“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
That one sentence is so evocative of this book, partly thanks to the 1940 Hitchcock film with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. There is something haunting about Rebecca—both the book and the title character.
Rebecca is narrated by a young woman, whose name we never learn: all we know is that it is an unusual name. She is an orphan and a paid companion to an obnoxious social climber, Mrs. Van Hopper, who frequents the haunts of the rich so she can make their acquaintance (which basically means forcing herself on them). The narrator is a shy, awkward woman, who is constantly embarrassed by her employer.
In Monte Carlo, they run into Maximillian de Winter, who Mrs. Van Hopper is determined to nab. But when Mrs. Van Hopper goes down with flu, Maxim befriends the narrator, taking her out for long drives. He is much older than the young woman and is clearly haunted by something in his past. Rumours have it that he is devastated by the death of his talented and beautiful wife, whom he loved deeply. When Mrs. Van Hopper suddenly decides to leave for New York, Maxim proposes to the young woman.
They eventually go back to his home, Manderley, which is being run by the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Although the house is beautiful, Mrs. de Winter (as the narrator is now known) feels that Rebecca is still there: her things are everywhere and Mrs. Danvers, who used to be Rebecca’s maid, clearly resents the new Mrs. de Winter. Maxim is distracted by affairs of the estate and seems to be on edge. He treats his young wife like a child, which makes her feel that she is not much more important to him than his pets, and that he is still in love with Rebecca.
Things come to a head with the discovery of a sunk boat, and well-hidden secrets are revealed. The plot is quite well-known, so I won’t go into any more details. If you have not read it or seen the film, then it is particularly important not to give away any more.
The book was first published in 1938 and has never been out of print since. This is probably the second or third time I have read it. What always strikes me about it is that the most vivid character is a woman who never makes an appearance, who is dead throughout the story, yet she is the one who effortlessly dominates it. It is a portrait painted out of an absence, or of little pieces of jigsaw that don’t always make sense until suddenly the last piece falls into place.
The narrator is young and gauche but not unobservant and clearly not stupid. But Maxim loves his young wife for her innocence and goes out of his way to keep her that way. Although he loves her, there is a part of him that needs to infantilize her. It takes a crisis to allow her to finally come into her own.
But those of you who are familiar with the story will also carry an image of the other dominating presence here: Manderley itself. The house, its gardens and woods get much more space here than they do in the film (especially the black and white version). The estate is a mix of the breathtakingly beautiful and the dark and slightly menacing.
In describing the couple’s first arrival at Manderley, going down the narrow drive through the woods that “twisted and turned like a serpent”, Daphne du Maurier sounds this note of warning, of darkness ahead, as well as a glimpse into Mrs. de Winter’s slightly overwrought mind: “[O]n either side of us was a wall of colour, blood-red, reaching far above our heads. We were among the rhododendrons. There was something bewildering, even shocking, about the suddenness of their discovery. …They startled me with their crimson faces, massed one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughter-house red, luscious and fantastic, unlike any rhododendron plant I had seen before. … And these were monsters, rearing to the sky, massed like a battalion, too beautiful I thought, too powerful; they were not plants at all.”
I started reading Du Maurier in my teens and have always loved the way she immerses the reader in the story. In Rebecca, there is a moment when something vital cannot be discussed because lunch is being served, and the matter cannot be mentioned in front of the domestic staff. The conversation about the weather and so on goes on for a couple of pages, which drove me crazy, as it was must have driven the characters crazy.
My one gripe: the end feels a little anticlimactic. That is one thing that the film does do better.