By Nadia Clare Smith
“I know Mr. de Winter well. I knew his wife too. Before she married she was the beautiful Rebecca Hentridge,” declares Mrs. Van Hopper at the beginning of REBECCA, greatly overstating her familiarity with the de Winters. In Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca has no maiden name, and her familial and social origins are unclear; other characters’ recollections of her fail to capture the true identity of the elusive, complex woman now unable to speak for herself. While the late Rebecca functions as an apparition haunting the second Mrs. de Winter’s imagination, she was based on a real person. Margaret Forster, du Maurier’s biographer, notes that the character was inspired by Jan Ricardo, but provides few details about her, making Jan seem as mysterious and enigmatic as Rebecca. While biographical analyses of novels and films have certain limitations, a closer look at the archival record of Jan’s life sheds light on the making of REBECCA and its famous central characters, and offers new contexts for understanding and appreciating this iconic film.
Jeannette Louisa Ricardo, nicknamed Jan, was born in London in 1905. Her parents, Lieutenant-Colonel Wilfrid Francis Ricardo and Norah Bell, named her after her grandmothers, Jeannette Bennett Bell and Louisa Jane Perry Ricardo. Wilfrid’s great-uncle was the famous economist and politician David Ricardo; other Ricardos served in Parliament as well. Although Jan’s Ricardo ancestors were Sephardic Jews from Portugal who moved to Holland and then to England in the 18th century, she, her parents, and siblings were practicing Catholics and moved in upper-class Catholic social circles. Both Jan and Rebecca, described as strikingly attractive, dark-haired, mercurial young women, were associated with London, glamour, modernity, and the excitement of the Roaring Twenties. Lacking stimulation in her Cornwall village, Rebecca spent much of her time in London with an urbane, countercultural circle of friends reviled by the more conservative Maxim, deeply invested in Manderley and his traditional English country-house lifestyle and values.
Newspaper reports help reconstruct Jan’s early life in London, providing further social context for the story. We first encounter her in print as a seven-year-old bridesmaid at an aristocratic couple’s wedding in July 1912. As a young adult, Jan attended debutante dances and the weddings of upper-class friends. Two highly significant announcements appeared in the London Times in 1929. The first notes that the wedding of Major F.A.M. Browning and Miss Jan Ricardo will be postponed; the second states that the Browning/Ricardo marriage will not take place. Frederick Browning, nicknamed Tommy, would marry Daphne du Maurier two years later. Early in her marriage, Daphne found and read some old letters from Jan to Tommy, and began to fixate on her husband’s former fiancée, whom she may never have met. Convinced that her husband still loved Jan, Daphne became obsessively jealous of her, mirroring the feelings of the second Mrs. de Winter for Rebecca. She was also struck by Jan’s signature, especially the distinctive “R” in Ricardo. This became the basis of Rebecca’s idiosyncratic handwriting, with the “R” towering over the other letters – the sprawling “R” the second Mrs. de Winter sees everywhere at Manderley.
Ultimately, the character of Rebecca, and indeed Jan herself, owed much to imagination. Daphne did not really know Jan, learning about her through letters and gossip, and filled in the gaps herself, like the second Mrs. de Winter. Introverted and socially awkward like her protagonist, she and the second Mrs. De Winter especially resent Jan/Rebecca for their legendary social confidence and vivacity. To some extent, Daphne wrote her novel to vicariously exorcise Jan, and the shadow she cast over her marriage, by having Maxim acknowledge that he murdered Rebecca, then reassure his second wife that loves her and had hated Rebecca. He condemns his first wife as “the devil,” overturning her iconic image. (The Production Code’s guidelines would not allow murderers to escape legal punishment on screen, so the film depicts Rebecca’s death as an “accident”). Enraptured by these revelations, the second Mrs. de Winter resolves to help Maxim evade punishment and deny Rebecca the posthumous satisfaction of having “won,” making her complicit in Rebecca’s death after the fact. Ultimately, Daphne was surprised that her “rather grim study of jealousy” was widely perceived as breathtakingly romantic.
We encounter Jan Ricardo in the Times again in April 1937 as Daphne was working on Rebecca, which was published the following year and filmed in 1940. This time, the newspaper announced Jan’s wedding to Ian Constable Maxwell, a military man from an aristocratic Scottish Catholic family. One of the wedding guests was Angela du Maurier, Daphne’s older sister. It appears that Jan later read Rebecca and recognized herself as the inspiration for the title character. While Rebecca never became a mother, Jan gave birth to a girl in April 1942. On August 4, 1944, Jan committed suicide by throwing herself under a train. She was thirty-nine.
No real traces of Jan’s unmediated voice survive in the public record, aside from a newspaper advertisement she placed asking for a maid, one which Rebecca might have placed as the mistress of Manderley. Jan’s (and Rebecca’s) sprawling, unique, memorable penmanship, however, underscores a strong sense of her own individuality and may point to an insistent effort to inscribe herself into the historical record for eternity through writing, and her voice may have survived in letters and personal writings held in private collections. We never see a picture of Rebecca in the film, and there appear to be no photographs of Jan in the public domain. However, in 1960, the Times reported on a debutantes’ dance held at the Surrey home of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, and included pictures of a glamorous, dark-haired young woman dressed in a white ball gown. The caption revealed her to be Jan’s daughter, Jeannette Constable Maxwell.