The narrator considers the fact that Mrs. Van Hopper’s observation about Maxim de Winter changed the course of the narrator’s life. Years before, Van Hopper used to go to the Hotel Cote d’Azur in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Van Hopper was known for being a busybody, and for the obnoxious habit of claiming people she’d met only once as her “friends.”
At the most basic level, Mrs. Van Hopper is a rather grotesque “mother figure” to the narrator. The narrator isn’t the least bit fond of her, but without her, the narrator wouldn’t be the woman she is.
The narrator remembers the afternoon, years ago, when Mrs. Van Hopper was sitting on a sofa in the Hotel d’Azur. On the afternoon in question, Van Hopper calls for the narrator, who is working as her servant and “companion” at the time, and tells her to fetch a letter Van Hopper’s nephew has sent. The narrator knows what’s going on: Van Hopper is going to use the letter as an excuse for introducing herself to Maxim de Winter. The narrator goes to fetch the letter, but when she comes back down to the hotel lounge, she finds that Maxim and Mrs. Van Hopper are already speaking. Van Hopper casually tells the narrator that she and Maxim are having coffee later. The narrator senses that Van Hopper is signaling to Maxim that the narrator is only a servant, and therefore not worthy of being talked to. To the narrator’s surprise, however, Maxim invites her to join them for coffee.
In the beginning of this flashback, the narrator has no knowledge of Manderley whatsoever. She’s familiar with a different kind of lifestyle, one in which she is a servant paid to deliver mail on behalf of her spoiled employee. There’s a complicated power dynamic in the scenes between the narrator, Maxim, and Mrs. Van Hopper—instead of directly threatening or excluding the narrator, Van Hopper uses allusion and veiled references to assert her social superiority. Although Maxim, we can sense, is attracted to the narrator, he’s playing by the same rules of polite manipulation as Mrs. Van Hopper: instead of openly expressing his admiration for the narrator, he tamely invites her for coffee.
The narrator, Maxim, and Mrs. Van Hopper proceed to have coffee together. Van Hopper says that Maxim must know her nephew, Billy. She shows Maxim Billy’s letter and shows him photographs of the vacations Billy has taken with his new wife. The narrator thinks that Maxim looks somehow archaic, as if he’s from the 15th century. Van Hopper praises Manderley, Maxim’s home. The narrator notices that Maxim isn’t saying anything to Mrs. Van Hopper, yet Van Hopper keeps talking. The narrator feels embarrassed on Van Hopper’s behalf.
Du Maurier presents Van Hopper as an ironic foil to Maxim de Winter. Where Maxim is quiet and mysterious about his family and family history, Van Hopper is loud and over-shares about everything. This is the first sign that the narrator and Maxim have something in common—a reluctance to speak, especially about oneself, that sets them apart from other characters like Mrs. Van Hopper.
To the narrator’s surprise, Maxim gently asks her if she would like more coffee. He asks her if she’s enjoying Monte Carlo, and the narrator is too surprised to respond. Mrs. Van Hopper interjects that the narrator is “spoiled,” a suggestion that Maxim doesn’t agree or disagree with. Mrs. Van Hopper continues to “babble” on about gossip, and Maxim continues to smoke his cigarette silently. After a time, a servant comes to summon Mrs. Van Hopper to the dressmaker. Van Hopper thanks Maxim for his company, and invites him for a drink tomorrow. Maxim declines, saying he’ll be driving out of Monte Carlo tomorrow. He quotes an old de Winter family motto, “He travels the fastest who travels alone.”
Although the narrator doesn’t respond to Maxim—she’s too tongue-tied and shy—her lack of response ends up being the perfect response. Like Maxim, the narrator is quiet and modest, even if she lacks Maxim’s suaveness. Maxim seems cool and collected at all times, because he’s been raised with strong traditions, a rigid code of manners, and the confidence of great wealth.
Later in the afternoon, the narrator prepares to play bridge with Mrs. Van Hopper. Bridge is dull for the narrator, since she plays with Van Hopper’s friends, who don’t like or trust her. The bridge game proceeds. Halfway through, an errand boy brings a letter for the narrator. The letter—which has the narrator’s name, spelled correctly (a rarity, according to the narrator)—says, “Forgive me. I was very rude this afternoon.”
For Van Hopper, the narrator is a mere tool—just a “hand” with which to play bridge. Although it’s not yet clear what Maxim thinks of the narrator, we know that he’s interested in her. It’s presented as a mark of his interest that he spells her (apparently foreign) name correctly—but this is also du Maurier being ironic, as we don’t know the narrator’s name at all, and never will.