20 Classics #9: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. I aimed to read them all in 2011, but that’s beginning to look unlikely. Read more about this project here.

Why did I want to read it?

I think I knew about the film before the book, but I’m yet to see it. The main reasons I wanted to read it were gothic + romance. Also because it is a more ‘modern’ gothic novel.

When was it published?

First published in 1938. My copy is a sexy, red 1994 Avon paperback. There are plenty of other editions.

What’s it about?

A nervy young lady with good morals meets a handsome rich man with a dark past. Maxim de Winter (how great is that name?) owns a famous country manor called Manderley. The rich flowers and woodland surrounding the house are constantly to be kept at bay. There is also a cove, where his attractive and charismatic late wife, Rebecca, drowned. Our young heroine does not know the first thing about running a household (or anything much at all), and feels severely inadequate. But Maxim prefers her this way.

Tell us more about the author.

Daphne du Maurier came from a creative family. Her father and mother were actors, her grandfather was an actor and cartoonist, and her older sister was also a writer (Angela du Maurier). She was born in London in 1907. She was a fan of the Bronte sisters and wrote novels, stories, a few plays, and biographies. Works include The House on the Strand, The Scapegoat and The King’s General. Many of her works have been adapted for the screen. She died in 1989 in Cornwall and there is a festival held there each May in her honour. This website has du Maurier news and reviews of her work.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

At the beginning, I was captivated. What a champagne storyteller. What gorgeous descriptions. But after a certain revelation in the plot, I felt cranky. Then I began to notice all the metaphors.

Our heroine is well-rounded, and endearing with her anxieties and her desires. She meets Maxim, and he slowly draws her away from the horrid, gossipy lady she is ‘companion’ to. I love her first description of him:

I don’t think I should care for Palm Beach’, he said, blowing out the match, and glancing at him I thought how unreal he would look against a Florida background. He belonged to a walled city of the fifteenth century, a city of narrow, cobbled streets, and thin spires, where the inhabitants wore pointed shoes and worsted hose. His face was arresting, sensitive, medieval in some strange inexplicable way, and I was reminded of a portrait seen in a gallery I had forgotten where, of a certain Gentleman Unknown. Could one but rob him of his English tweeds, and put him in black, with lace at his throat and wrists, he would stare down at us in our new world from a long distant past – a past where men walked cloaked at night, and stood in the shadows of old doorways, a past of narrow stairways and dim dungeons, a past of whispers in the dark, of shimmering rapier blades, of silent, exquisite courtesy.

Evocative, isn’t it? At this point, we fall for Maxim along with our protagonist, and we want them to be together.

Newly married, back at Manderley, the new Mrs de Winter struggles to fit in. She is afraid of having to give orders to the servants, she is overwhelmed by the customs of her new social standing. To top it all off, the presence of Rebecca de Winter, her husband’s late wife, is still strong in the house. The more curious our protagonist gets, the more inadequate she feels, compared to this gorgeous, charming woman. The house and its gardens close in. Rebecca’s rhododendrons are ‘too powerful’, a ‘slaughterous red.’ Yes, there is something controlling, fecund, luscious about everything that was Rebecca’s. Our heroine begins to feel that the marriage might be a mistake. She is not feeling good enough for Maxim.

Before I explain where the book went wrong for me, I must throw up a *spoiler alert*. I hate to do it, but I’d like to discuss the problems I had.

So I was hooked up to this point. I knew there was more to Rebecca – something sinister about her that no one would talk about. And then we find out. A ship runs aground in the bay and they find Rebecca’s boat underneath. Her body is inside.

I’d suspected that she probably was murdered, but I never guessed it would have been Maxim. Aren’t we supposed to like him? Well, our heroine still does. Even more so. All she can think of when she finds out – and here’s the part where I flinched – is the fact that Maxim ‘did not love Rebecca’. How pleased she is, to learn this. Plot-wise it makes perfect sense – our heroine was anxious and shy; her cyclical, inward-facing thoughts stopped her from finding out the truth, or even guessing at it, beforehand. The reason it disturbed me, though, was that this woman did not care an ounce that her husband had killed another woman! Shot her dead!

Okay, okay. Rebecca was ‘evil’. But why? The reasons we are given are that she was manipulative, cold, clever and promiscuous. So it’s not a feminist book. The shy, young virginal woman is ‘good’, and the femme fatale – the sexy woman who gets what she wants – is so bad she must die. And the ‘moral’ woman agrees with that. Oh, she would never take money she didn’t earn (we learn at the beginning) but she would be okay with murder. Yes, she changes when she finds out about the murder. But Maxim likes her because she is wide-eyed and uncorrupted, the opposite of the carnal Rebecca.

Another problem is that du Maurier makes Rebecca sound so intriguing to the reader, just as she was to the characters she won over in her lifetime. I wanted to know more about her. She seduced me, in a way. I wanted to know her story (though I’m sure she would have told me a lie). But was she really a psychopath? Or just a powerful woman? We know how the main man in her life eventually saw her…

I think this is one of those novels that is exciting, well-written, a ripping yarn etc. but unfortunately too politically incorrect for me to fully enjoy it. Other books I’ve read for this project have been un-PC in some ways, but here the un-PCness is crucially related to the plot. It’s also backed-up by metaphor. The binary of nature and reason, carnality and innocence, excess and restraint. The flowers, excessive and luscious – threatening, to our heroine – are one aspect. Then there is Rebecca’s cousin (with whom she had an affair). When he is handed a whisky-and-soda Favell drinks it ‘greedily, like an animal.’ She goes on: ‘There is something sensual and horrible the way he put his mouth to the glass.’ Our heroine is disgusted by any reminder of sex, nature and excess. She also comments on his neck pushing at his collar, how he would soon lose his physique. There is such a fear of things spiralling out of control.

But there is much to enjoy in this book. I read it very quickly. I was interested to learn that in 1994 it was revealed that du Maurier was bisexual, and that she felt she had two sides to herself. Could Rebecca de Winter be her ‘masculine’ side, powerful yet publicly stifled? It’s a very interesting way to read it. I must watch the Hitchcock film and compare. Have you read the book or seen the film? Did you have any issues with it, or was it pure enjoyment? How does the film compare?

What’s next?

I’ve finished Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well and I’m reading Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies. I might pick up Doris Lessing after that?

author image via

13 thoughts on “20 Classics #9: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

  1. I haven’t seen the film for years; we watched it in year 10 English then compared it with a more ‘modern’ thriller, ‘Jagged Edge’ starring Glenn Close.

    So at the time I found the Hitchcock film very hammy and melodramatic, but Mrs Danvers is a truly creepy and terrifying figure. You speak of du Maurier’s bisexuality; the scene where Mrs Danvers shows the narrator Rebecca’s clothes, running her cheek voluptuously over a fur, is held up as a key scene in queer cinema.

    • Mrs ‘Danny’ Danvers is definitely portrayed as having been obsessed/in love with Rebecca in the book, too. ‘She looked beautiful in velvet. Put it against your face. It’s soft, isn’t it? You can feel it, can’t you? The scent is still fresh, isn’t it? You could almost imagine she had only just taken it off.’

  2. G’day Angela,

    “I might pick up Doris Lessing after that?” I would absolutely recommend that you do. ‘The Golden Notebook’ is wonderful, but ‘The Grass is Singing’ might be a more manageable length for your ’20 Classics’ segment. My flea-bitten copy from a secondhand store in Midland is still waiting for me to read it, along with countless others…
    I was also interested with your take on ‘The Sea, The Sea’. Iris has written some other fantastic novels. If you ever get time you should check out (in no particular order) ‘The Black Prince’, ‘The Bell’, ‘A Severed Head’, and ‘A Fairly Honourable Defeat.’ I think she’s terrific.

    Here’s to the literary life,

    Best
    Glen.

    P.S. Can’t comment on ‘Rebecca’ because I haven’t read it…sorry…

    • Thanks for your comment, Glen. Very keen to get to some more Iris Murdoch at some stage. Thank you for your recommendations.

      I think I will go with The Golden Notebook for DL, as I have it here and it really appeals. I know I won’t get through all the classics in 2011 now so longer books are fine! I still want to read Moby Dick, after all.

      Thanks for reading.

  3. Loved ‘Rebecca’ when I was younger (I think a teen) must have been all that lurking sensuality. Must be time for a reread I think. I too just read ‘The Well’ and loved it all over again. What did you think? The way Hester sees Katherine is so obsessive and warped, her character reminded me of Barbara in Notes on a Scandal. Elizabeth Jolley is timeless I think. Thanks for reminding me of some great books.

    • No problem, thanks for reading. I loved The Well, I’ll post something on it fairly soon! It was my first Jolley. One of the reasons I began this project was to read authors I really should have read by now!

  4. I loved Rebecca. I came across both for the first time when taking a subject on novel and film. I am slowly discovering that I have a penchant for melodrama, so the film appealed just as much as the text. All this being said I too was a little disappointed by the vary clearly cut virgin = good and femme fatale = bad or evil. I spent much of my reading time waiting for Rebecca to reappear and re-claim her life, home … but perhaps in memory she has more power?
    Any thoughts on the parallels between ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Jane Eyre’?

    • I’m quite fond of melodrama, too.

      I think you may be right that in memory, Rebecca has more power. A myth is built up around her, through Max, her cousin, the servants etc.

      Now, it’s been such a long time since I read Jane Eyre (or saw any of the film adaps) but Du Maurier was a big fan of the Brontes. I’m sure it was an influence. There’s the presence of another woman, and I did keep expecting that Rebecca would be locked up in a dusty wing of the house, the ‘madwoman in the attic’. I must read Jane Eyre again. Did you have any thoughts on that?

      • Yes, the mad woman in the attic! Aside from more metaphorical dealings with this motif, the texts that deal with it in the more literal sense – Rebecca, Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea (which admittedly I have not read for years and years) are we left feeling a little unsatisfied with the ending created for the woman locked away?

        Even in Jane Eyre there is a certain ‘virtuous and good’ vs ‘sexual and evil’ – though Jane’s intelligence, strength and otherworldliness gives her so much more gusto than Du Maurier’s leading lady. Why must Bertha burn with the house, and Rebecca and Ms Danvers be wiped from the page? I felt the same discomfort with Mr Rochester holding Bertha prisoner as with ‘no name’ being completely OK with Maxim have done away with Rebecca. As much as I want to admire Jane as a heroine (and I do!) there is something missing in it being OK for Bertha to disappear in ashes.

        Sorry I have moved off topic completely!

      • I think you are right. I have heard that Jane Eyre was an influence for Rebecca. (And Wuthering Heights influenced another book by du Maurier–Jamaica Inn.)

        I’m curious. You said Mrs. de Winter doesn’t know the first thing about anything much at all but then describe her as well-rounded. How do these two things reconcile?

        I’m almost ashamed. Rebecca is my favorite book, but I have never analyzed it from a feminist perspective.

  5. Hi Emma, I think I meant that her innocence/squeamishness, her personality, is well-founded and well-written: we understand her motives and her reactions.

    And don’t be ashamed at all! I couldn’t ignore those aspects, but there are probably plenty of books I love where I was so captivated that I failed to notice various aspects (and probably still would). We love the books we love for many different reasons, and often it is personal, or a matter of taste. You may not even agree with me if you re-read it. It is my own reading.

  6. In regards to authorial intent, (and the time in which it was written) Rebecca can be read from a feminist perspective for precisely the reasons you state. Max, with the power, the money, the status is trapped into a marriage with Rebecca because he cannot bear to lose his social status and high regard he is held in, if he divorces her. After he had dispatched her with violence, no less, he seeks out a meeker, less advantaged mate, one who does not question him or his motives. It is not about love at first sight. I think the theme of the destructive potential of male power and control is a strong thread throughout the novel. When Max remarks on the unusual and lovely name of the heroine, it is her father she refers to, for she bears his name, her mother is mentioned only briefly. Women have no name but the one’s bestowed upon them by men and yet the book is titled ‘Rebecca’. Who is being celebrated, Rebecca or her drab successor? Near the end of the book Mrs. Danvers tells them all that regardless of her many affairs, Rebecca loved no man, and ultimately she was punished for this. We only really have Max’s word on how depraved Rebecca might have been. Time and time again our namless heroine reflects on her inability to speak up, to speak her truth. I always thought, even when I first read the book as a teenager, how incredibly unhappy they are at the beginning of the novel, the quiet days in some anonymous hotel, desperate and dull and alone, Max chain smoking away.(Although, as much as I like the symmetry of cancer, Rebecca’s, and Max smoking himself to death, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t common knowledge in 1938). Mrs. de Winter (2) is in effect as much a paid companion to Max, watching him smoke, reading the newspaper to him, etc as she was to Mrs. Van Hopper. But you know, in love.

    Oops went on a bit, there. It’s a great read though. Hope you made it through all your classics!

    • Thank you so much for sharing your fascinating reading of Rebecca. It sounds like you’ve read it more than once, too, and know it very well. I really enjoyed your view!

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