; the housekeeper who considers the second wife an intruder (here, it is a bit of a stretch to say that Júlia, in the book, is similar to Mrs. Danvers… Perhaps so in the soap opera); Germana is Beatrice (I would argue that she is more like a hybrid of Mrs. Danvers and Beatrice…); the successor feels like a guest in her own house and the memory of the predecessor is everywhere, even her scent still clings to her objects; the successor does not know how to behave in the first dinner she presides over in the new house; the husband complains of the successor’s inability to make simple household decisions; the second wife is clumsy and does not fare well on social occasions. He then enumerates the pages where both novels coincide (I do not have his editions of the two books, so I could not check this). This is an impressive list of similarities.
Lins concludes by reminding us that to plagiarize is to present as your own a work made by others, and by labelling Du Maurier’s books as ‘subliterature’. Has Daphne du Maurier presented as hers a book written by Nabuco? Are her books a minor form of fiction?
In yet another article published in the periodical Correio da Manhã, on January 18, 1941, titled “Crítica Literária – Romances” (‘Literary criticism – Novels’), Lins returns to his favourite subject of trashing Du Maurier and extolling Nabuco’s good manners and aristocratic breed. After commenting on the contrast between the rural and the urban ways of life in a series of novels, Lins turns his attention to A Sucessora, and argues that it became a bestseller due to the fact that Du Maurier’s plagiarism had been ‘completely proved’ (here, once again, he offers us no further details and no proof of this claim of ‘complete proof’…).
And he maintains the ‘literary superiority’ of A Sucessora over Rebecca: for him, both are “one and the same book”, and the eventual differences between the two are nothing but “a degradation of the original book”. Lins goes on to attribute such degradation to Du Maurier’s personality, and to praise Nabuco’s ‘female sharpness’ in handling the topic, as well as her aristocratic origins, in the person of her father Joaquim Nabuco. Oh boy. Is the misogynistic nature of what is understood as literary authority still a thing?
Let’s leave that hanging up in the ether, skip this step, and turn back to the beginning, where Lins mentions A Sucessora’s commercial success after the plagiarism accusations. In a piece titled “Rebecca”, published in the periodical O Diário, in 1940, and now collected in the book Livro Aberto (2001, ‘Open book’), Brazilian author Fernando Sabino wrote about the topic: “To tell you the truth, this is the first time I heard about Carolina Nabuco’s book, due to the would-be plagiarism. Lack of publicity, perhaps – because I believe in the merit of the novel by a writer with such an illustrious name. She claims that the English translation of her book was sent to American publishers, where Daphne du Maurier worked, or used to attend, before Rebecca came into the world”. (My translation. Original: “Para dizer a verdade, a primeira vez que ouvi falar no livro de Carolina Nabuco foi agora, a propósito desse possivel plágio. Falta de divulgação, talvez — pois acredito no mérito do romance de uma escritora com nome tão ilustre. Alega ela que a tradução para o inglés de seu livro esteve em editoras americanas, onde Daphne du Maurier trabalhava, ou que costumava freqüentar, antes de Rebecca vir ao mundo”).
Here Sabino seems to suggest that it was Nabuco who initiated the rumours that Du Maurier had worked for an American publisher. These are odd rumours, since Du Maurier did not live in the USA at the time, and, while writing the book, was living in Alexandria with her husband. On the other hand, Sabino does not bring any facts that may support his implicit claim against Nabuco.
We also have conflicting versions of Nabuco’s story: according to an article published on November 6, 2002 in The New York Times, titled “Tiger in a Lifeboat, Panther in a Lifeboat: A Furor Over a Novel”, “Ms. Nabuco had translated her novel into French and sent it to a publisher in Paris, who she learned was also Ms. du Maurier’s [publisher] only after Rebecca became a worldwide success. The novels have identical plots and even some identical episodes.”
So, was A Sucessora translated to French and sent to Paris, or translated to English and sent to the USA?
According to Judith Cook, in the book Daphne: a Portrait of Daphne du Maurier (1991), Nabuco translated her novel to English and submitted the manuscript to a number of American publishers (Cook does not provide us with the original source of this claim). Towards the end of 1932, Nabuco’s agent, Nannine Joseph, sent a copy of A Sucessora to the UK agent Audrey Heath, who offered it to a number of publishers, but none of them took it up, and the manuscript was returned to the USA. The name of Du Maurier’s publisher, Gollancz, does not appear as one of the publishers concerned. Cook writes that, shortly after the release of Hitchcock’s Rebecca adaptation in the USA, in March 1940, Nannine Joseph received a letter from Nabuco, who pointed out the similarities between A Successora and Rebecca. Joseph answered that she did not think that this amounted to more than a coincidence.
According to Cook, however, A Sucessora and Rebecca are similar in a number of ways: the robust looks of both Roberto’s sister Germana and Maxim’s sister Beatrice; the fact that the heroines are shy, inexperienced second-wives; the fact that both break antique objects and try to hide it (here, she misquotes A Sucessora, where it is Alice who breaks an object, not Marina); in both, there is a masked ball leading to a dramatic denouement.
Cook adds that “du Maurier admitted that there were similarities but pointed out that, as the same idea had occurred to both authors, there were bound to be such similarities, and that her American publisher had actually offered to publish A Successora to enable readers to judge for themselves”. Unfortunately, Nabuco’s novel was never published in English.
Cook reports that, on January 9, 1942, Nabuco visited the United States as one of a group of Brazilian literary figures, but declined to comment on the plagiarism controversy, refusing to give any interviews on the subject. In her autobiography, Oito décadas (1973), Nabuco wrote that she was sought out by producers of the film version of Rebecca, who asked her to sign a document which stated that the similarities between the two books were mere coincidence. Nabuco says she refused to sign such a document, but her allegations of plagiarism were never proven.
To Cook, the original storyline of Rebecca, as outlined in The Rebecca Notebooks (1980), bears more of a resemblance to A Successora than the final version (having read the three books, I find that, in terms of general outline, structure, narrative voice, and plot, both the draft and the final versions of Rebecca are very different from A Sucessora).
A Sucessora also gained notoriety, in Brazil, after being adapted for television, as a soap opera aired by Rede Globo in 1978. It is interesting to explore (1) whether and how the TV adaptation was influenced back by Rebecca (particularly, by Hitchcock’s version of it), altering some aspects of the original novel; (2) whether and how the assessment of Nabuco’s novel and of the plagiarism accusations have been influenced by the novel’s TV adaptation; and, finally, (3) whether the assessment of Rebecca and of its similarities to A Sucessora may have been influenced by the recent Netflix adaptation, which curtails the freakishness of Du Maurier’s text and has a deeper leaning toward domesticity and romance than we actually find in her book (thereby coming closer to Nabuco’s tamer take on the subject). People who have not read Rebecca or A Sucessora but only seen the movie adaptation or the soap opera may get the impression that the plots are more similar than they are. But that’s material for another post that I am too lazy to write.
Let’s go back to Sabino’s short piece: “In fact, an unprecedented event like this deserves to be analysed, revolved, unravelled. (…) In any case, it will be a good promotion for Carolina Nabuco’s book, which has had great sales success since then. Was it really plagiarism? It may be, it may not be, and it may be maybe, as the people in Minas Gerais would say”. (My translation. Original: “Na verdade, um acontecimento inédito como esse merece ser analisado, revolvido, destrinchado. (…) Em todo caso, será uma boa divulgação do livro de Carolina Nabuco, que vem tendo grande sucesso de venda desde então. Houve mesmo plágio? Pode ser que sim, pode ser que não e pode ser que talvez, como diria o mineiro.”) Here, Sabino jokingly alludes to the saying according to which the “mineiros” (people born in the State of Minas Gerais in Brazil, like him) are, by nature, sceptical.
He then points out that many writers have been wrongly accused of plagiarism; and goes on to mention several cases where the same topic was handled by different authors: The Sin of Father Amaro (1963, tr. Nan Flanagan. Original: O Crime do Padre Amaro, 1875) by Eça de Queiroz, accused of having plagiarized The Sin of Father Mouret, by Emile Zola (2017, tr. Valerie Minogue. Original: La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret, 1875); Cousin Bazilio (2003, tr. Margaret Jull Costa. Original: O Primo Basílio, 1978) by Eça de Queiroz, accused of having plagiarized Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856). About the latter, Sabino, with his characteristic sense of humour, comments that “indeed, the similarity between the two books is extraordinary. But adultery, the central theme of both, is the common heritage of all universal fiction writers.” (My translation. Original: “Realmente, a semelhança de situações nos dois livros é extraordinária. Mas o adultério, tema central de ambos, é patrimônio comum de todos os ficcionistas universais”).
He concludes by saying that Nabuco’s accusation against Daphne de Maurier may very well end up going nowhere, but it is enough to promote Nabuco’s book: “(…) by hearsay, many will end up reading “The Successor” simply because it was plagiarized by “Rebecca”…” (My translation. Original: “(…) na base do ouvir dizer, muitos acabaráo lendo “A Sucessora” simplesmente por ser o livro plagiado de “Rebecca”…”).
On November 16th, 1941, The New York Times also published a long article about the case, titled “The Long Arm of Literary Coincidence: An Extraordinary Parallel Between Miss Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and a Brazilian Novel”. In it, the author, Frances Ruth Grant claims that Nabuco had translated A Sucessora to English and sent it to an American literary agent who, in turn, had sent it to a publishing house in the UK (alas, no further details nor names are provided).
Grant says that Nabuco received a letter from a friend, asking whether she had read the English version of A Sucessora, titled Rebecca, which, the friend added, had been written in 90 days. (this claim is contradicted by du Maurier’s literary agent at the time, Alan Collins, who said that she began to write the novel in the Fall of 1938 and completed it late in the Spring; and by Du Maurier herself, who said that she started to conceive of the novel as early as in 1932).
Grant then goes on to stress the outcry among Brazilian literary critics at the time, as well as the similarities between the two novels: the dead wife; the younger second wife; Du Maurier’s Mrs. Van Hopper and Nabuco’s Adeline similar comments on the widower (“His adoration for her is quite obvious”); the fact that Du Maurier’s narrator and Nabuco’s Marina are not free when they meet their widower – one is tied to an employer, another is engaged to a cousin; the sudden marriage; the honeymoon travel; the first arrival on a mansion (which, in Rebecca, almost takes on the role of a character in the story; whereas, in A Sucessora, Alice’s painting will have a similar role); the physical similarities between Nabuco’s Germana and Du Maurier’s Beatrice.
Grant’s article provides us with a detailed, carefully argued list of the scenes where it is possible to find a striking similarity between the two books. Grant argues that the plot-structures of both novels are remarkably similar (I would argue that the ending and the scope are different); in both, a portrait plays an important role in the story; in both, we have a lining-up of the servants on the arrival of the second wife; we have a housekeeper faithful to her old mistress (here, I would argue that Júlia is no Mrs. Danvers and barely appears in the story. Instead, Roberto’s sister Germana reads, to me, like Nabuco’s hybrid of Beatrice and Mrs. Danvers).
Grant quotes from both novels, comparing passages and drawing attention to the similarity not only of the storyline in general, but also of individual incidents. One particular scene stands out: in A Sucessora – “When she (Marina) entered a room, it often seemed that Alice had just left it, that her departing steps might be heard, that her hands had touched the flowers in the vases, or her body had left its imprint on the sofa cushions.”; in Rebecca – “Someone had been before me, had surely left an imprint of her person on the cushions and on the arm where her hand had rested (…) I thought Rebecca took the lilacs as I am doing and put the sprigs one by one in the white vase. I’m not the first to do it.”
Another interesting passage: in A Sucessora, Marina confides to her cousin Miguel that “My chief trouble is always to find myself insufficient. I am not the right wife for Roberto. She was.”; in Rebecca, the narrator confides to Frank that “I realize every day that the things I lack – confidence, grace, beauty, intelligence, wit – all the qualities that mean most in a woman- she possessed.“
Yet another scene mentioned by Grant: in A Sucessora, Marina comes upon Alice’s personal belongings, “her golf clubs and tennis rackets still stood in the cloak room downstairs, and day by day through a casual word from Roberto or Germana or the servants, other things devoid of association and with which Marina had become familiar, took on a definite occasion, revealed a close relation with Alice, acquired a date and origin, became the centre of some small circumstance from which Marina was excluded – all had been Alice’s by purchase or by gift, had been her choice or had been selected by her. Each reflected her taste of the moment“; in Rebecca, “She (Rebecca) was about the house still ever in the little flower room where her mackintosh still hung – the morning room, a woman’s room, graceful, fragile, the room of one who had chosen every particle of furniture with great care … in harmony with her own personality. It was though she who had arranged this room had said, This I will have and this and this, taking piece by piece from the treasures in Manderley, each object that pleased her best – they belonged to her, she had chosen them, they were not mine at all.”
Can these passages be considered a copy? Is this a case of plagiarism? When is a similarity to be taken as an inspiration? And when is it a theft and, as such, a legal violation? According to Grant, “a Sucessora and Rebecca confront each other as literary doubles of an extraordinary order, even to a dispassionate eye.”
On a note published on Nov 21, 1941, in the New York Times, Rebecca‘s publisher denied any parallel to A Sucessora and informed that, because of another plagiarism case that had gone to court, du Maurier had been advised that she could not reply to the charge in any detail.
On November 29, 1941, critic Harrison Smith published an article on the Saturday Review of Literature, titled “Was Rebecca Plagiarized?”, in which he argued that both A Sucessora and Rebecca drew on the same source, Jane Eyre (1847), and that the struggle of a second wife with the memory of a predecessor is a common storyline in romantic fiction (here, he seems to imply that both novels belong to this genre, a claim which could be seen as problematic, but let’s leave it at that for now).
He begins by saying that “(…) everyone agrees that ideas for novels cannot be patented as though they were mechanical inventions” and that “when you reflect that there are only seven basic themes in all literature, the surprise is not that so many charges of plagiarism fill the air, but that, everything considered, there should be so few.”
Comparing A Sucessora and Rebecca, he argues further that “the story is as shop-worn as any story ever written and the parallels discovered by Brazilian literary patriots between Rebecca and Successora are the normal and inevitable results of variants of this ancient plot.” He mentions the common elements to be found in such stories: “the simple girl, the great house, the butler, the angry housekeeper, the portrait on the wall, the husband’s friend and relatives, and the precious objects loved and touched by dead hands.”
And here begins his problematic (bordering-on-racism-and-misogyny kind of problematic) take on the subject. Smith argues that both novels comprise feminine elements that would commonly occur to any woman writing a feminine book; and that Nabuco’s choice to make Alice sterile is typical of a ‘Latin frame of mind’, but not to a British or American one: “(…) in “A Sucesora” the former mistress of the house is an apparent saint whose one fault is typical of the Latin mind. She is sterile; and the young second wife, who has granted every other virtue to her predecessor—greater beauty, nobility of character, fitness to rule over her husband’s domain—finds complete satisfaction because she herself is pregnant. Her dead rival, who is her superior in every other way, is at last vanquished in her mind. This is not a plot that would occur to an American or an English writer. (…) And so the parallels listed by Miss Grant fail as conclusive evidence, in my mind, because any intuitive feminine writer would inevitably use them. But the central plot of “A Sucesora” also differs from “Rebecca.” It is a Latin and not an English or an American conception”.
Smith argues that it is extremely unlikely that du Maurier would have read Nabuco’s manuscript, not only because she was not living in the USA at the time nor working as a reader for a publishing house, but also because publishers do not tend to show manuscripts by unknown authors to their most successful writers, and even do everything to avoid claims of plagiarism: “We are told that after the publication of her novel in Brazil and its success, Miss Nabuco translated it into English, sending it to the United States and to England. It is difficult to trace any record of its receipt here by agent or publisher, but Miss Du Maurier could not have read it in this country because she has never been here. In England, the Times simply says it was sent to an English publisher. To what publisher? We do not know. Daphne Du Maurier’s publisher is Victor Gollancz, one of England’s most important publishers. Assuming that he is the publisher to whom Miss Nabuco’s novel was sent, it hardly seems likely that he would have been interested in it or would have read it himself. Is it reasonable to assume, therefore, that Mr. Gollancz or one of his staff asked Miss Du Maurier to read it? I doubt it. Miss Du Maurier’s residence is not in London, but in the country. She was certainly one of her publisher’s most important novelists, and I do not believe that she was eager, or had the time, to read publisher’s manuscripts. Knowing something of the literary world, I doubt if Mr. Gollancz asked a writer of Miss Du Maurier’s reputation to read a manuscript about which his firm was in doubt. (…) Publishers in England or America, or as far as I know, in Brazil, have certain rules or habits, if you don’t want to call them codes of honor. They will never steal from each other if it is useless to do so. Nor have I ever known publishers to crib ideas from submitted manuscripts and turn them over to their own authors. They live in enough fear of being sued for plagiarism because of sheer coincidences without having to invite it.”
He then goes on to point out what he sees as the main differences between A Sucessora and Rebecca: “Coming back to the book itself, it could be said that Miss Du Maurier’s novel begins where the Brazilian novel ends. The girl’s marriage, her discoveries in Manderley, are merely a preface to the dramatic last chapters. Her dead rival is no saint whose hold over her can be destroyed by a biological accident, the victory of her pregnancy over the other woman’s sterility. Rebecca is a female devil who has carried her diabolic power beyond the grave, for she has forced her husband to murder her and so has put his life forever in pawn to the future. To an American reader this difference between the two novels seems profound, as it does with “Jane Eyre,” where the female devil remained alive and raging under the roof, until fire destroyed her, just as it finally destroyed Manderley in “Rebecca.” There seems to be illustrated here in this literary contest the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon conception of a drama involving a woman as the chief protagonist.”
Smith concludes with a political interpretation of the debacle, conflating the patriotism of Brazilian critics to a form of far-right sentiment (we must remember that WWII was in full swing at the time, and that public displays of nationalism connected to moral outrage were – and still are – seen as closely connected with or conductive to fascism): “The author’s (Nabuco) famous family are known to be pro-American, pro-English, anti-Axis in sentiment. It would be a triumph to the Nazi influence in that nation if Brazilian critics and writers, and an ardent and patriotic literary public should continue to believe that the “Gringos,” not from the “Colossus of the North,” but from across the Atlantic, had stolen the literary rewards of an international fame from Miss Nabuco.”
Later, on a letter to the editor of The New York Times, published on February 01, 1942, Du Maurier rebuffed the claims of plagiarism, and wrote that she had not heard of Nabuco nor of A Sucessora until the previous year. Du Maurier said, further, that another author, this time an American, had also accused her of plagiarism: “I have no quarrel with Miss Nabuco and I believe she has not directly charged me with plagiarism. (…) Could not someone have spent time more profitably in determining what exactly constitutes plagiarism, instead of leaving your comparisons open to an unwarranted, though naively invited, conclusion?”
The American author mentioned by du Maurier is Edwina Lewin MacDonald. In 1947, MacDonald’s son, J. Clifford MacDonald, brought a lawsuit against Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, her American publisher Doubleday & Company, as well as the film producers Selznick International Pictures Inc. and David O. Selznick United Artists. Clifford MacDonald charged Du Maurier of having plagiarized his mother’s short-story, “How I Planned to Murder My Husband“, first published in October 1924 in Hearst’s International Magazine, and later expanded into the novel “Blind Windows“, published in 1927 (note that both the short story and the novel were published years before Nabuco’s A Sucessora).
I have not read the novel, but the short story is available online: here, such as in Rebecca and in A Sucessora, we also have a girl who marries an older man shortly after meeting him (this time, the man had divorced his first wife); the arrival at his mansion, which is decorated with flowers; the servants waiting on the steps to receive the new mistress; the friends and servants always reminding the second wife that the first one was better-suited to her role; the spirit of the first wife (Della) hovering over the house and inside the second-wife’s mind; a crucial party; and a final revelation that will change the couple’s relationship. “A second-hand house, second-hand furniture, second-hand servants – a second-hand husband!”
As in Rebecca, the story is narrated in first person and the first wife is also portrayed as flirtatious and wild; as in A Sucessora, we have a scene where the protagonist sees her face reflected in various mirrors in the house: “In the mirrors which now reflected my face, he had seen her face reflected for nine years.” MacDonald’s story is also peppered with racist remarks. As in Du Maurier’s and Nabuco’s versions, the successor in MacDonald’s story feels the presence of the first wife in every room, every piece of furniture, every object.
Has A Sucessora plagiarized MacDonald’s story? Has Rebecca plagiarized both? Du Maurier had to come to the United States to testify at MacDonald’s trial. In The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories (1980), she wrote: “I went with Nanny and my two younger children had a boy of six and a half by then, and Tessa, the eldest daughter, was at boarding school—and once in New York stayed with my American publishers, Nelson and Ellen Doubleday (…) My only memory of the plagiarism suit was that the notebook was produced in court, and after cross-questioning the judge dis missed the case“.
The notebook mentioned here is the one she used for drafting what would later become Rebecca, which she began to write while living in Alexandria, where her husband was stationed. The content of this notebook is collected in The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories (1980): it comprises detailed notes on the storyline, the outlines of each chapter, as well as the novel’s epilogue. The collection also includes “The House of Secrets” (1946), an essay on Du Maurier’s beloved Menabilly, the mansion that inspired Rebecca’s Manderley.
Back to MacDonald’s court case: 46 parallelisms were submitted as evidence of plagiarism, but, in January 1948, after analysing each of them, judge John Bright stated in his decision: “In reader appeal, in description of scenes and characters, and in literary skill, there can be no claim, in my judgment, that the latter was copied from the former.” After the trial, Du Maurier gifted the notebook to Ellen Doubleday (with whom she was in love) and, after Ellen died, her daughter returned it to du Maurier, who published it in the above-mentioned collection in 1980.
Du Maurier’s biographer, Margaret Forster, writes in the book Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller (1993) that there had been no mention of alleged plagiarism until the Hitchcock film of 1940 had been such a success. About the court case, Forster writes: “The case turned on what was fair usage of common themes and on whether she could have read the original story of Blind Windows. The prosecution had worked hard, digging out a review of Blind Windows in the Times Literary Supplement which Daphne admit ted she read regularly, and arguing she could have read it there. They even produced copies of Edgar Wallace’s novels, which Daphne naturally also agreed she had read, to show they had advertisements for Blind Windows in them and would have brought the story to her attention. By the time Daphne called to the stand she felt she was in an Alice in Wonderland situation, but she managed to answer each question sensibly and carefully. She testified that she had begun thinking of Rebecca as early as 1932, but had not started writing it until she was in Egypt for the second time, in the summer of 1937, and had finished it in April 1938 in England. She categorically denied ever having heard of Blind Windows or its author. It was ‘utterly degrading’ to have to answer questions about her writing, because this writing was ‘absolutely personal’”.
Forster then goes on to explain that, throughout the whole process, Daphne felt like a liar – not because of the book, but because she was hiding her feelings for Ellen, in whose house she was staying while in the USA for the case. “My life has been one long lie for as far back as I can remember”, Du Maurier said to Ellen, who was the wife of her American publisher.
This passage in Forster’s biography is frequently taken out of context, the reference to Ellen is eliminated, and Du Maurier’s words are mentioned throughout the internet as a sign that, ‘if Du Maurier felt guilty, it must have been because she copied another book, Nabuco’s novel’. A careful reading of Forster’s whole paragraph is enough to dispel such conspiracy theories. Because Nabuco never sued Du Maurier, and because her case is backed by no retraceable documents beyond her own words on the matter and the books themselves, A Sucessora is barely mentioned in Forster’s biography, which then concentrates on the MacDonald’s case.
Another book commonly misquoted and mentioned throughout the internet as ‘a proof that Du Maurier read A Sucessora’ is Nina Auerbach’s Daphne Du Maurier, Haunted Heiress (1999). Even Wikipedia mentions it: “University of Pennsylvania’s Nina Auerbach, tells, in her work Daphne du Maurier, Haunted Heiress, that Nabuco had written A Sucessora in 1934, sending the translation to an editor in England, who was the same as the English novelist. Du Maurier would have been one of the readers of this translation and, in 1937, she would start Rebecca, published a year later, adapted on stage in 1939 and on screen in 1940”. (Wikipedia entry on Nabuco , consulted on January 12, 2021)
I have read Auerbach’s book, and Nabuco is not mentioned once. Not once! I have no idea where this rumour that ‘Auerbach had attested the plagiarism’ originated, but if you read her book (or ask her), you will see that the topic was never mentioned (and, when asked about it, she said she does not have a view on the subject). If we notice the source of the above Wikipedia paragraph, we can see that it is not even Auerbach’s book itself, but an article on the periodical Nexo, titled “A acusação de plágio desta brasileira contra um filme de Hitchcock” (‘This Brazilian woman’s accusation of plagiarism against a Hitchcock film’). Well, well. Someone with poor research skills has been messing up with Carolina Nabuco’s entry on Wikipedia.
In the biography Manderley Forever (2015), Tatiana de Rosnay writes that the character of Rebecca is probably based on Jan Ricardo, ex-fiancée of Du Maurier’s husband. Du Maurier planned the novel to be a study on jealousy, and her raw material was her own feelings against Ricardo: “Du Maurier remained convinced her husband was still attracted to his gorgeous old flame—or worse, that he was still in love with her”.
De Rosnay goes on to argue that, when Du Maurier had to defend Rebecca in court, during the MadDonald’s case, she dreaded any questions about Ricardo: “I was so terrified of that coming up in the box and making publicity that I was nearly off my rocker”, she later said, according to de Rosnay.
Jan Ricardo, Alice, Julieta, Della, Bertha – Where are we to find the hidden source of Rebecca?
The Bluebeard upstairs
Rebecca (1938) is more commonly compared to Jane Eyre (1847), and it is frequently criticised for its freaky take on Bronte’s masterpiece. In the essay “Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre”, published in 1990 an collected in Expletives Deleted: Selected Writing (1992), Angela Carter argues that “one of the great bestsellers of the mid-twentieth century, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, shamelessly reduplicated the plot of Jane Eyre, and went on to have the same kind of vigorous trans-media after-life.”
According to Carter, Jane Eyre fuses elements from Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, and Cinderella, and “remains firmly rooted in the furious dreams of a passionate young woman whose life never quite matched up to her own capacity for experience. It is the author’s unfulfilled desire that makes Jane Eyre so haunting”.
Elements from these three fairy-tales can certainly be found in Rebecca, and one could argue that Nabuco’s Marina is some kind of Cinderella. In both, the first wife is made to be read as the haunting beast: in A Sucessora, as a product of Marina’s obsession and, later, as a sterile woman doomed to feel forever unfulfilled; in Rebecca, as a product of the narrator’s obsession and, later (if we keep in mind that the narrator is not exactly a reliable one), as a product of Maxim’s murderous imagination.
In both novels, the first wife does not fit the frame of what a woman is supposed to be (either because she is sterile, or because she is wild), but, differently from Nabuco’s Alice, Rebecca is untameable: she continues to haunt the narrator, invading her dreams, even after Manderley is destroyed – so that du Maurier’s “I” in the book is forever doomed to lead a rootless life, trapped in the company of a murderer she very much resembles (“I had listened to his story and part of me went with him like a shadow in his tracks. I too had killed Rebecca, I too had sunkthe boat there in the bay.”)
As Nina Auerbach puts it in the book mentioned above, “home in Rebecca is an unheimlich monstrosity whose only alternative is exile. If Daphne du Maurier writes romances at all, their achievement is to infuse with menace the lives women are supposed to want. If, as most people think, she is exclusively a writer for women, she glorifies, not the lives to which we are supposed to resign ourselves, but our insatiable desire to be somebody else, somewhere else”.
That’s precisely the point where A Sucessora and Rebecca part ways: while Nabuco’s Marina escapes Roberto’s house to assert her identity, only to come back later, once her superiority as ‘a woman who can bear children’ is asserted; Du Maurier’s narrator, on the other hand, never escapes Maxim’s domain, and is nonetheless doomed never to come back – she ends at a similar point where she had begun, acting as an escort to Maxim and tied to his abusive moods, as she had been to Mrs. Van Hopper.
This is also a difference that was completely obliterated in the Netflix adaptation – which, in turn, may lead some people to read Du Maurier’s book in a more literal or less nuanced way (or, better said, in the precise way in which the book’s own unnamed narrator nudges us to read it, until we let go of her and start to imagine that her voice may not be altogether reliable…).
Nina Auerbach has already pointed out to the fact that Hitchcock’s adaptation deprives the story of Du Maurier’s constitutive weirdness, and makes Rebecca and Manderley the problem, not marriage or Maxim. Instead of a tale of haunting, abuse, and exile, the film ends in a triumph of love: “every film adaptation I have seen has twisted her strange, grim books into the steamy sort of thing a woman named Daphne du Maurier should have written: bizarre visions become indigestible novelettish concoctions to which the director can condescend. Male directors may not deliberately falsify Daphne du Maurier, but if we know her through their movies, we don’t know her at all. (…) These gifted directors not only beautify du Maurier for the movies, they feminize her as well, turning her impersonal, almost inhuman tales into the romances her admirers wish she had written”.
In a recent piece for The Los Angeles Review of Books, published on December 23, 2020, titled “Call Me By No Name: On Rebecca”, Tania Modleski, commenting on the recent Netflix adaptation, argues that, by making the unnamed heroine more ‘empowered’ and focusing on her so-called love story, the new Rebecca clings to the traditional framework of heterosexual love that Du Maurier was trying to unsettle in the book (and, I would add, the framework that we find in A Sucessora): “It is precisely by looking at what the recent adaptation has left out of the original and what has been changed from it that we can understand the uncanny power of Du Maurier’s classic.”
Let’s briefly go back to the madwoman upstairs. Comparing Rebecca to Jane Eyre, Auerbach argues that both are class romances: both are first-person narratives of a poor working girl who falls in love with a more powerful man; in both, the man paints himself as a victim of a demonic first wife, and thereby justifies his own abusive behaviour; in both, the haunted house is burned in the end, leaving its owner crippled and diminished in power.
Auerbach goes on to compare Rebecca to Wuthering Heights’ Catherine Earnshaw: “Catherine is a far more effective ghost than Rebecca: The posthumous energy that chokes Manderley nurses Wuthering Heights.”
She adds that, unlike the Brontës’ heroines, Du Maurier’s find no power through love: “(…) rather than echoing Victorian sources, she prods and twists their faith in progress and the individual until that faith collapses into her own sense of doom”.
And Auerbach concludes: “The marriage that ends Jane Eyre rewards Jane’s integrity: only after making her own life and finding her own family does she return to Rochester, no longer a servant but “an independent woman.” The marriage that ends Jane Eyre begins Rebecca, but in Daphne du Maurier’s revision, marriage is not an entitlement but a trap. In Jane Eyre, a concluding marriage was an emblem of independence. Rebecca turns its focus to marriage itself and its stupefying dependence. Mrs. de Winter marries into the life from which Jane Eyre saved herself by asserting herself.”
Nina Auerbach defines Rebecca as “a study of menacing domesticity”, where the oppression of Manderley is to be found not on Rebecca’s ghost, but on the Bluebeard upstairs – Maxim’s murderous behaviour. According to Forster, in her above-mentioned biography, Du Maurier “was trying to explore the relationship between a man who was powerful and a woman who was not (…) She had wanted to write about the balance of power in marriage and not about love”.
In a similar vein, Auerbach writes that, “when the narrator at last inherits the title “Mrs. De Winter,” she writes about her achieved marriage in the language of power, not romance: “I suppose it is his dependence on me that has made me bold at last”.” (This is also very reminiscent of the power balance in Jane Eyre’s ending).
Rebecca’s disruptive force, on the other hand, makes her an unreplaceable first wife in more than one sense: she is a monster, or is made into one in our eyes by our narrator; Rebecca may even have goaded Maxim to kill her; either way, she is a menace to him and, as such, has to be eliminated – but, even dead, she ends up dethroning him in the end. Auerbach writes of Rebecca: “her great trespass is not loving women but laughing at men”.
This, to me, is a fundamental difference between A Sucessora and Rebecca, and should not be easily dismissed in a discussion about genre, gender, and plagiarism. This is even more so the case, when the most commonly cited voice on the charge of plagiarism (Lins) has coated his otherwise reasonable assessment of Du Maurier’s book with a problematic view on gender and genre.
So, after all this rambling on my part, the random readers who stumbled into my 2014 post may continue to ask me: has Du Maurier plagiarized Nabuco? I wish I had Auerbach’s grace and could answer that I have no view on the matter. But I am too much of a devil’s advocate for that. What I will say, though, is this: we may be doing Nabuco’s novel a disservice by always linking any discussion of it to Rebecca. Like a woman who finally freed herself and found her own face on a mirror, A Sucessora is more than able to stand on her own feet, and to walk on.
- À Sombra das Falecidas: Um estudo dos romances Encarnação, A Sucessora e Rebecca, by Maria de Lourdes Marcelino da Silva and Altamir Botoso (2019)
- “À sombra da outra: a segunda mulher na literatura”, by Zahidé Lupinacci Muzart, in Gênero e representação na Literatura Brasileira, Constância Lima Duarte; Eduardo de Assis Duarte, and Kátia da Costa Bezerra (2002)
- Um Tema e tres obras (Em torno de “Rebecca”, “A Sucessora” e “Encarnação”), by Genésio Pereira Filho (1942)
- Mulher Ao Pé Da Letra: A Personagem Feminina Na Literatura: Ensaio, by Ruth Silviano Brandao (2006)
- Flores da escrivaninha: Ensaios, by Leyla Perrone-Moisés (1990)