Jan 7, 2016

R and I: Monograms in Rebecca (1940)

"The shadow of this woman darkened our love", announces a newspaper advert for Rebecca (1940)from the Derby Daily Telegraph (07/Oct/1940), which certainly sets the mood for the film.

Rebecca is Alfred Hitchcock's film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same title, written in 1938. The story tells of Manderley, the estate of Maxim de Winter, in all its ancient, beautiful glory. Rebecca, the late first Mrs de Winter, made it so. When the Second Mrs de Winter comes to live at Manderley, Rebecca's influence is still present. How can the shy new bride ever fill her place or escape her shadow? Rebecca's presence, although only hinted at, is inescapable. From verbal references to objects and monograms to flowers, she is the most dominant character in the house.

Before we even see Mr and the Second Mrs de Winter living their lives as a couple in Manderley, we see a close up of a napkin with Rebecca's initials "R de W" embroidered on it. The camera then zooms out to show that the couple is having its dinner at a ridiculously large table, with them seated on far ends of the table, separated by a large empty space. Rebecca has already come between them, even before the first course is served at Manderley.

After breakfast Rebecca always did her correspondence in the morning room, the Second Mrs. de Winter is told. After getting lost Fontaine's character finds her way into the morning-room, where the fire is lit and her desk is waiting for her. A symmetrical display of the administration once again makes clear to the protagonist that it once belonged to Rebecca. In glittery thread Rs are embroidered on the covers of notebooks all serving different purposes: menus, addresses and guests. When the phone rings the Second Mrs de Winter, still startled by the presence of the previous mistress of the house, answers with: "Mrs de Winter? Oh, I'm afraid you have made a mistake, Mrs de Winter has been dead for over a year.", only after hanging up realizing she is Mrs de Winter now.

After a visit and a good looking over from Maxim's sister and brother-in-law, Mr and Mrs de Winter take their dog Jasper for a walk. Jasper, disobeying his master's commands, runs to a boathouse on the beach. The Second Mrs de Winter, also disobeying Maxim, runs after Jasper to get him back. Entering the boathouse with the excuse of looking for a piece of rope to tie Jasper with, she finds an exquisitely decorated interior, more resembling a cottage than a boathouse. While looking around for that piece of rope her eye catches yet another monogram bearing the initials "R de W".

Maxim shouts at his bride for not listening to him when he told her not to follow Jasper to the boathouse, adding that "if she had the same memories as him, she wouldn't go there, talk about it or even think about it". To dry her tears, the Second Mrs de Winter reaches for a handkerchief in the pocket of the mackintosh she's wearing, expecting to find one there. And she does. It is Rebecca's handkerchief, also carrying her monogram. That at such a vulnerable moment, when Maxim's new bride is crying after a row with her husband, it has to be Rebecca's handkerchief absorbing her tears, might for me be the darkest presence of the monogram throughout the film.

One of the climaxes of the film happens when the Second Mrs de Winter enters Rebecca's bedroom, the holy of holies, for the first time. The room seems to be a shrine, a place for everything and everything in its place. So much so, that you wouldn't even dare to touch anything. When Mrs Danvers catches the new Mrs de Winter in the bedroom, she gives her a guided tour making sure to point out all of the luxurious items. She caresses the new mistress of the house's cheek with fur belonging to the old one, shows Rebecca's lingerie especially made for her by nuns and her nightgown that's so delicate you can even see her hand through. The nightgown is kept in a silk case that "I embroidered for her myself", Mrs Danvers explains. While Mrs Danvers is still obsessively looking at the sheerness of the nightgown, the Second Mrs de Winter turns around and starts walking away.

The last shot we see before fading to black is the camera zooming in on the silk nightdress case, going up in flames to symbolize an end to Rebecca's hold on the couple. It looks like in the end she didn't win.

Monograms first became popular for personal use in the Victorian Era. Initially textiles were monogrammed to make sure personal possessions wouldn't get lost or mixed up in laundry. Very rapidly it became a sign of prestige and wealth, so the Victorians started monogramming not only linens, but virtually everything they owned. Note that the Manderley that was created for the film is of Victorian architecture. Although monograms went out of style during WWI, they were making a comeback when the novel was written and the film was created. Styles, however, had changed. Victorian monograms were more artistic of nature, whereas the monograms of the 1930s and 1940s were of a more streamlined and typographical kind. As Julia Coburn wrote in "Make Your Own Monograms" (Ladies' Home Journal, May 1935): "... if you wish to be in fashion today, the design of your monogram must be in streamline simplicity. And —Gothic or modern— monogram you must, for everything is initialed these days."

In Rebecca, "R's" or "R de W's" seem to be looming everywhere. Our heroine, however, doesn't seem to have any monogrammed objects. Furthermore, she doesn't even have a name, only being referred to by pronouns ("I") or "the Second Mrs de Winter". Without a name, the protagonist isn't even worthy of having her own character, it seems. She is constantly reminded of Rebecca and how she is nothing like her. People, as well as the abundance of monograms imply that Rebecca was endlessly more elegant, more prestigious. So she tries to live up to her glamorous predecessor more and more by changing her hair and wardrobe and asking about what things Rebecca would have done, trying to become Rebecca instead of developing her own personality.

It is interesting to note that the monograms on both the nightdress case and the handkerchief (the more personal, intimate objects) seem to be in Rebecca's own handwriting, whereas the monograms on the napkin, plaid and notebooks are too curly, too frilly (although the 'W' bears resemblance to her handwriting). If anyone has a theory on why they did this, I would love to hear it. Fun fact: the handwriting for Rebecca was penned by Selznick's wife.

To end this post I would like to share how du Maurier described the morning room in her novel (p. 89):

This was a woman's room, graceful, fragile, the room of someone who had chosen every particle of furniture with great care, so that each chair, each vase, each small, infinitesimal thing should be in harmony with one another, and with her own personality. [...] There was no intermingling of style, no confusing of period, and the result was perfection in a strange and startling way, [...]

This makes a perfect transition to next week's post on Harriet Craig (1950), starring Joan Crawford, the protagonist of which seems to have a lot in common with Rebecca.


Produced by David O. Selznick; Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; Based on novel by Daphne du Maurier; Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison; Cinematography by George Barnes; Art direction by Lyle R. Wheeler; Starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.


  1. BlondeAtTheFilm. “Rebecca (1940).” The Blonde at the Film. Accessed December 2, 2015. http://theblondeatthefilm.com/2013/10/31/rebecca-1940/.
  2. Doherty, K. “Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock 1940)- Image Is Everything.” Filmtank.org, October 25, 2009. http://filmtank.org/forum/showthread.php?t=114.
  3. du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. London: Arrow Books Ltd., 1992.
  4. Hitchcock, Alfred. Rebecca. Selznick International Pictures, 1940.
  5. Jacobs, Steven. Wrong House, the. Rotterdam: nai010 publishers, 2013.
  6. Strauss, Marc Raymond. Hitchcock’s Objects as Subjects: The Significance of Things on Screen. McFarland, 2015.
  7. Zegarac, Nick. “Hollywood Art, the.” American Hitchcock, 2013.
  8. http://www.embroideryarts.com/


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