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Thursday, 20 May 2021

Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca

Daphne du Maurier 
Rebecca (5*)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

One of the best remembered and most envied openings of any English novel. Its effect seems to lie in the exotic ‘Manderley’, the question of why only in a dream, and the word ‘again’.

It was the Guardian writer, John Crace, who prompted me to read it. He regularly returns to it as if in need of emotional sustenance. He first read it during a wet week in a holiday cottage when little else of promise was available, and was hooked. Ever since, he has considered it the most underrated classic of the twentieth century.

Having read Jamaica Inn some years ago in similar circumstances and thought it all right, and being in need of emotional sustenance myself after some of the things I’ve been reading lately, I thought I would give Rebecca a try. There it was, waiting in one of our bookcases with my wife’s maiden name inside the front cover.

Until the author twists the screw in Chapter 13 it is faintly irritating. The opening leads to a dream about a beautiful house, Manderley, decayed and deserted, “with no whisper of the past about its staring walls.” (p7).  It drags on through the whole of the first chapter, all in the mind of the narrator who then flashbacks into an extremely wet and timid twenty-one year old girl with an over-active imagination. She is employed as a ladies companion by Mrs. Van Hopper, a rich, snobbish and socially predatory American woman. They are in a hotel in Monte Carlo where her employer latches on to an emotionally dead, upper class English widower, the owner of Manderley. The employer then falls ill and the widower writes the girl a note to apologise for his rudeness.

…my name was on the envelope, and spelt correctly, an unusual thing.
‘You have a very lovely and unusual name’ he tells her. (p23 and 27)
We never know what it is. Maybe it was something like Persephone or Despoina whose name could not be revealed. Could it be that Daphne du Maurier didn’t know how to spell it, either? The only thing we can say with certainty is that it is not Rebecca.

They begin to take their meals together, and, despite being twice her age, he spends most of his time driving her around in his car, sightseeing, until Mrs Van Hopper recovers and decides to dash off to New York. The girl contrives a quick meeting with the widower to say goodbye. He starts filing his nails.
‘So, Mrs Van Hopper has had enough of Monte Carlo … and now she wants to go home. So do I. She to New York and me to Manderley. Which would you prefer? You can take your choice.’

‘Don’t make a joke about it … I had better … say good-bye now.’

‘If you think I’m one of those people who try to be funny at breakfast you’re wrong … Either you go to America with Mrs. Van Hopper or you come back to Manderley with me.’

‘Do you mean you want a secretary or something?’

‘No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.’ (p56)

One wonders to how many impressionable teenagers it gave the idea that this is how grown up men and women behave, the man making all the choices and the woman waiting in trepidation. It couldn’t be any more unlike that in our house.

Perhaps I am not giving due credence to the mechanisms of snobbery, prejudice, wealth and class in the nineteen-thirties when it was written. To today’s sensibilities, it reads like psychological abuse, and it continues when they return to Manderley. He goes about his business leaving her rattling around at a loose end in an enormous house. All the time she senses the spirit of the dead Rebecca, the beautiful and accomplished first wife. She feels an imposter, taking Rebecca’s place, using the things she chose, acting out her routines, and can never measure up. She is afraid of the servants, especially the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. She imagines them denigrating her frugal underwear, and dreams up whole scenes of dialogue in which the neighbours laugh and talk about her:

… they wanted to compare me to Rebecca … they thought me rude and ungracious … more to criticize, more to discuss . They could say I was ill-bred. ‘I’m not surprised,’ they would say; ‘after all, who was she?’ And then a laugh and a shrug of the shoulder. ‘My dear, don’t you know? He picked her up in Monte Carlo or somewhere; she hadn’t a penny. She was a companion to some old woman.’ More laughter, more lifting of eyebrows. (p133)

But this is not a Mills and Boon romance. Once we get to Chapters 13 and 14 where she goes noseying around Rebecca’s boat house and closed up bedroom, and Mrs. Danvers begins to reveal her true nature, nothing is quite what it seems. I will say no more.

I don’t know about emotional sustenance, but if you get that far, I wouldn’t plan on doing anything else until you’ve finished. You could get a money-back guarantee that you won’t be able to put it down. There is nothing particularly nasty or unpleasant, but it might be sensible to have a heart defibrillator handy.   


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

40 comments:

  1. In the end, it sounds like you made a very good decision - to pick up "Rebecca" and stick with her.

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    1. From certain others I would suspect this of being a rude comment. Have you read it? Rebecca was already dead.

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    2. Yes. When I was a teenager but following your positive review I may come back to it. It may grab me more than the first time round.

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  2. I love this book, but most of her books are a good read.
    Briony
    x

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    1. Jamaica Inn entertained me, and I think I have read My Cousin Rachel. Daphne du Maurier also wrote The Birds. Rebecca, though, is in a different league.

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  3. I loved Rebecca. In those times, though, 'romance' novels were written in just that way...men make all the decisions and the woman just goes along with whatever his happening. Makes me laugh. We've come a long way, baby!

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  4. I also loved Rebecca, perhaps it is more of a feminine book, we realise that we have come a long way since it was written. The storyline is excellent, a shy mouse ultimately wins the day over the 'vamp'!

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    1. I must like it because I am a shy mouse too.

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  5. I was an impressionable 13-year-old when I first saw one of the films the novel was made into, and then read the book. Who does not love to get goosebumps whenever Mrs Danvers enters the scene!

    Also, I seem to remember having read a sequel to Rebecca, written by a different author and decades later. It must have been before I started reviewing my reads on my blog, because I can't find it. But I remember I enjoyed it well enough, just thought that the end was written a little hastily, as if the author had run out of ideas or time (or both).

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    1. I haven't seen any of the film versions, and I'm not sure I'd want to, especially these days when they seem to want to make them as explicit as they can.
      I've just looked up the sequel: Rebecca's Tale by Sally Beauman (2001). It sounds a very different kind of book.

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  6. Strange as it may seem I never thought of it as a romantic novel before and always thought of Du Maurier as so much more than that as a writer. I read and enjoyed it. I also remember it as a very splendid BBC drama with Jeremy Brett as de Winter, Joanna David as Rebecca and Anna Massey as a very brilliant Mrs Danvers, the best Mrs Danvers ever.

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    1. That's the one I saw when I was 13, Rachel! Anna Massey has forever become the face and voice of Mrs Danvers for me.

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    2. We seem to be getting pretty much unanimous agreement so far about what a brilliant book it is. Anna Massey certainly had the right kind of "skuull-like face" for the part.

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    3. And voice and demeanour and everything. She was perfectly cast.

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  7. I've read all the Du Maurier books and several about her as well - for me, the best book by far is "The Loving Spirit"

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    1. I've just googled that - a story built out of a family history. My dad said when I started looking into our own family history that it sounded like a Catherine Cookson novel. They are a rich source of untold stories.

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  8. Growing up, I had aunties who were young women in the 1930s and yes, that is exactly how they viewed and acted around men, classic pre-feminist female masochism that accepted men's absolute right to rule over them. Speaking of negative and harmful ways of characterizing women, there's also the view that Mrs Danvers (certainly in the Hitchcock film and perhaps in the book as well) is a "coded" evil lesbian. Evil! Because she was secretly in love with Rebecca. There has just been a 2020 film remake with Lily James and (now disgraced) Armie Hammer that was critically panned, I believe, but is available on Netflix apparently. I haven't seen it but I wonder if they tried to update the passé attitudes?

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    1. I felt this about Mrs Danvers as I was reading the book, and I could imagine a modern "adaptation" making a great deal more of it. I suspect Daphne du Maurier had a lot more in common with the character than was appreciated at the time - her Wikipedia page all but makes this clear.

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  9. You know, I read this book years ago (while on vacation in the Seychelles, weirdly) and I don't remember a thing about the plot. So thanks for this synopsis. I remember the opening line, and the evil Mrs. Danvers, but the rest had escaped me. Still, I know I liked it and I keep meaning to try another Du Maurier book, but haven't yet. (She lived in Hampstead, not far from where we live!)

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    1. Actually, I felt a bit sorry for her, perhaps because the two main characters are not exactly likeable. Her reputation requires rehabilitation.

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  10. I LOVE Rebecca and it's been a solid favorite of mine for years. Another novel by Du Maurier that I enjoyed was Frenchman's Creek.

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    1. It seems all of her stories hold the attention. Quite a skill.

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  11. The Daphne Du Maurier interview is still on the BBC Iplayer archive. It is worth watching. I am just looking at it again now. Just search in the archive for Du Maurier.

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    1. I'll look. There is also one in YouTube, interviewed by Cliff Michelmore, although I haven't checked it out. Have just checked out her probate record on Ancestry - Lady Daphne Browning, 19th April 1989, £467,992

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  12. J.M. Barrie taught young Daphne to induce in herself a state of mild trance before she sat down to write. It may explain the magical appeal of her stories.
    Haggerty

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    1. Do you use the same technique to make your comments?

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    2. You have provided me with my first belly laugh of the week.
      The best of it is, my waistline has not increased since boyhood.
      Haggerty
      p.s.
      Methinks that you, Yorky and Meike possess the magical appeal.

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  13. That is a wonderful book. There are several film versions but I must say my favorite is the original 1940 one directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine and Hitchcock gave it just the right touch with his directing style.

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    1. It is one of lots of books that I should have read years ago, but didn't, mainly because I didn't read fiction much at all. Having now read it at last, I would at present be reluctant to see a film version. That may change over time.

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  14. I never made it through four or five chapters of my mother's copy. I will try again.

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    1. I nearly gave up, irritated, as I say, by the daydreamy subservient girl and the man with an absolute right to rule. It is worth persisting for the second half alone.
      A point that has since struck me about nineteen-thirties "classic pre-feminist female masochism" as Debra calls it, is that this is how at least half the women in the world still live. I hadn't previously made the link between those kinds of cultures and the pre-feminist west.

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  15. I 've read most of du Maurier's books and think that 'Rebecca' is by far the most powerful. It fascinates me that two of the most popular and praised English novels by women writers, this book and 'Jane Eyre', feature young women who attach themselves to damaged men.
    I know what I would have said to, "I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool." It wouldn't be yes.
    I think the Laurence Olivier film is excellent, everyone perfectly cast. I'm sure you would enjoy it.

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    1. It's a very Jane Eyre kind of story, isn't it. I find it hard to imagine that any man who made a proposal like that and was accepted could have any respect for his wife, even in the nineteen-thirties.

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    1. I doubt you'd be disappointed, and as a property development company you will see lots of potential in the ending.

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  17. I think I read somewhere that Daphne Du Maurier wanted to see if she could write the entire book without having to name the heroine so I don't think she ever had a name for the second Mrs de Winter

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    1. One could also argue that the lack of name is an essential element of the heroine's bland character.

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  18. You might enjoy Rose Tremain's short story, 'The Housekeeper' which is another take on Mrs Danvers.

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    1. Haven't read anything by her but she was one of my mother-in-law's favourites.

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