Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)
What it’s about: England, the 1930s. The unnamed narrator, known only as “the second Mrs de Winter” relates the strange story of her marriage. At 19, she is orphaned and working as a paid companion for Mrs van Hopper, a social-climbing American widow who holidays in fashionable Monte Carlo. Maxim de Winter, a wealthy English aristocrat who is recently widowed, stays at the same hotel, and Mrs van Hopper tries unsuccessfully to befriend him. When Mrs Hopper falls ill with influenza, the narrator and Maxim pursue a secret romance and she falls in love with him. Despite Mrs van Hopper’s warnings that it will be a bad match, the narrator agrees to marry Maxim, and they return to his family home Manderley, a Gothic mansion by the sea in Cornwall. The narrator struggles to adapt to her life as lady of the manor, and is terrified by the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, who has kept Manderley as a shrine to the memory of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca. Gradually, the narrator learns of Rebecca’s beauty, confidence and sexual magnetism, and her mysterious death by drowning in a small cove near the house. Mrs Danvers is obsessed with Rebecca’s memory and resents the narrator for taking her place, and progressively undermines her, tricking her into wearing one of Rebecca’s costumes at a masquerade ball which enrages Maxim. Encouraged by Mrs Danvers, the narrator is on the brink of suicide. Rebecca’s shipwrecked boat is discovered at the bottom of the cove with Rebecca’s decomposed body inside. Maxim confesses to the narrator that he murdered Rebecca and disposed of her body and the boat, then buried another woman in Rebecca’s grave. He explains that his first marriage was a sham, and that he hated Rebecca for her cruelty and many infidelities. The narrator is overjoyed that Maxim never loved Rebecca, and the couple become closer. An inquest concludes that Rebecca’s boat was sunk deliberately, and returns a finding of suicide. Rebecca’s cousin and former lover Jack Favell accuses Maxim of murdering Rebecca. Maxim, the narrator and Favell travel to London to find Rebecca’s doctor, who reveals that Rebecca was fatally ill, thus providing a motive for her suicide and exonerating Maxim from blame. Maxim speculates that Rebecca must have provoked him to kill her, to ensure a quick death. They learn that Mrs Danvers has left Manderley overnight. Fearing the worst, Maxim insists that they drive through the night back to Cornwall. They arrive in the early morning to see the skies alight, as Manderley is consumed by fire.
Why it’s a classic: Classic novels don’t come with a classier pedigree than Rebecca. An immediate bestseller on publication (it sold over 40,000 copies in its first month) and adapted successfully by Alfred Hitchcock two years later into an Oscar-winning film, it’s been continually in print since 1938, and still sells around 4,000 paperback copies a month. From its opening line, written in iambic hexameter worthy of an Elizabethan poet – “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again” – du Maurier’s novel casts an enticing spell: an irresistible combination of love story, Gothic horror, psychological drama and murder yarn that’s as beautifully written as it is gripping to read. I’m slightly embarrassed that I’ve reached middle age without yet having read it. Now that I have, I can understand why it deserves its classic status, and its enduring appeal for new generations of post-Freudian, feminist and queer readers.
At first glimpse, it appears to be a reworking of the great Victorian novels, with all the satisfactions of novels from that period, especially Jane Eyre: detailed characterisation, vivid landscape descriptions, a melodramatic yet psychologically plausible plot, and a through-line of a young female protagonist making her way in a hostile world and getting her man. Apart from the occasional mention of cars and telephones, it could well be set in the Victorian era, with Manderley as a sinister Gothic mansion in the vein of Thornfield Hall, haunted by ghostly presences (Rebecca) and a very-much-alive madwoman in the attic (Mrs Danvers). Within this very appealing and familiar genre, du Maurier works in peculiar and perverse ways, tipping the proto-feminist narrative of Jane Eyre on its head. Though the narrator addresses us in an intimate first-person voice, looking back on her journey towards self-knowledge, in other ways, she’s scarcely a heroine at all, unable to even tell us her own name. Whereas Jane Eyre impresses us and earns our respect with her intelligence, courage and perseverance, the second Mrs de Winter is aware that she has none of these qualities, lingering over descriptions of her own gaucheness and passivity, her humiliating attempts to pass in upper-class society and her anxieties at being compared unfavourably to Rebecca. Whereas Jane leaves her treacherous lover and forges her own path, our narrator clings limpet-like to Maxim, either unaware or uncaring of how he patronises her (“I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” and “Get on with your peach and don’t talk with your mouth full” are two of his more appalling declarations) and apparently unable to be the main player in her own life. Rebecca is a curious perversion of the established literary tradition of virtue bringing reward – the second Mrs de Winter succeeds only when she learns that Maxim is a murderer, and gets her prize (Maxim’s love and undivided attention) only when his reputation and home is destroyed. What should be a tragedy becomes our narrator’s finest hour, perhaps proving that the meek will ultimately inherit the earth.
In addition to all this fantastic plot and character analysis, there’s an even more satisfying layer of subtext bubbling away just under the surface. Rebecca is a novel about female sexuality and men’s fear of “dangerous” women. Rebecca appears to be the Id unleashed: beautiful, sexually magnetic and contemptuous of societal norms, taking lovers and threatening her husband with illegitimate children until she is killed, and exerting an irresistible allure to all the characters even after her death. The force of her sexuality lives on in the gardens of Manderley, with blood-red rhododendrons as a botanical vagina dentata, threatening to consume and overrun the neatly-tended grounds. The second Mrs de Winter is her polar opposite: shy and girlish and timid, and relentlessly infantilised by Maxim who seems to prefer her as a desexualised child. (“It’s a pity you have to grow up,” he says at one stage, and later “It’s gone forever, that funny, young,lost look that I loved. It won’t come back again.”) Then there’s Mrs Danvers, whose fanatical love for Rebecca is lesbian in all but name, and whose desires seem both horribly repressed and unapologetically free. Gilbert & Gubar’s theories about the Freudian connection between Jane Eyre and the madwoman in the attic could apply equally well to Rebecca, Mrs Danvers and the second Mrs de Winter, each of them feeding off the other in a pathological tussle for power. In the end, it’s hard to tell who’s the true heroine: Rebecca, the party girl who had all the fun, despite being dead; or the narrator, who simpers her way into Maxim’s affections and finally learns to talk back to the servants. Rebecca‘s brilliance lies in du Maurier not providing a clear moral trajectory to answer these questions. We’re simply left with an intriguing study in guilt, humiliation, class warfare and misogyny, and left to form our own conclusions.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet as luscious and deadly as the rhododendrons at Manderley, “with their crimson faces, massed one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic”. What an extraordinary book this is, strange and disturbing and utterly compelling, and how satisfyingly it reveals its secrets in the most glorious, forensically precise language. du Maurier is a writer who understands the ugliness of human experience – jealousy, humiliation, disappointment, revenge – and she writes fearlessly about her characters’ dark sides, even as they attempt to conceal themselves from us. Though it still feels very much like a book of its time – and is catnip for those of us who love novels set in in stately houses with legions of servants – there’s a healthy streak of satire in her depiction of the monied classes, and some wonderfully acidic caricatures. I’m especially fond of Mrs van Hopper, who is both a horrible snob and a force of nature, transgressively stubbing out cigarettes in the cold cream and offering a witheringly accurate assessment of Maxim’s true motives for proposing marriage. None of the characters are especially likeable, but they are fascinating, which makes Rebecca feel so startlingly modern, and a book I literally can’t wait to read again.
Quotable Quote: “I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say. They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word.”