‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca

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.

Timeless classic

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?

Flowery language

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.

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18 thoughts on “‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier

  1. I agree with your opinion of this book. I still remember it well a few years after finishing it, but it wont be on my list of favourites. I wonder if it is one of those books you have to read at a young age to really love it?

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  2. Great review, Kim – very balanced (and you still gave it four stars, despite the criticisms 🙂 )
    I do love this novel, but I’ve never understood why the first line is so famous. I think the first few pages are a bit ott and out of kilter with the rest – which I think is masterfully paced.
    I’ve only read two other novels by Daphne – My Cousin Rachel (brilliantly ambiguous) and The Flight of the Falcon (which bored me).
    Oh, and did you know that the similarities with Jane Eyre actually led to a plagiarism court case at the time of publication?! It was unsuccessful, eventually.

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  3. I do think it’s a book that young women/teenagers would definitely appreciate more than someone of my — ahem — advanced years. And I do think it’s designed to appeal to the romantic element in those that have yet to truly experience “real life”…

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  4. Thanks, Simon. Was vaguely aware of a court case but hadn’t realised it was about similarities with Jane Eyre. Sounds delicious… must investigate further.

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  5. A very interesting review, Kim, and one that makes me want to re-read Rebecca again. I read it so many years ago but still remember how much du Maurier’s haunting writing style affected me. Alas, it spoiled her other novels for me, but I did enjoy quite a few of them.

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  6. Great review Kim, though I debate your and Jackies comments that only younger women would like them book, ahem, ahem, cough. I was hoping you wouldn’t hate it as I would hate to not have you as a friend in my life, hahahaha.
    This book brought me back from the barren wastelands of a few years not reading at all and completely captivated me. I was completely lost in it, and I loved Mrs Danvers and wanted more of her in the book. Interestingly though its my ‘favourite’ of her novels, I would say its because it was the first of hers I read of hers and because it meant so much to me in terms of its place in my reading life. Does that make sense? I actually think ‘My Cousin Rachel’ is probably a better book, if because of the utter ambiguity which Simon T mentions.
    Her short story collections are worth a look up if you ever fancy them, very dark and creepy.

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  7. I haven’t read it either (blush), so you aren’t the last person in the world to get to it. I do have a copy — your review is a good incentive to get to it sooner rather than later.

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  8. Like KevinfromCanada, I also have not read anything by Du Maurier, never mind Rebecca! I hardly think I get points for trying once or twice but being defeated by her flowery language not 50 pages in so that I find myself looking for something else to read. One day I shall meet Rebecca on equal ground!

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  9. You’re most definitely not the last person on earth to have read this book, that title I think will eventually belong to me, who has had that very book sitting on my book shelf untouched for well over ten years despite the plethora of praise that has been thrown at it by valued friends and loved ones. Your review has inspired me enough to ensure I pick this book up and get stuck in at long last! I think the flowery language that youtalk about has put me off thus far but your mention of mystery and unexpected plot development will now get me over that hurdle!

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  10. So glad you wrote this review. The book’s been sitting on my bookshelf for at least 3 years (well, variations of a bookshelf as we’ve moved twice in 3 years). And your early tweets were not too enthusiastic, so I naturally got quite worried. But will now give it a serious try (next month, maybe?) and prepare myself for gushing, romantic sighing and flowery language…I’m not a huge fan of any of those.

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  11. I think this is probably true. It’s years since I read this but I have very fond memories of it, and it’s one of those I wouldn’t want to re-read in case it doesn’t measure up in quite the same way. As you get more experience with reading books you tend to notice things like over-writing and melodramatic plotting which seem perfectly ok when you’re younger.
    It’s also a book of its time, too. No young woman today would lapse into a similar situation. The plot only has credibility in that era, I think.
    It made a great movie, the B/W one, I mean…

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  12. I haven’t read this book either. I tried to awhile ago and just couldn’t get into it. As you noted, the opening pages filled with long descriptions just didn’t appeal to me. But I was also going through a reading slump at the time, and plan to give it a try again sometime, especially given that it seems to such a favorite.

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  13. I read her 3 other books and have 6 others lined up. Rebecca is my least favourite of the other 3 I have read. So don’t be discouraged!

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  14. Spot on review. I read Rebecca when I was 16, just 3 years ago, and even now I feel that it was more appropriate for my younger self. Picking up Flight of the Falcon a few months ago, I found Du Maurier’s writing style did not grasp me as much. The memories I have of Manderlay via Rebecca are eternal, and I wouldn’t re-read it in case I find fault in that flowery language you mentioned. My Cousin Rachel is very good too, though!

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  15. I just finished reading Rebecca after a friend recommended it to me (co-incidentally, her name is Rebecca too :-P). And I still wonder why I hadn’t read it till now. I don’t really know how to classify it. Is it a romance ? Or a mystery ? Or a thriller ? Perhaps, all the three.

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