by Daphne du Maurier
The author Sally Beauman, who has published her own novel based on Rebecca [Rebecca’s Tale], writes that du Maurier began her story at the end. In a sense that is true, but those first two chapters give no real clue to what is to come. Rebecca is a novel you have to read through to the last page because of its twists and turns. Watching the Hitchcock film will not do.
So, what kind of novel IS Rebecca? Daphne du Maurier did not like her work to be described as romance, and I share her distaste for the term. As a modern genre, it conjures up quite a different picture from that painted in this author’s novels. Three features of her writing in particular contribute to its unique character and to my enjoyment. All three are present in Rebecca.
Foremost is du Maurier’s handling of the gothic atmosphere. Manderley, where the story is set, is a rambling mansion with access to the sea and the rugged Cornish coast. Brooding woodland encloses it on three sides. With its dark and forbidden west wing – furnished but unoccupied since the death of the house’s previous mistress – and its sinister, ever-threatening housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, it might easily be Thornfield, Northanger Abbey or even Udolfo. A dusty, abandoned cottage stands watch over an unfrequented bay and protects the secret of Rebecca’s last hours.
Du Maurier draws her heroine and narrator, who is never named, with great attention to emotional detail. MdW2 (let’s call her that for convenience) meets Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo, where she is playing companion to a rich, snobbish, would-be socialite. MdW2 falls in love. Whether Maxim returns that love or not remains doubtful. Nevertheless, he proposes marriage and after a quiet wedding and honeymoon returns with his new bride to England. Again, the literary parallels are evident and if we choose to see Jane Eyre or Emily St Aubert in the personality of MdW2 (though she is neither), who can blame us? From her point of view, the dead Rebecca was universally adored, and universally mourned. The ghost of Rebecca haunts the corridors of Manderley and the over-imaginative mind of our heroine. And the past builds an unbreachable wall between her and her husband. Whenever Rebecca is mentioned, he becomes moody and retreats into his memories.
However, Ms du Maurier is also the mistress of deception. Her narrator’s thoughts and emotions have led us astray. The picture she paints of her dead ‘rival’ is false. Deceived by the malicious Mrs Danvers into appearing at the Manderley ball in a copy of the costume once worn by Rebecca, MdW2 forces Maxim to reveal the truth. He is a murderer! Thereafter, through twist after twist to its abrupt ending, the novel tells of the de Winters’ efforts to escape the consequences of what Max has done.
Published in 1938, Rebecca is a worthy successor to the gothic works of Bronte and Radcliffe. However, in its treatment of themes such as adultery and murder, and in its controversial final paragraph, it leaps ahead to a novelistic age much closer to our own.