Finally she read it! Hurrah! I have been jolted on by Simon and Polly’s month of Discovering Daphne, a wonderful author and woman who has escaped my attention for far too long. One of my most shameful secrets used to be that I had never read Rebecca, a book that always appears on bloggers/friends top 10 lists time and time again and which I, for no good reason whatsoever, had never quite got round to reading. ‘Last Night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ … This is undoubtedly one of the most famous sentences in literature, one whose subsequent story has been read by millions; even those who hardly ever think to pick a book up.
The entire story is essentially a flashback. Following a disconcerting dream sequence exploring the gardens of her former home, we are introduced to our ‘nameless narrator’ and her partner who clearly seem to be in self-imposed exile abroad recovering from a trauma of some kind. From here we travel back to the point of our main protagonists’ meeting in the French Riviera. Our naive young narrator is busy (and bored) acting as a companion to a very rich and exceedingly gossipy old American woman when they bump into Maxim de Winter, a mysterious gentleman we soon learn to be a wealthy and well-known figure in English society who has recently lost his wife in an incident back at home.
Thanks mercifully to a nasty cold that confines the older woman to her bedroom, our narrator has the chance to become better acquainted with Mr de Winter and the two embark on a whirlwind romance together; one that ends with our girl getting her man for good, marrying him and departing from the Riviera for his pile in the countryside in wonderfully dramatic fashion. A happily ever after surely seems inevitable?………Nope!
Hackneyed romance and perfectly contented characters have not made this classic book what it is today. As we arrive at Manderley House, our new Mrs de Winter must face up to a life of being ‘the other woman’, made even worse by the fact that the woman currently in prime position is in fact dead. (The well-known Rebecca of the title.) Within a wonderful portrait of an old English country house and its traditions we find a constant feeling of dread, made all the more menacing by the presence of the ubiquitous housekeeper Mrs Danvers, surely a literary institution in herself even for those not familiar with the book. In the same way that Rebecca appears to haunt Manderley and all those who reside within it, Mrs Danvers avenges her mistress by haunting Mrs de Winter, her skull-like face appearing in every nook and cranny of the house and piercing eyes watching her every move…**shudder**
That, for those very few of you who haven’t read this book, is all you are going to get because the twists and turns and completely baffling surprises in this story are spellbinding and I’d hate to ruin it for anyone.
I do have to admit that although I was certainly enjoying myself, I did spent the first half of the book willing the young Mrs de Winter to, well, get a grip (!!) There were far too many histrionics for my 21st century sensibilities; i.e. fainting, weeping etc. After a while I did have to remind myself of the period setting and that no Lucy, it wouldn’t just be acceptable to turn around and slap that horrible Mrs Danvers in the face…..
Happily this melodrama is easily eclipsed by some wonderful storytelling and soon dissipates completely as we are completely submersed in Du Maurier’s very vivid, suffocatingly tense and eerie world. Never before have I marvelled so much at how a seemingly simple paragraph with seemingly simple descriptions and events could fill a reader with so much dread for beloved characters. As the weather grows heavy and dark above their heads, so it does above ours, leading us right up to the haunting ending….
I have read many an article comparing other novels/films/plays etc to Rebecca without having the main reference in my mind for comparison and I can categorically say that they are all essentially complete rubbish because, apart from a few key ideas that may have inspired other writers, Rebecca is completely original. It is clearly one of the most influential books of its time and if you have not yet read it, get yourself a copy immediately. Du Maurier is a fascinating character herself and I am so very very proud that our little island can produce authors and works of fiction such as this.
On that note, the other day the Guardian featured this genius little tool to play with at Book Drum, featuring a globe covered in virtual pins that detail 150 separate works of fiction in the places in which they are set. Brilliant! I’m pretty sure you can contribute as the list certainly isn’t exhaustive by any means and I am in the process of looking into it…anyone know where Manderley is supposed to be?