What the housekeeper in “Rebecca” reveals about the writing process

If you read Daphne De Maurier’s Rebecca, then you know Mrs. Danvers, the mysteriously manipulative housekeeper of Manderley. What you may not know is how her character developed. It says much about the writing process.

In an interview describing the development of Mrs. Danvers, Du Maurier said, “…the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers had become more sinister. Why I have no idea.”

Taking her at her word, I think Mrs. Danvers became more sinister in the story because writers have an instinctive sensibility for storytelling that often surprise them in the writing process. Characters simply take over no matter what the writer intends. I have no idea how Du Maurier originally envisioned Mrs. Danvers, but if she were not sinister, not a creepy manipulative, jealous, spiteful woman, there would be no tension, no conflict between her and the new Mrs. de Winter. The reader senses the conflict, more so than Mrs. de Winter.

Mrs. Danvers is the pivotal character in the story around which so much mystery revolves. Without her sinister character the story is entirely different, our feelings for Mrs. de Winter will be different, for the malevolent spirit of Mrs. Danvers will be mitigated and Mrs. de Winter will not seem so isolated, so vulnerable.

I have read about many writers, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Elmore Leonard to name three, who have an idea for a story and in the course of writings, minor characters become major characters, and where the story was planned to go ends up going somewhere else. Again, it gets back to the writers instinct, the ability to sense when you come to the fork in the road, you take the one that feels right.

The lesson here is if you write, don’t think too much, just keeping clicking letters on the keyboard, use it like an Ouija board and see where the fingers take you.

Du Maurier also said, “Women want love to be a novel, men want a short story.” I’ll let you sort that one out.

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