It has been well over forty years since I've read this classic
thriller by the queen of creepiness herself, Daphne du Maurier. And while her novels give the impression there is something supernatural going on, that is usually
not the case. Du Maurier builds her suspense psychologically, which, to me can be more terrifying. This one isn't as much terrifying as uncomfortable. You get
that squirmy sort of feeling as you read.
It has taken me all these years, and many of her novels to discover her methods of arriving to that unnerving atmosphere, and they are all points of irritation. Before re-reading this one, I had accepted it as just less polished style quirks, but here I realized that they are very polished style quirks indeed and accomplish exactly what was intended.
For one, she tends to draw out the suspense, interminably long sometimes, it seems. This one not as much as other novels she has written, such as Jamaica Inn. And even at the last, her endings are ambiguous, another trademark of her style that leaves the reader with that really unsatisfied feeling, as she wished.
Another source of annoyance that tends to drive the reader to the point of exasperation is that the characters never say what they should say, notice what they should notice—even little things that make one want to jump into the novel and grab their throats and shake them. Planned? Certainly. Make the readers beg for relief.
But the one that absolutely drove me insane in this one was the habits of the main character, the unnamed woman who was known as Mrs. M. de Winter, after her marriage. Her life before that also remains ambiguous. In any case, to make matters much worse, she is always biting her nails and "humming a tune", (or even imagines others doing that) to keep from thinking about those things that terrify her.
The entire novel is written in the first person by the woman mentioned above. Much of it is in a "stream of consciousness" style, that sometimes makes one re-read a passage to see if the action is happening in reality of just in her head. In her state of bewilderment that lasts through most of the story, it is her imagination that supplies her with information about her situation, rather than the reality of the situation itself, and that alone is very annoying. We, the readers have only that to go by in order to comprehend the behavior of the other characters. Of course, even though I read the book the first time in high school, which feels like it was way back in the stone age, I remembered what was going to happen even though I had forgotten much of the plot, so I knew who the real villains were. But I wonder at what point I would have figured it all out had I not previously read it. Probably much before our heroine did.
The story begins in Monte Carlo, where we meet our unnamed heroine/narrator. She is the paid companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, an obnoxious old lady who, if she were in a British Comedy, would be the epitome of Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping Up Appearances. Anyone whose name appears in the society pages of the paper is a "good friend" of her, forced, through her aggressiveness to put up with her company, and through her wiles, usually forced into a boring social situation with her. Our heroine isn't with her because she likes her—in fact Mrs. Van Hopper is an embarrassment—there because she is a young woman with no family or home, and it is a living. As they sit at the Hotel Côte d'Azur, she remembers as she narrates the story, Mrs. Van Hopper spots a victim—a Mr. de Winter who has lost his wife less than a year before. She begins here plotting to be seen with him, in which she succeeds. But he is not so easily bowled over, and is rather rude. Fortunately, Mrs. Van Hopper soon comes down with influenza, which she drags out for even more attention and pampering in her bed. Mr. de Winter, however, has taken notice of her young companion. They soon find themselves together on a regular basis, driving around, sometimes talking, sometimes not. Our narrator falls head over heels in love.
Shortly before Mrs. Van Hopper, now all well again, announces that their next destination is the United States, de Winter has to leave for a short time on business. He returns, however, and our narrator (we don't ever learn her name, remember), in a last moment of panic, thinking she will never see him again, goes to his room to say goodbye. Without much fanfare, he bluntly asks her to marry him, assuming she loves him, but saying very little else. He announces it to Mrs. van Hopper, who warns her companion that of course he doesn't actually love her, he is just lonely, and she will regret it. Those words haunt her, and for a while, she believes they are true. That is, after they return from their honeymoon to Manderly, the family estate, (modeled after Menabilly, the Cornish estate where du Maurier lived). The only family there now is Maxim de Winter, the servants, and memories of Rebecca.
From the moment she sets foot inside Manderly, Mrs. de Winter feels like an impostor, standing in for the "real" Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. Her extreme shyness and lack of self-esteem fuel her feelings of unworthiness, and allow the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, to make her miserable. Though she feels the other servants are laughing at her and mocking her behind their backs, most of the conflict is being caused by Mrs. Danvers, who was devoted to Rebecca.
Of course, the impression Mrs. de Winters has of Rebecca is that she was beautiful, kind and good, and beloved by all there, especially by her husband. Rebecca was perfection itself—how could she possibly compete? But eventually she meets other people that offer her hints of a different reality, though she does not process those hints until certain facts are made known. Maxim's sister, Beatrice, certainly loves her from the start, and the estate manager, Frank Crowley tries to offer her a different point of view of the situation than the one she has adopted, but she refuses to listen. And the mentally challenged man, Ben, a member of the estate who hangs out in the cove, also tries to share his opinion, but is not taken seriously.
But it is just after the fancy-dress ball (we here in the U.S. would call a costume ball), in which she feels herself a total failure, lured by an act of Mrs. Danvers to humiliate her, that everything comes to a head, especially when the next morning a ship wrecks near Manderly.
And that is all I will say, because any more and I will give away too much information.
This is known perhaps as du Maurier's most popular work, and has never gone out of print since it was first published in 1938, selling well over 3 million copies. It has been adapted numerous times for movies and TV, along with other mediums related to the story. The most well-known, award-winning movie was Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 Rebecca, starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.
Shown below: Menabilly, after which Manderly was modeled.
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