I am in a book club, and our most recent book club book was Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.
Published in 1938, this is a relatively tame book by today’s standards, but there were aspects of the book that would have been shocking at the time. The book begins with a naive young girl (unnamed) in Monte Carlo who meets and marries a wealthy widower, Maxim De Winter. When they returned to the family home (Manderley), the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, implies that the new Mrs. de Winter will never be as beautiful, popular, accomplished, etc. as the first Mrs. de Winter. The main character struggles to behave as she should feeling that she is not good enough to be the lady of the house and cannot compete with the first Mrs. de Winter. As the mysterious events of the book unfold, the main character loses her naivete, stops trying to be someone she is not and discovers her true self.
With my interest in knitting, I always find that the presence of knitting in a book stands out to me. In this book, knitting makes an appearance, and interestingly, is only mentioned in the portion of the book where the main character is trying to live up to the first Mrs. de Winter and seems to be playing a role instead of being true to herself. When the book was written, knitting was experiencing a comeback and perhaps Ms. DuMaurier wasn’t aware that she had included knitting in her book but to me, knitting is quite symbolic in the book.
(Please note that I did not use page references for the quotes below as I have an e-book version of Rebecca and the page numbers can vary)
Knitting as an indicator of confidence and composure.
The first time knitting is mentioned in the book is when the new Mrs. de Winter’s sister in law describes her as placid. The main character “thought about being placid, about how quiet and comfortable it sounded, someone with knitting on her lap, with calm unruffled brow.” At this stage in the book, the main character is trying to figure out her role as the lady of the house and wishes she could have the quite composure and associated confidence she thinks she needs.
Later, her husband is depressed and says that he should never have rushed the new Mrs. de Winter into marriage. She tells him, “How absurd to say we are not companions … why look how we sit here every evening, you with a book or paper, and me with my knitting. Just like cups of tea. Just like old people, married for years and years.” To me, this shows that she is continuing to believe that quiet, placid composure is the way to happiness even though she does not feel this way inside.
Soon, the new Mrs. de Winter beings to feel the monotony of the quiet life of the lady of the house. “I went and sat down with a book and The Times and my knitting in the rose-garden, domestic as a matron, yawning in the warm sun while the bees hummed amongst the flowers.”
Knitting provides a clue that something strange is going on at Manderley.
As the mysterious events of the novel begin to unfold, the new Mrs. de Winter realizes that someone had been using her private room: “There was the imprint of a person on the fabric of the divan where my knitting had been before. Someone had sat down there recently, and picked up my knitting because it had also been in the way.” The invasion of her private space by a stranger who handled her personal things indicates the lack of respect that other people in the house have for her.
Knitting as a symbol of crisp efficiency.
At one point in the story, the protagonist visits her husband’s elderly grandmother who is in the care of a nurse: “The nurse brought out some knitting, and clicked her needles sharply. She turned to me, very bright, very cheerful.” Later during the visit: ““It’s a beautiful spot, isn’t it?” she [the nurse] said, the needles jabbing one another.” I love the visual image created by these statements of a woman who is crisp, no-nonsense and efficient.
In 1940, Rebecca was adapted as a movie starring Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock. The movie won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Cinematography. I watched the movie after reading the book and was disappointed that I did not see any knitting. However, I may have been distracted by Lawrence Oliver’s dapper moustache!