Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

275 p. In Four Great Cornish Novels, Gollancz, 1984. First published in 1938.

How does the modern reader review an eighty-five year-old book with a large cultural imprint and a story perhaps familiar from TV or film adaptations? And one on which anyone reading the review may already have formed their own opinions? This is the problem with Rebecca, a book I have come to very late. Is there anything new to say about it?

Its first line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” is of course iconic and astute (or would be to a reader coming to it with no foreknowledge.) The narrator clearly has an attraction to the place but no longer a connection to it. Yet it sets up a mystery. Why is that so? What happened that Manderley is no longer in her life? Why would it be so significant to her? Hence, we read on. I would argue, though, that the rest of that chapter, where we receive the second Mrs de Winter’s memories of its grounds, is a touch too overwritten.

The second chapter begins, “We can never go back again, that much is certain,” once more a promise of revelations to come and perhaps with a more widespread application. Yet such going back, recollections of lives lived from older – maybe wiser – perspectives, is a staple of literature. And so we have the second Mrs de Winter’s account of the early days of her relationship with her now husband, Maxim. Though Maxim de Winter tells her – and us – she has “a lovely and unusual name” we never learn it, which is a bit of a tease and also something of a copout by the author. But it does serve to underline the central thrust of the book. Rebecca, despite its title, is not really her story at all, nor even that of the second Mrs de Winter (except in the fragments we are shown,) but rather of that first wife’s effects on the other characters and of the influence, in an entirely unparanormal way, dead people can exert on the living from beyond the grave.

The mousy, diffident girl Maxim de Winter meets in Monte Carlo due to her paid companionship of Mrs van Hopper (a well-judged portrayal of such a snobby woman and her entitled, selfish behaviour – the blustering Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin, who towards the end threatens the promised happy ending (which is itself undone by Manderley’s destruction,) is another well-drawn individual – cannot quite believe Maxim’s interest in her – especially since Rebecca’s glamour and allure are all that she hears about. This is perhaps a little disingenuous of du Maurier. Would even the most self-effacing young woman really believe that a man as wealthy as Maxim would marry her solely out of sympathy? And so soon after the death of a woman to whom he was supposedly devoted? That there wasn’t something about her that he found congenial and desirable? That she cannot realise that her difference from Rebecca is the point is much easier to understand. His witholding from her of that information is a mark against him but then without it there would have been no plot. But that leaves our narrator continually holding herself to a standard to which she cannot live up, prey to the machinations of the contemptuous and manipulative housekeeper Mrs Danvers whose devotion to Rebecca survives her mistress’s death. Then again the second Mrs de Winter is largely naïve and too taken up with her own insecurities to see any deeper picture before it is thrust on her.

People have been struck by similarities between Rebecca and Jane Eyre. Both bear characteristics of the Gothic novel, both are the memoirs of a young woman who falls under the spell of an older man with a big house. Yet the comparison is not exact. In Rebecca there is no barrier to marriage, the first Mrs de Winter is dead, in Jane Eyre, Mrs Rochester, the mad woman in the attic, is not – at least until the fire kills her and leaves Mr Rochester blind. However, in Rebecca it is arguable that the mad woman is actually in plain sight in the form of Mrs Danvers. And Jane would not have stood by Mr Rochester if she thought he had got rid of his wife.

No doubt it is due to the book being published in the 1930s but there is a curious lack of passion to the relationship between Maxim and his second wife. Maxim drops into his old habits as soon as he returns to Manderley, leaving his new wife to fend for herself through her long days. There is even a reference to Maxim’s bed being unslept in, their twin beds, then, a clear signal the couple does not sleep together. Love and sex being absent, of the three big novelistic concerns that leaves only death for Rebecca to dwell on.


Pedant’s corner:- Some 1930s usages (to-day, to-night, suit-case.) Otherwise; “reading Bradshaws” (Bradshaw’s,) some commas missing before pieces of direct speech, “lunch I suppose” “the passage was in the past tense” (lunch I supposed,) “Mrs Danvers’ dislike” (Danvers’s,) “the hood” (of a car. That would be the bonnet, then,) the line “pockets. He was staring straight in front of him. He is thinking about Rebecca,” is repeated two lines later and the line it replaces never appears. “‘He was not in a fit to state to undertake anything of the sort” (that first ‘to’ is superfluous.) “It means we had to go” (Again the passage was in past tense; ‘It meant we had to go’,) “Doctor Phillips’ car” (Phillips’s.) “Tired women with crying babies in pram and stared into windows” (is missing something between ‘pram’ and ‘and.’ Or the ‘and’ is superfluous.)

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