I must have been an idiot, or as Maxim de Winter puts it (ever so eloquently during his marriage proposal) a ‘little fool’. After the early sunshine at the start of the lockdown disappeared, I found myself increasingly looking towards my winter books; the rain and grey days lending themselves more readily to mysteries, murder and mooching on moors. Last week on a particularly dreary evening, I came across my old copy of Rebecca (actually I stole it from my Mam’s bookcase years ago. Sorry Mam!). Perfect, I thought, a bit of romance and mystery! I hadn’t picked up the book in years, though I remember having read it almost once a year in my late school and early college years. I still have an old VHS tape of the Laurence Oliver (dashing) and Joan Fontaine (bewildered) film directed by Alfred Hitchcock which I have also watched countless times. In short, I’m a fan but I had most recently been reading Du Maurier’s short stories and hadn’t read one of her novels in years.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again (Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca)
The novel opens with it’s now famous description of Manderley and the detail that it is no more. The narrator (forever nameless) describes a life of exile in a small hotel with (we assume) her husband. They have been through some sort of crisis ‘We have both known fear, and loneliness, and very great distress. I suppose sooner or later in the life of everyone comes a moment of trial. We all of us have our particular devil…’ Of course, I had completely forgotten this strange opening. I think it’s relatively easy to skim read over this part of the book to where the ‘love story’ begins but rereading it I was struck by how strange the life of this couple was. Boredom and routine evoke safety, and, while they are both obviously haunted by their past in Manderley; they are obsessive about getting their ‘English mail’, their newspapers, reading about the cricket, while the narrator can ‘name every owner of every British moor’. Their peace comes at the price of being tormented by thoughts of an England to which they can never return. It’s a fascinating opening to a novel, a masterclass in subtle suspense while also lending a circular shape to the narrative. But, honestly, it’s a fairly miserable way to end up- their lives are described as some manner of purgatory. In light of the revelations later in the novel, it can be argued that this punishment is justified ( I’m trying to stay as free of spoilers as possible here) but a ‘happily ever after’ it most certainly is not.
…instead of comforted, it left me feeling deeply uneasy (Lisa Gabriele, on revisiting Rebecca when writing her novel The Winters, piece accessed from her website)
Rereading Rebecca was a shock to be honest. Published in 1938, it has been continuously in print, while the book’s US publishers Avon have estimated ongoing monthly paperback sales of over 4,000 copies. It’s been adapted countless times in different mediums, sequels and spin offs have been penned while it’s publication marked a resurgence in Gothic romances. The novel is consistently referred to in popular culture, while one edition was used by German’s in World War II as the key to a book code- a copy being kept on a shelf in Rommel’s headquarters. Du Maurier, however, was surprised by the response of the book’s original readers, many of them seemed to find this a romantic novel instead of the study of jealousy she had planned. Perhaps it’s the many references to Jane Eyre which lull us into reading this novel a certain way. Du Maurier’s narrative draws us in, building tension and masquerading as the romance between the young narrator and the older brooding wealthy Maxim. The difference between Jane Eyre and Rebecca is that even though both texts are haunted by women other than the heroine/narrator, Rebecca is haunted by the only person, it seems, who seems to have truly lived. Yes, she doesn’t seem to be a good person or a particularly pleasant person based on what we are told of her, but compared to the other characters who all seem to be trapped in some form of stasis, she seems to be the most fully realised character in the novel.
I have one issue with Rebecca. A small thing. Insignificant, really. It’s… well, it’s the entire cast of characters. I hate them all. Every single one. Well, except one, and she barely says a word, despite the title of the book bearing her name (Justin Myers AKA The Guyliner, Irish Times, May 11, 2016)
From the mawkish narrator, to the robotic Maxim (who is admittedly prone to short circuiting) and the spectral crow Mrs Danvers- it’s easy to see why none of the characters really appeal. Honestly it feels as though Du Maurier’s use of the most powerful tropes in the Gothic romance canon lead us all astray. The cast of the novel seem to be stuck in a previous century, while the beautiful, vibrant and cruel Rebecca is the unstoppable hand of time. Just as Gothic literature often captured a society in terror of some form of threat (scientific advancement, the reform acts of the early 1800’s, industrialisation, the spread of suffrage, Catholicism) Du Maurier’s text also captures the death of the ‘Great House’, the obsessive love and loyalty such estates inspired and their inevitable destruction. In doing so, Rebecca echoes earlier modernist works which came at the end of a different World War such as the Parade’s End tetralogy by Ford Maddox Ford. Rebecca deserves a careful read. I’m glad I picked it up again, because although it’s a different book to the one I remembered, it was a much richer experience. In the end it’s hard to know what most haunts the de Winter couple we meet at the beginning of the novel, Rebecca or the loss of Manderley.
Several of Du Maurier’s novels are available as eaudiobooks from the Borrowbox app, while hardcopies of her novels and short stories are available from many of the branch libraries in Laois. Lisa Gabriele’s The Winters and Sally Beauman’s Rebecca’s Tale are also available to download from Borrowbox. The newest adaptation of the novel will air on Netflix 21st of October.
Lori Moriarty, Durrow Library