I remember a battered copy of this book, mass market paperback, yellowed and curling pages, ugly cover, somehow making its way onto my bookshelves when I was a teenager. I can’t remember if I read the first few pages and decided it wasn’t my thing, or if I was put off by the cover. But whatever the reason, I was completely convinced that this was one book I could safely promise never to read. It just wasn’t my thing.
Then I discovered BookTube, and it suddenly became #1 on my TBR. It started with Mercedes, was augmented by Lauren, and was finally made irresistible by Simon. In all honesty, it was also partly because I had it in e-book format on my phone and my baby suddenly gave up napping, so I ended up spending hours held prisoner in her tiny room, sitting next to her crib in an increasingly uncomfortable chair, while she proceeded to absolutely not sleep. This book got me through the first week of that, by which time I was completely hooked.
First of all, let me just say that this book isn’t perfect. There were things that annoyed me about this book. But it is very, very good.
It’s the story of a young, naive girl, who meets a wealthy older man – Mr. de Winter – while vacationing in Monte Carlo as the companion of an overbearing, self-involved and insensitive woman, Mrs. Van Hopper. Our narrator and Mr. de Winter strike up an unlikely friendship when Mrs. Van Hopper is taken ill and confined to her bed. The two begin taking drives together and eating their meals together. When Mrs. Van Hopper makes a miraculous recovery and decides on a whim that she wants to leave Monte Carlo the next morning, her companion’s tender heart is crushed.
Fortunately she is given another option – to leave Mrs. Van Hopper’s employ and return with Mr. de Winter to his family estate, Manderley, as his wife. She takes him up on his offer, and this decision sends her life down an entirely different path.
The true genius of the novel begins at Manderley. Mr. de Winter had another wife previously, who died under mysterious circumstances. Yet her presence is everywhere at Manderley. The servants adored her, guests reminisce about the parties she threw, the dogs still listen for her footsteps, and the entire house is decorated to her liking – even the menus and schedule are followed at her dictation.
It doesn’t help that the new Mrs. de Winter is young, timid, and unaccustomed to giving orders rather than following them. Everything at Manderley feels overwhelming and alien to her, and as she tries to settle in she is plagued by an ever-growing sense that, despite her death, Rebecca is very much still Manderley’s mistress.
This feeling grows, and our narrator begins to feel as if she knows Rebecca, and as if everything she learns makes her a more impossible act to equal – let alone beat. Her beauty, breeding, taste, kindness and abilities are forever emphasized, and in death she becomes larger than life. It is impossible to escape her, and impossible to feel like she is Maxim’s wife – because he is already married to the perfect woman, made even more so because in death she is frozen forever in perfect relief.
I think this is a feeling that will be familiar to many readers. That sense of insecurity that comes with trying to best an adversary who is no longer present, and who seems more than human because of their absence. It’s something that recedes with experience and confidence, but that can feel overwhelming in youth. Du Maurier does a brilliant job of evoking the sense of unbelonging experienced by this awkward young woman, and of drawing Manderley in such a way that the house itself seems to breathe and grow.
There are many things I admired in this novel. The first is the characterization. Each character in this novel is brilliantly drawn and uncomfortably realistic. They are complex, they evolve and change as they experience new things or as we learn more about their truths. There is so much going on here, and the social interplay is evocative of a time period and social stratification that was very different to any I’ve experienced first hand.
Even more impressive is the narrative style du Maurier used. First, she chose to write the book as a first-person narrative, but let the narrator remain nameless. I’ve never encountered this strategy before, but it was incredibly effective. Even though the entire book was told from within her mind, this narrative choice allowed the narrator to relinquish centre stage. It allowed Rebecca and Manderley to be the main characters, which made the sense of haunting almost suffocating.
Which brings me to my next point – that du Maurier managed to make a place as much a character in this novel as any of its humans. To say this book is “atmospheric” is to understate drastically. Du Maurier writes in such descriptive prose that every detail, every scent, every texture or shift in light, every piece of furniture and every sound are brought into being. I felt like I was right there, walking the grounds at Manderley with the characters. This description could be seen as overwritten – in fact, I’m sure many readers will find it to be laid on a bit thick. But I adored it. I loved the time and care she took in describing the foliage that bordered the driveway, the exact shade of the red flowers, the scent of petals as they fell to the ground. It made Manderley come to life for me in a way I’ve rarely experienced a place in the pages of a novel. And because of this, when she turns it sinister, it becomes one of the creepiest, most disturbing settings I’ve ever read. For me, the attention she paid to Manderley made it feel like a living being, a place that decided who to accept and reject, who could comfortably call it home and who was unworthy of that honour.
She also did a brilliant job of drawing complex relationships between characters and allowing them to shift and change – not only due to outside influence, but due to changes in how they perceived and understood one another. I think this is what will stick with me most from reading this book. I have rarely felt so strongly that I was allowed to truly see the inner workings of real people as I did while reading this book. There were so many social interplays that felt familiar to me – from our narrator’s insecurity and social awkwardness to Mr. de Winter’s vulnerability and Mrs. Danvers’ (Rebecca’s personal maid and the current housekeeper) grief. These characters were allowed to behave in ways that were inappropriate, dramatic, rude and immoral, but in allowing them their foibles and eccentricities du Maurier created people, real as any I’ve ever met.
There were some things in this book that bothered me, however. The first was that I did predict several of the twists well before they occurred. Which didn’t bother me too much – I felt that the prose and character development were much more important than the plot. But for readers who are more plot-driven, this may be an issue.
I also found that there were some problematic bits in the novel as well. Racist undertones, degrading language directed towards a character with a disability, and a lot of infantilizing women. I know that some of this is to be expected simply due to the time when this book was written and published, and the social norms and styles of writing at the time. But as a modern reader I couldn’t help noticing these passages and finding them troublesome and upsetting to read. The issue of prejudice in books written in a past era is one that deserves its own discussion so I won’t digress into it here, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, and that I have difficulty with.
And finally, I did feel that there were some parts where the tone of the writing drifted slightly towards a less literary and more dramatic romance style. It was well overshadowed by the darkness that underpinned the story and the incredible way du Maurier set the scene and presented her characters, but it was definitely there in places.
Because of these things I can’t say this was a 10/10 read for me. I did wonder how I would have felt had I read this book as a contemporary – I feel like it would have been all the more impressive because I wouldn’t be accustomed to modern themes and language the way I am now. I can see why, for the most part, this book has stood the test of time. It seems to step outside of it in many ways. But it is still a product of its environment, and while I was blown away by the stylistic choices du Maurier made and the way she carefully staged the novel, it still didn’t quite rank as a perfect book.
Despite this, I am so very glad I finally read this. I know my expectations had been built up perhaps a little too high going into it, but it very nearly lived up to them. I’m also glad I waited for the seasons to begin turning to read this book – it’s perfect read in autumn, particularly on a blustery day. If you’re looking for an entry into more classic works that feel intimidating, or if you are someone who cannot get enough description in your prose, or if you are a die-hard fan of literary thrillers (in the style of Gone Girl), this book needs to be on your TBR. It’s a suspenseful read (once it gets going) but will also stick with you for a long time after finishing it, because there are depths here that will require some time to explore. Highly recommended.
After a whirlwind romance and a honeymoon in Italy, the innocent young heroine and the dashing Maxim de Winter return to his country estate, Manderley. But the unsettling memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs de Winter, still lingers within. The timid bride must overcome her husbands oppressive silences and the sullen hostility of the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, to confront the emotional horror of the past. – Goodreads
Book Title: Rebecca
Author: Daphne Du Maurier
Published By: Virago Designer Collection
Released: May 3, 2012 (originally released August 1938)
Genre: Literary Fiction, Classic, Mystery, Gothic
Date Read: September 10-21, 2017