”Rebecca, always Rebecca. Wherever I walked in Manderley, wherever I sat, even in my thought and in my dreams, I met Rebecca. I knew her figure now, the long slim legs, the small and narrow feet. Her shoulders broader than mine, the capable clever hands. Hands that could steer a boat, could hold a horse. Hands that arranged flowers, made the models of ships, and wrote ‘Max from Rebecca’ on the fly-leaf of a book. I knew her face too, small and oval, the clear white skin, the cloud of dark hair. I knew the scent she wore, I could guess her laughter and her smile. If I heard it, even among a thousand others, I should recognize her voice. Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca.”
Daphne du Maurier has always seemed like quite a shadowy figure and it seems that Rebecca has always been on my peripheral. Rebecca is one of my mother’s favourite books, and that of my favourite podcast host, Simon of The Readers, who is obsessed with Rebecca and Daphne du Maurier and mentions both in every episode. So I thought, might as well give it a try.
Before starting, I attempted to recall what I knew of both Rebecca and Ms. du Maurier. I knew Rebecca was suspenseful, but wasn’t sure if it was a thriller or a romance. I knew about Mrs. Danvers – and thought that she might be a villain, but wasn’t completely sure. To be honest, Ms. du Maurier herself, Mrs. Danvers and Mrs. Havisham (yeah that’s right – from Great Expectations) had all become muddled in my head. Du Maurier was this vague mysterious figure, I had no idea what she looked like, but I pictured her in the same way that I pictured Mrs. Havisham; rich, reclusive and a little bit nuts; which is exactly how I pictured Mrs. Danvers. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure that Daphne du Maurier was a real person. All of this pondering made me desperate to read Rebecca. Why did I think all of these things, where had my impressions come from? Turns out Rebecca is a bit of a cult classic. Most people have heard of it, some have read it and most of those have loved it. Most have not read anything else by du Maurier. Most know nothing about her. And it turns out that my thoughts on her were pretty accurate. She was rich, she was pretty reclusive, and she may have been a little bit nuts. Her Wikipedia page is pretty interesting – she was a Lady and Dame, she was accused of plagiarism multiple times (with no really firm resolutions) and might have possibly been a lesbian.
Du Maurier has woven a story that is somehow slow and dramatic and sinister and lovely all at the same time. The story begins at the end and creates a brilliant air of mystery. Something terrible has happened and our narrator and an unknown man have been forced from Manderley. I loved this opening sequence, and I loved the scenes set in Monte Carlo – where our unnamed narrator recalls falling in love with the rich and handsome Maxim de Winter who is grieving for his dead wife Rebecca. I very much identified with the narrator – her fear, her lack of confidence, the way she completely ignored Maxim’s attentions as being anything more than pity. Of Maxim de Winter himself, I was reserving judgement. He did seem to care for the girl, but there was a certain detached indifference that I felt went beyond mere grief. These fears were confirmed once he and his new wife return to Manderly. It’s clear from the beginning that Maxim has no real interest in his new wife, other than having a place-holder for the position of wife. This is also where I started to get a little annoyed with our narrator. I completely understand her fear and everyone is treating her rather terribly, but I’d like to see her with a little more backbone and a little less simpering.
Manderley itself, the house and the grounds are wonderfully described. Du Maurier infuses the spirit of Rebecca into every garden, every room, even the towns people. Our narrator is constantly reminded of how unlike Rebecca she is, how every room is decorated just to Rebecca’s taste. Rebecca’s ghost haunts the walls, the rooms, the furniture, the family and the staff, including the devoted Mrs. Danvers.
Mrs. Danvers is absolutely terrifying. In this first half of the book she doesn't have a large role, but she is always there on the sidelines, with her face like death and creepily kind ways. Even though she doesn't have a lot of screen time (page time?) you just know that she is totally bonkers. At my last reading, our narrator has decided to finally explore Rebecca’s west wing, is caught by Mrs. Danvers, who has forced her to touch and feel and caress all of Rebecca’s old brushes and clothes and even her nightgown. I thought the entire scene brilliant. Before Mrs. Danvers appears our narrator talks about how musty and stale the room feels, yet Mrs. Danvers rejoices in how fresh it is, like Rebecca is only gone out for the evening.
The book has so far been full of subtleties of this kind. There is meaning hidden everywhere and lends itself to a thoroughly enjoyable read. At mid-point the tension is rising and I have no idea what is going to happen. I have no idea who is with our narrator at the end, I am not sure that it’s Maxim. Du Maurier does a wonderful job of weaving the tension and suspense behind beautiful descriptions of the gardens and the mundane of everyday life. I am desperate to know what is going to happen, made even more desperate by the fact that nothing seems to be happening! I know there is a mystery, but I have no idea why or how!