The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Monday, 30 March 2009

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

This was one of those books that I had always heard of but never got around to reading, so when I saw a copy for sale at Reid of Liverpool last year, I bought it. I was also in the unusual and fortunate position of not having seen the film or knowing the story beforehand.
Our unnamed narrator tells us the story in retrospect, about the early months of her marriage to Maxim de Winter, a wealthy aristocrat, during the 1930's. They meet in Monte Carlo and after a long honeymoon, return to Maxims beautiful and imposing mansion in Cornwall to live.
The new Mrs de Winter is very different to the first, much younger, inexperienced, shy and also of lower class, and she is overwhelmed with uncertainty and low self esteem. Her insecurities are pushed to paranoia almost as she constantly feels measured by Rebecca, her predecessor, who drowned in a boating accident the year before. She was supposed to be very beautiful, confident, outgoing and exceptional at everything she did. In fact, it seems that everyone loved her, not least her old house keeper, the formidable Mrs Danvers, who makes sure that the new mistress knows that she will never be up to Rebecca's standards. However, not all is what it seems, as the story unfolds.
This book is frequently compared to Jane Eyre, being a story about the 'other wife', with a Gothic setting and the narrator being the central female character. It is not identical though and brings its own innovations with it, enabling this novel to stand on its own, as it has for decades.
There are 5 major characters, and lots of sub characters. Alongside our narrator, whose growing uncertainties and feelings of inadequacy shape our perception of the plot, we have Maxim, older, secretive, and so wrapped up in his own thoughts he fails to meet his young wifes needs. We also have Mrs Danvers, 'someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull's face, parchment white, set on a skeleton's frame.' Unforgettable!
The other two major characters are where du Maurier has come into her own with their unconventionalities. We have Rebecca, who we know is the crux of the book because it is named after her. Although dead, she is present on every page. We almost feel her presence more solidly than the narrator, because by her own self deprecating nature, she invites us to see herself only in beige, and Rebecca in glorious technicolour, even to the sophisticated scent of Azaleas left on her handkerchief, long after she has gone.
Lastly we have Manderley, the legendary house which is also a major character. Imposing and huge, it forms the claustrophobic, but compelling backdrop for the whole tale from the very first famous sentence...'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.'
Although less obviously Gothic than its 19th century comparisons, this novel has all of the elements subtly woven amongst a richly atmospheric story (the rambling mansion with unused rooms and corridors, a ghostly presence, an old crone, a threatened younger girl, an older man, secrets and mystery, death, atmospheric weather, lots of doubling). I became involved with the story and characters almost immediately and found it a pleasure to read and find out its secrets. At times I wanted to slap the narrator for constantly putting herself down, frequently describing herself as unattractive and awkward. I also wanted to slap her husband whose self interest dominates all of his thoughts as his young wife is almost imprisoned within her bewhildering marriage. I loved it for these reasons too. We are supposed to be exasperated by them, to want to scream at them to open up. The 'jolly-hockysticks' language was also entertaining, evoking a whole other England that is rich in atmosphere and setting.
I really enjoyed this book as so many others have done. I am also very fortunate to have not known the story beforehand.
This completes #12 of the 2009 mini challenges, to read a classic, defined as anything written before 1970. Rebecca was first published in 1938 but more than that its popularity has ensured its continual publication since then. You will find it among many lists of great novels being widely read and enjoyed for generations.
Here is a reading group guide...


Bybee said...

Judith Anderson, who plays Mrs. Danvers in the 1941 version looks just like her book counterpart. She scared the CRAP out of me.

galanthophile said...

I love the Hitchcock version of this film but have never read the book. I normally prefer to read a book before seeing a film version. However I'm going to take the book on holiday in a couple of weeks. As you say it's one of those books you should read.

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