Fiction – paperback; Virago; 448 pages; 2011.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was first published in 1938 — and I may possibly be the last person on Earth to have read it. I decided it was time to find out why so many people — friends and bloggers included — count this novel as one of their all-time favourite reads.
Rebecca is a timeless story about a young woman caught up in circumstances seemingly beyond her control, and while some have labelled it as either “women’s fiction” or “Gothic romance” it doesn’t really fit in with either description. Yes, it’s about women — or more importantly, the relationship between the sexes. And yes, it’s romantic. And yes, there are touches of the Gothic about it in the way the storyline is both scary and suspenseful.
But there are echoes of Jane Eyre, too, and of “country house” novels in which stately homes — and the people who run them — play a central role in the plot.
According to Sally Beauman, who wrote an afterword in the edition I read, du Maurier described the book as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower … Psychological and macabre” — and that pretty much sums it up perfectly.
The tale of a young woman who marries an older man
The basic story is about a young woman — tellingly she is nameless — who marries a much older man, Max de Winter, who is above her station. She meets him when she is living in Monte Carlo, as a companion to an older and quite trying American woman she does not particularly like.
Max is a handsome, well regarded gentleman with a large manor house called Manderley in England. He is in Monte Carlo trying to come to terms with the death of his wife, Rebecca, who was, by all accounts, a rather beautiful and popular woman prone to throwing lavish dinner parties.
When our narrator marries Max — against the advice of her boss — she must not only contend with a new life as a gentlewoman living in a style to which she is not accustomed, she must also live in the shadow of Rebecca who represents all the things she is not: graceful, educated, confident and loved. And from the very first (famous) line — “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” — we know that events have not played out as Max and his new bride might have wished. We get a further inkling of this when we discover that the stately home is now in ruins and that the story is being told from a “bare little hotel bedroom” in an “alien land”.
From the outset du Maurier sets up a suspenseful premise: what events lead to Manderley’s ruin and what of the fate of those who lived there?
I admit that when I first began reading Rebecca I was worried by the flowery language and the overly descriptive passages, particularly of Manderley and its beautiful grounds. The word that immediately came to mind was “overwritten”. In many respects, the prose felt as if it had been composed by a young writer wanting to impress her reader — and I’m pleased to see that Beauman addresses this in her afterword. She, too, uses the word “overwritten” but she believes it was a deliberate ploy by du Maurier to put the reader in the head of a young, easily impressed and not very well educated narrator, who is amazed at the house when she first sets eyes upon it. I accept that that may well be the case.
Even so, I did find the prose style slightly wearing in its eagerness and enthusiasm. And while I realise that Mrs Danvers, the evil housekeeper, is supposed to be our narrator’s nemesis and therefore the character we channel all our hate towards, I found her tiresome and a little too two-dimensional to be taken seriously.
That said, the terrific plot made up for these shortcomings. Du Maurier deftly scatters clues here and there to suggest that the much-loved Rebecca may not be all as she seems, but I seemed to miss most of them until they were pointed out (in a rather annoying way, it has to be said, by the narrator herself). This meant that the little twist in the middle caught me slightly off guard — which is always a good thing when, like me, you worry that you may be turning into a jaded reader.
Such an unexpected plot development turned what had been a fairly entertaining novel about a young woman readjusting her expectations of marriage into a page-turning mystery. I found myself racing to finish the book just to see how events would resolve themselves. The denouement, while slightly rushed and too neatly tied up, was satisfying.
A hugely evocative story
I can appreciate why so many readers clutch Rebecca to their hearts — it’s a well crafted, hugely evocative story about married love and a young woman’s search for identity and acceptance. Its filled with drama and emotion, and is played out against a grand backdrop of the rugged Cornish coast and a beautiful stately home.
And du Maurier is an expert at putting us inside the head of someone who is floundering and deeply uneasy about her place in the world, so that we want to cheer her on and tell her that she’s better than she thinks she is!
While the story is memorable and will stay with me for a long time, on the whole Rebecca won’t make it onto my list of all-time favourite reads. And I know I’m going to be slated for this, but it’s at least 150 pages too long! That said, I am keen to explore more of du Maurier’s vast canon of fiction, if only to see whether Rebecca — which is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — is typical of her style.