Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier

Cover from the first edition.
 'Last night I dreamt I went back to Manderley again'. And with that, one of the most famous opening lines in English language literature, Daphne du Maurier opens her acknowledged masterpiece, Rebecca. The novel that made du Maurier, to her surprise, one of the most popular authors of her day. In fact Rebecca was so well received it has never been out of print since it was published in 1938. And even more remarkable is that her novels, for several decades, were the most borrowed from libraries around the world.

 Her writing saw her regarded as a mistress of suspense, with her novels known for their less than happy endings. Rebecca is no exception, and it is a cleverly crafted novel that opens with an un-named narrator speaking of Manderley. The first two chapters, which are very short, speak in oblique terms of a calamity that befell Manderley, and with it her, and her husband. The crafting of the plot is superb because we never find out the calamity until the last page. In essence du Maurier has written a novel that is a perpetual circle. One that starts well after the events that were to transpire. When I finished the last page, I went back and read the first two chapters, as I then knew their hidden meaning.

 After the first two chapters the un-named narrator, a young woman of 21, asks what her life would have been like if her employer, a rich American woman, wasn't such a snob. Again du Maurier is upping the suspense, because the reader still has no real idea of what is to come. The question of what her life would have been like is almost rhetorical, because she is almost asking would her life had turned out any better, or worse than it did.

 The interesting thing about Rebecca is that du Maurier considered it a novel that explored the relationship between, a man who had power, and a woman who didn't. And yet I didn't feel that as I felt it more how a vile, selfish despicable personality, held sway over people's lives in life, and especially after death. The character of Rebecca de Winter never appears in the novel herself. Maxim de Winter marries the narrator in Monte Carlo and takes her back to Manderley where the shadow of Rebecca hangs. She is a naive, unworldly woman, and she struggles under the burden of a lifestyle she is unaccustomed to. But worse is the battle for her own identity in the face of the dead Rebecca and her legacy.

 Very quickly she feels smothered by the omni-present Rebecca. Even though dead it feels to her as if she has a presence over all that happens in Manderley. And no character more than the cold hearted Mrs. Danvers drives the point home. She despises the hapless narrator and the two have some strange, increasingly unpleasant, encounters. They culminate with Mrs. Danvers asking the narrator to commit suicide by jumping out of a top story window, unburdening herself of being unable to live in the shadow of Rebecca.

 This scene is interrupted by a ship running aground, and from here the novel takes an unexpected turn. Rebecca had apparently died by drowning when out sailing alone. But under the grounded ship is found her boat, and in it a body. When Maxim de Winter is informed, he confesses to the narrator that he murdered Rebecca for her vile, evil ways. Up to then the reader is under the impression that Rebecca was an outstanding, lovely woman, when in fact she was quite the opposite.

 She was screwing around on Maxim in the hope of getting pregnant so that a non-de Winter heir would take over Manderley. Maxim had no choice to go along with this conniving, as to expose Rebecca's scheming, was to create an unwanted destructive scandal. So one night, when he has the chance, he shoots her and fakes her death as drowning, even identifying a body found later as Rebecca.

 From there things start spiralling downwards rapidly. An inquest is held into the discovery of the body and the death ruled as suicide. Her cousin ,who she had been sleeping with, isn't convinced and confronts Maxim. He has his suspicions and a magistrate is called in, and evidence comes to light that leads them all to London. There they find Rebecca had cancer which only adds semblance to the suicide verdict. All the while the be-wildered narrator stands by Maxim and doesn't utter a word. She loves him and realises why he murdered Rebecca and decides to go along with the deception to keep him. But now Maxim de Winter is under a cloud, and he rushes back to Manderley only to find it on fire. The calamity refered to in the first two chapters being finally exposed.

 This is an outstanding novel. The structuring is perfect. De Maurier leads the reader astray with the false face presented by Rebecca, and then exposing her, with the master stroke of having her murdered right in the middle of the novel. For me Rebecca is an amazing literary creation. She at no times is alive in the novel and yet she casts her shadow over all. In life she was despicable woman who would stop at nothing to achieve her ends. But she died before she could realise them, namely that of having Manderley to herself. But she does achieve it! Even though dead, Maxim loses Manderley to her, because it is burnt down under the suspicion of him having murdered her. Even in death Rebecca won!

 The novel was adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock, and starred Lawrence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine as the narrator, and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers. It won an Oscar for best film in 1940, and yet it deviated from the novel due to David O. Selznick's interference, and the then censorship rules. Hitchcock was unhappy with the end result as it didn't mirror his ideas for the film. Hitchcock obviously had a thing for de Maurier's novels as he also adapted Jamaica inn, and her short story, The Birds to film.

 Rebecca is a superb novel. It transcends genre as it isn't just a suspense novel, as it combines a romantic plot line as well. The crafting is sublime, and the revelation of Rebecca's murder took me by complete surprise. To me that was a masterstroke, and de Maurier hid it extremely well ,as I would never have believed other wise that Rebecca wasn't anything but a nice person. De Maurier writes with an elegant hand. The language has an almost quiet sensualness to it as the words just roll on past the eye. All of which brings an added dimension to the overall enjoyment of the novel.

 Recommended reading, and highly so. Having not been out of print since publication is saying something! A well written, and cunningly crafted novel of 400 pages length. I'm sure it will more than satisfy anyone who takes the time to read it. Amazon has this with 4 1/2 stars from 575 reviews. I give it a perfect 5!


  1. I absolutely love this book! I needed a third for a three for two offer (I am a bargain book buyer!) and I grabbed this without really knowing what it was about.

    I had heard of it and the adaptations but never watched them!

    The twist were Maxim murdered Rebecca was so out of the blue for me - brilliant book (and write up as per usual!)


  2. It is a book that is impossible to not to love isn't it!! I only read it because I read a huge biography on Alfred Hitchcock which went into some length about his film adaptation. So when I saw the book at the library I grabbed it.
    The twist is a ripper isn't it?! I mean what a masterstroke by placing it right in the middle of the book instead of waiting to the end! She had me sucked in and I really though Rebecca was an outstanding woman. Oh wrong we were!
    There was just nothing I could criticise about Rebecca and it was bloody difficult to write about. Not sure if I'm really happy with the end result, and I struggled whether to add in the spoiler of Maxim murdering Rebecca.
    I'm the same I don't buy a lot of new books unless they are for my collection or I really want it. I use the library and second-hand book shops for the bulk of my books.

  3. Ups....I try again: Very good review Brent,

    Read Rebecca earlier this year and it blew me away.

    This is what a novel-experience should always be. I picked up this novel and just read a few pages meaning to read it later this summer - but I couldn’t put it down. I was totally engrossed in the gothic atmosphere, suspense, desperate love, love lost, love rekindled. This Jane Eyre inspired novel was a disturbing delight from start to finish. When I read the last pages I hurried back to the beginning and every word in the first few pages had a new powerful impact on me.

    You feel at every moment sympathetic towards the heroine/narrator, her estrangement and bewilderment when entering Manderley as the new mistress, but unable to shake of the shadow of Rebecca and the secrets that name will evoke. Strange, but reading it I had the same feeling as when I read Dracula. Can’t explain it :)

  4. Thanks!
    Yes I did the same, re-read the first two chapters as their meaning was now clear. I started reading it not really knowing what to expect and quickly found I couldn't put it down! I read it in two nights.
    Rebecca is an omni-present shadow that hovers over the whole novel, and I think that is brilliant in how a dead character can still play an influence on the living. I think that is where the Dracula feeling comes from. An evil presence that can't be seen or defined, but is definitely there.