Recurrent novae are binary stars in which a white dwarf accretes matter from a less evolved companion, either a red giant or a main-sequence star. They have dramatic optical brightenings of around 5–6 mag in V in less than a day, several times a century. These occur at variable and unpredictable intervals, and are followed by an optical decline over several weeks and activity from the X-ray to the radio. The unpredictability of recurrent novae and related stellar types can hamper systematic study of their outbursts. Here we analyse the long-term light curve of RS Ophiuchi, a recurrent nova with six confirmed outbursts, most recently in 2006 February. We confirm the previously suspected 1945 outburst, largely obscured in a seasonal gap. We also find a signal via wavelet analysis that can be used to predict an incipient outburst up to a few hundred days before hand. This has never before been possible. In addition, this may suggest that the preferred thermonuclear runaway mechanism for the outbursts will have to be modified, as no pre-outburst signal is anticipated in that case. If our result indeed points to gaps in our understanding of how outbursts are driven, we will need to study such objects carefully to determine if the white dwarf is growing in mass, an essential factor if these systems are to become Type Ia supernovae. Determining the likelihood of recurrent novae being an important source population will have implications for stellar and galaxy evolution.