Joan Fontaine – missionary of gothic


Followers of WhistlesintheWind will know that Jane Eyre and Rebecca have come up a few times in posts, usually exploring the gothic allure of rambling houses – the kind that are as much a character as the inhabitants themselves. They are both fascinating, now intertwined novels, and one actress lived both in the 1940s.

Rebecca 1940 a2

Joan Fontaine with Laurence Olivier in Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock from Daphne du Maurier’s novel

As a child in the 1970s and into the 1980s, sunday afternoons in winter often found one of the great ‘old’ black and white movies on our TV screens. It was here that a big part of my imagination was forged, leading me to later spend hours immersed in epic Victorian novels and their later successors, joining the characters as candles flickered in stone-built hallways, along oak bannisters, or where lanterns gleamed in winter light over mist-hung moors or ragged coasts.

Jane Eyre (1944)

Joan Fontaine, who died this week, played both Jane Eyre alongside Orson Welles and the second Mrs de Winter with Laurence Olivier. Both films remain classics today; Hitchcock’s Rebecca will never be matched, and the 1944 version of Charlotte Bronte’s novel still has great power (and is also faithful to its setting – I can’t ever forget the Yorkshire scolding from Grace Poole as Jane explores the attics: ‘What art tha doin’ up ‘ere – get thee dahn!’).

Fontaine’s performances are restrained, nuanced, yet charismatic, and have carried the films along through the decades. So WhistlesintheWind here salutes her, missionary of gothic, 1917-2013.


4 thoughts on “Joan Fontaine – missionary of gothic

  1. Hitchcocks’ REBECCA is probably my favourite film. The book too, by du Maurier – although in the film the killing of ‘Rebecca’ is slightly muddied- it is still the most wonderful gothic film. I too was sad that Joan Fontaine has left us. I wonder if we will ever guess what the second Ms de Winter’s Christian name was? Lovely tribute to her.
    p.s- Florence Bates as ‘Eydthe van Hopper’ was first class!

    • Yes, certainly one of my favourites of all time. And Mrs Van Hopper is great – though Judith Anderson is really brilliant…

      Not giving Mrs de Winter No. 2 a name is a great touch I think – it just makes Rebecca’s shadow loom even larger. Interesting how current literary theory trashes the second Mrs de Winter’s character – Rebecca is now viewed as the heroine, where once the popular reading of her was as a villain; she’s now seen as trapped and demonised by a pre-war mindset. (Sally Beauman’s novel Rebecca’s Tale basically nicked all the critical theory and wrote it up to depict Rebecca’s side.) Interesting to compare Rebecca with Rachel in the also excellent My Cousin Rachel, and even more interestingly, Olivia de Havilland played Rachel in the not-that-great 1950s film version – given the apparent feud with her sister Joan Fontaine…

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