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?
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?
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