Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. Fortunately, unlike the second Mrs. de Winter, I know that talking about one’s dreams is tiresome, so I will not bore you with it.
We’re not here to talk about me. We’re here to talk about whether Mrs. Danvers is Hot.
Let’s make one thing quite clear. I’m not trying to convince you that Mrs. “Danny” Danvers is gay. It’s 2020. If you can’t see that Danny is a capital-S Sapphist, I cannot help you. So remember: Danny was gay to begin with. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of this screed I am about to launch directly into your eye-holes.
WHO IS MRS. DANVERS?
In Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers is the keeper of Manderley, the palatial manor of Maximillian “Maxim” de Winter. Mrs. Danvers does not answer to Maxim. Especially not when he returns from Monte Carlo with a new wife in tow — a child-bride whose mere presence besmirches the memory of Rebecca, the one, true Mrs. de Winter. No, Mrs. Danvers answers solely to the specter of her beloved Rebecca (who was always more hers than Maxim’s) and to her own exacting standards of how Things Should Be Done in a household of quality. If this requires one to intimidate Wife #2 and slowly nudge her toward contemplating suicide, then so be it. . .
In the popular imaginary, Mrs. Danvers has been remembered in two ways: first, as the formidable antagonist of Rebecca (fair enough) and, second, as a pinched, sinister harridan who exemplifies the archetype of the Creepy Housekeeper. She does not, in other words, have much of a reputation for being sexy. Even Autostraddle’s take on Rebecca confines its defense of Danvers’s appeal to a coy double negative. (“. . .personally, unstable, highly competent ice queen isn’t something that I’m not attracted to.”) Like Danny’s queer relationship with Rebecca, however, evidence of her erotic appeal has been sprawled across a divan in the parlor, waiting for us to finally catch on.
Rather than cataloging all the moments when Danny makes sparks fly, I’m going to offer you a tasting menu of single scenes. I encourage you to find more evidence of your own, take copious handwritten notes, tape those notes to your wall, and connect them with colored pieces of string.
The Book (1938):
The OG-Danvers is paradoxically the most distilled and most remote version of the character. We can only view her through the veil of the second Mrs. de Winter’s narration. (Sidebar: I will henceforth be referring to said poor nameless chit as Un-Becky.) Given that Un-Becky experiences Danvers as a major obstacle to her happiness at Manderley, her portrayal of the housekeeper is, predictably, unflattering. Take her description of Mrs. Danvers upon their first meeting:
Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton’s frame. She came toward me, and I held out my hand, envying her for her dignity and her composure; but when she took my hand hers was limp and heavy, deathly cold, and it lay in mine like a lifeless thing (73).
Seen through Un-Becky’s eyes, Mrs. Danvers resembles a Halloween prop. (Though, once one learns of Danny’s intimacy with the late Rebecca, her stark, gaunt appearance also suggests a woman in deep mourning.) Even as she grudgingly admires Danny’s poise, the newest Mrs. de Winter seems comfortable casting her as a hag.
The chill in the room, however, doesn’t last long. Just after describing that cold-fish handshake, an unprepared Un-Becky reports that “[the housekeeper] began to speak, still leaving that dead hand in mind, her hollow eyes never leaving my eyes, so that my own wavered and would not meet hers, and as they did so her hand moved in mine, the life returned to it, and I was aware of a sense of discomfort and shame” (73-74). This new Danvers is not just lively, but erotically imposing, making her new mistress quiver like a schoolgirl. The initial “lifeless” handshake now seems like an attempt to give the cold shoulder to this unwanted intruder in her home. Alas, Danny simply can’t turn it off, so, instead of a cold shoulder, she gives this poor woman the vapors.
The force of Mrs. Danvers’s queer charisma turns Un-Becky into jelly. Like any good baby gay confronting a first crush, she forgets her conversation skills and what to do with her hands:
When she had finished, she waited, as though for a reply, and I remember blushing scarlet, stammering some sort of thanks in return, and dropping both my gloves in my confusion. She stooped to pick them up, and as she handed them to me, I saw a little smile of scorn upon her lips, and I guessed at once she considered me ill-bred. Something, in the expression of her face, gave me a feeling of unrest, and even when she had stepped back, and taken her place among the rest, I could see that black figure standing out alone, individual and apart, and for all her silence I knew her eye to be upon me (75).
And, just like that, the servant becomes the master. (One can imagine what kind of “unrest” Un-Becky must be feeling.) This is no meet-cute. This is Jane and Rochester. Fewer than five minutes in the same room and, already, Danvers is domme-ing her.
The Film (1940):
Buckle up — it’s time to meet our first Mrs. Danvers in the flesh. Even when acting beside the likes of Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, Dame Judith Anderson walks away with the film by serving looks like this:
While the casting of the relatively young Anderson took some viewers by surprise, Danvers-Is-Hot truthers can take this decision as vindication. Hollywood is an ageist place, so choosing an actress whose in-character headshot looks like this (see Image 1, below) is the establishment’s shallow way of saying, “We know this character is SEXY, and we must translate her erotic energy into something that registers with our beauty standards.” The pantheon of classically beautiful performers who have played Danny (including Nina Foch, Dame Diana Rigg, and — in the upcoming Ben Wheatley film — Kristin Scott Thomas) shows this casting impulse to be consistent across numerous (though not all) adaptations. Let’s check out some more stills, shall we?
An Incomplete Lookbook of Danvers Past
BUT there’s far more to talk about here than aesthetics. Back to the 1940 Hitchcock film and to the original Dame Judy. Arguably the most notorious Danvers scene in this version is the incident when she finds Un-Becky wandering around the late Rebecca’s chambers. She then proceeds to give her new mistress a tour that is . . . psychosexually complex for both of them. Treat yourself to the entire clip:
Like Un-Becky, we’re gonna need a minute to process what we just saw. Let’s break this down.
- “Do you wish anything, Madam?” Danny preemptively answers that wish by gliding into the room through the gauzy curtain. Her posture is regal. She seems almost to float. She makes an entrance like Cleopatra, not a maidservant
- “You’ve always wanted to see this room, haven’t you Madam? Why did you never ask me to show it to you? I was ready to show it to you every day.” DANNY HAS BEEN WAITING FOR THIS.
- The whispered invitation to the dressing room. The pin-up turn and pose with the closet doors. She knows exactly what she is doing, and she lives for the drama.
This set-up has all the makings of a lesbian pulp novel. And, in fact, “Sinister Brunette Introduces Wide-Eyed Blonde To the Pleasures of Ladyflesh” was apparently a popular subgenre. Check out these actual covers, one of which features someone we know:
- The eye contact. The cheek stroke. THE FUR. This is unquestionably a seduction, being carried out with utmost confidence. Joan Fontaine never looked at Olivier like that.
- The fashion show gets racier as Mrs. Danvers pulls out Rebecca’s Nunderwear (“specially made by the nuns in the convent of St. Clare.” Weird flex, but ok) — a precursor to the whisper-thin negligee she’s saving for the climax. Also, where have I seen all these outfits before??? Oh, right:
- As Un-Becky trembles her way about the room in Danny’s wake, this interaction may seem to tease the beginnings of The Dynamic. Don’t be fooled. Danny may be an Absolute Nightmare, and her target sure looks like a Sweaterboi, but, crucially, Un-Becky is not her Mrs. Danvers has already lost the love of her life and views this knock-off Mrs. de Winter with contempt. Consequently, we can interpret her behavior in this scene not as a genuine attempt to bed Un-Becky, but an act of aggression. Danny titillates this interloper — this invader in her love nest — before launching into a reverie about her late nights with Rebecca. Her message is clear. I saw that shudder when I touched you. I could have you any time I want. Too bad you’re beneath me.
- Richard III seduced Lady Anne over the corpse of her husband. Danny seduces Un-Becky over the figurative body of her mistress. The difference is that Danny doesn’t want the prize.
- Time for a good brushing! Danny summons Un-Becky to the vanity like she’s initiating a sex act. (Rebecca’s brush will not be touching her hair, of course. Not without protection.) So it’s no surprise that the ritual leads straight to bed. But who’s into sexual hair-brushing?
- By the time that we reach the infamous negligee (“look, you can see my hand through it”), Un-Becky is bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. When she sees Danvers’s lingerie-draped palm, notice how her hand flutters — a suppressed impulse to reach out and touch — before she flees with the glassy eyes of a woman that has been SHOOK.
- But Danny’s not done with her yet.
- And we’re played out to the sounds of the sea — presumably, the one condensing in Un-Becky’s panties.
The Bollywood Adaptations (1964, 2008):
Caveat: I speak none of the relevant South Asian languages needed here and can provide limited commentary. But the lure of Mrs. Danvers transcends language.
Our first version, Biren Nag’s 1964 film Kohraa (“The Fog/Mist”), takes inspiration from both Du Maurier and Hitchcock, but steers the ending in a different direction (which I will not reveal.) The major characters, however, remain basically the same: the wealthy Amit Kumar Singh (Biswajeet) falls in love and marries young Rajeshwari (Waheeda Rehmen), yet their union is haunted by the death of his first wife, Poonam (Thelma). Literally – this Rebecca might be a ghost. The resident Danvers is the housekeeper, Dai Maa, portrayed by prolific character actress Lalita Pawar. After a tragic on-set accident in 1942 fixed her left eye in a permanent squint, Pawar forsook lead roles, but became famous for playing evil mothers-in-law. As Dai Maa, Pawar puts her sinister acting chops on display, yet clearly hasn’t lost the queenly bearing of a leading lady.
If you can make do without subtitles, Kohraa is available in full on YouTube. I think you’ll agree that the “Poonam’s Clothes” scene requires zero explanation:
Viewers may notice that, in this version, the second wife has acquired quite a bit of backbone – and willingness to deface property! But the scene has the effect of making Dai Maa-Danvers look supremely unbothered. (**SPOILERS** She also may be a little bit of a murderer. Nobody’s perfect.)
The most recent Bollywood Rebecca, Mahadevan’s Anamika (“The One Without a Name”), was released in 2008. And, boy, is it bonkers. The film keeps some of the bones of the Hitchcock Rebecca, as well as the twist from Kohraa, but throws in a Pretty Woman meet-cute (Vikram-Max hires Jia-Unbecky from an escort service, but only to be his secretary, but then he trains her to be a better escort, and they marry at the end of the day?) and a femme fatal rival for our heroine. That brings us to Mrs. Danvers. Check out this trailer, and see if you can spot the Danny stand-in:
Struggling? This is Mrs. Danvers:
Meet Malini, played by actress, former model, and recent reality star, Koena Mitra. She’s caretaker of the property and its former mistress, Anamika. She’s also [**SPOILERS** deeply in love with Vikram and maybe a little bit of a murderer. All’s fair in love and war?]
Kohraa keeps pace with Hitchcock’s Rebecca in casting an entrancing character actress for its Danny, but the brains behind Anamika clearly decided, “It’s 2008! This is a tumultuous year in India’s modern history and we DESERVE OUR OWN MRS. DANVERS WHO RIDES BARNEY STINSON’S CRAZY/HOT METRIC INTO OBLIVION.”
The Drag Sketch (2008):
As Marx said in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, history repeats itself — first as tragedy, then are farce. Our final exhibit will be a sketch from the second series of That Mitchell and Webb Look, starring Niche-y comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb. “Reel Stories: Rebecca” finally answers the question that no one was asking: “What if Rebecca, but she’s still alive and Maxim is obsessed with the vague idea of a second Mrs. de Winter?” The whole thing is a marvel of mid-Atlantic camp, but our focus will be Mitchell’s indelible drag-turn as Mrs. Danvers:
Now, I’m not going to argue that Mitchell’s Danny is as sexy as Anderson’s. But there is a curious. . . magnetism.
Mitchell-Danvers has the dark roving gaze of a Renaissance portrait. His scenes with Joanna Neary feel authentically homoerotic. And his sheer presence has convinced the YouTube commentariat that Danvers, and not Rebecca, is the main character of Rebecca:
But however you feel about Mitchell-Danvers (weirdly. . . kinda hot?), this performance is revealing in terms of what it amplifies about the original Mrs. Danvers. Comedy has a way of distilling things. And, although the details are played for laughs, this sketch has been crafted with loving fidelity to the 1940 film. So, consider the exaggerated glide on the dolly (0:40) that draws from Anderson’s fluid walk. The sensual (almost) brushing of the hair. The hate-fuck intensity in the delivery of “Of course I KNEWWWWWW,” and the way Neary throws back her head when Mitchell brushes “TBA’s” frocks across her throat. These actors understand exactly what Hitchcock’s Rebecca was up to — and that Danny had it going on.
Manderley burned because it COULD NOT CONTAIN DANNY’S HOTNESS. I rest my case.
The Remake (????):
Like Mitchell and Webb’s Second Mrs. de Winter, the release date of Ben Wheatley’s much-anticipated remake of Rebecca is still TBA. (Filming wrapped in July of 2019; the film itself will have a Netflix release.) We do, however, know the identity of the next Danvers: as previously mentioned, the role will be played by Dame Kristin Scott Thomas, opposite Lily James as Un-Becky and Armie Hammer as Maxim. While no stills have been released yet, Thomas already gave the Danvers look a dry run in Saul Dibb’s Suite Française (2015):
Besides being yet another Certified DBE and Certified Hottie, in this post-Hayes Code world, Thomas might also be our first explicitly queer Mrs. Danvers. Her filmography offers some winking potential. As Fiona in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), she memorably declared, “I was a lesbian once at school, but only for about fifteen minutes.” Thomas, however, is no dilettante, having played queer characters in Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992) (seen partying below with Emmanuelle Seigneur), Canet’s Tell No One (2006) (pictured in a private moment with Marina Hands), and, most recently, season 2 of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag (2019) — a turn for which she earned an Emmy nom. Her Fleabag role as Belinda Friers is of particular relevance, since Belinda shares a steamy kiss with a younger woman (Fleabag herself), then rebuffs her because “you’re not my type” and “I can’t be arsed, darling.” BIG Dame Anderson-Danvers energy. Roll the clip!
In sum, Kristin Scott Thomas has been in training to play Mrs. Danvers for quite some time, and I can’t wait to see how she’s received. But I have some predictions. Two words: FAN ART. Watch this space, ladies and ladies. A whole new generation is about to undergo some Ice-Queen-Housekeeper-based self-discovery, and I salute them on their journeys.