Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
With these words, the reader is ushered into an isolated gray stone mansion on the windswept Cornish coast, as the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter recalls the chilling events that transpired as she began her new life as the young bride of a husband she barely knew. For in every corner of every room were phantoms of a time dead but not forgotten—a past devotedly preserved by the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers: a suite immaculate and untouched, clothing laid out and ready to be worn, but not by any of the great house's current occupants. With an eerie presentiment of evil tightening her heart, the second Mrs. de Winter walked in the shadow of her mysterious predecessor, determined to uncover the darkest secrets and shattering truths about Maxim's first wife—the late and hauntingly beautiful Rebecca. (From Amazon)
Generally I don’t consider myself a gothic romance fan. I like gothic elements in books but basically every other time I’ve actually tried to read a gothic romance I’ve been disappointed by the characters or the plot or the writing. I keep trying to find a good gothic romance, though, because I’m masochistic like that.
When I saw Rebecca just sitting there in a free book box I thought “oh, that might be good,” and then I stuck it on my shelf for eight months. How was I to know that it’d turn out to be not only the best gothic book I’ve ever read, but one of my favorite books of all time?
I’m actually slightly surprised at how much I enjoyed Rebecca. It’s got fantastic writing, and the atmosphere is terrific. I loved the plot and even the characters are decent. The romance was something that I was sure was going to squick me– 21 years apart? Yuck— but even that wasn’t a very big hurdle. The narrator (unnamed) is a bit of a drip, but she’s actually a lot braver than what you can see from first glance. If you had married a dude 21 years older than you, and then he brought you back to a creepy house filled with ghosts and sadness, and then the housekeeper started basically gaslighting you: would you have stuck around as long as Unnamed Narrator did?
Anyway, even the ending didn’t annoy me! It ends in just the perfect place, and I was left sort of gasping in shock. Awesome! In fact, I don’t think there was anything wrong with this book that I could find, even though it has several things in it I normally don’t like in a book (see above). It’s as if somehow Daphne du Maurier lured me into letting go of my prejudices and squicks through her writing. That’s pretty admirable, don’t you think?
Can I just mention the writing again? It’s great. I mean, the first couple of sentences alone:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
Yeah. The whole book’s like that! If you don’t like gothic romances I can understand that you may not have had chills going down your spine while reading that passage, but if you did get chills? You definitely need to read Rebecca. You won’t regret it!
Read: May 9-15, 2011
I found this interesting article about sexual ambiguity in Rebecca and how it relates to Daphne du Maurier’s life. It gave me more insight on Rebecca and the way she was treated in the book (her sexual prowess was something “evil”), which I thought was just typical anti-flapper stuff. Turns out it was more about du Maurier talking about her repression of certain “tendencies” and the effect it had on her life.
But far from being a demure wife, it turns out, Rebecca was a sexually free spirit who held the bonds of marriage in contempt. We aren’t told what she got up to: Max de Winter won’t give it a name. But “she was not even normal”, he says, savagely. “I don’t want to tell you about [those years], the lie we lived, she and I.” If he is repulsed, however, Danvers is admiring. Rebecca’s close companion and maid for many years, “Danny” is clearly still in love with her. Rebecca “had all the courage and spirit of a boy”, Danvers says. “She ought to have been a boy.” Rebecca’s affairs with men meant nothing, Danvers insists: “She despised all men…. Lovemaking was a game to her, only a game. She did it because it made her laugh. I’ve known her come back and sit upstairs in her bed and rock with laughter at the lot of you.”
What has happened to Rebecca, this vital, forceful creature who we are told had the face of a beautiful boy, who went through life shaking with silent laughter, thumbing her nose at the world? Before the novel even starts, she has been killed, locked in a box forever – the tiny cabin of her boat – and buried beneath the sea. Du Maurier may have raved “to hell with psychoanalysis”, but that’s as clear an image of repression as you can get. It fails, as repression fails: the attempt to blot out Rebecca has only made her stronger. Though dead, she still dominates the book. She is the centre around which the thoughts of the others constantly revolve. Even the boat her body lies in is called Je Reviens (“I will return”). Her presence haunts Manderley, where it is felt in every room: the second wife sees her possessions, her taste, as “vividly alive, having something of the glow of the rhododendrons… rich and glowing in the morning sun”.
In today’s issue of Shelf Awareness there was an ad for The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson that compared it to Rebecca. That of course pinged my “this could be good” radar, so I requested an ARC. Yay serendipity!