For the few years I have wanted to write thrillers, most writers of said genre have recommended reading Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca as the epitome of thriller and suspense fiction, and a classic in the era of Gothic fiction. Every time I saw this advice, I went “Yeah, but I’ll read it some day” and proceeded to forget. Not so recently—i.e. December last year—I picked up a copy from my local library with every intention of reading it. I started it slowly across January to March, only reading approximately 100 pages, but ultimately finding it far too slow-paced for my liking. Come last week, I had a bout of insomnia that coincided with the month of April and all that happens in the so-called “cruellest month”, as T.S Elliott and others have dubbed it (Easter, ANZAC Day, school holidays, etc). With that sudden case of insomnia, I thought to myself; “Why am I wasting time on the internet. Why not read?” Preferably, as the ad goes, I thought por qué no los dos, but I managed to read the remaining 280 pages of Rebecca in under a week, so it all worked out in the end! It didn’t help that, despite the initial slow-pace, Rebecca was so damn interesting, as Maxim de Winter would likely say.
Rebecca is the 1938 novel by English author Daphne DuMaurier, which was turned into a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. While I haven’t watched the film, I have watched The Birds, another DuMaurier story-turned-film, and didn’t like it. I mean, I love Hitchcock’s Psycho, but The Birds just didn’t do it for me, mainly the ending. Maybe DuMaurier’s short story is much better than the film, but it left me a little worried when I started reading. Never mind! Despite starting off relatively slowly, and being very long (my edition was 380 words of short text—lucky I’m short-sighted, not long sighted!) As said before, I read the first 100 pages in three months, but the remainder of the book took me about 4 or 5 days. This is amazing for a slow reader! The basic premise of Rebecca is this: When the shy, unnamed narrator meets charming recluse gentleman Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo, they immediately fall in love and get married. However, their wedded bliss is short when they return to Manderley, Maxim de Winter’s lavish estate in the Cornish coast in England. The problem: the reason Maxim escaped to Monte Carlo in the first place was he had lost his first wife, the charming and amazing titular Rebecca, a year earlier, and when the second Mrs. de Winter arrives at Manderley, she lives in the shadow of the perfect previous Mrs. de Winter, and many of the residents of Manderley—including head maid Mrs. Danvers, among others—won’t let her forget that. There’s a lot of secrets at Manderley!
Despite starting slowly with the second Mrs. de Winter’s life in Monte Carlo, assisting the bitchy Mrs. Van Hopper, and her first accidental-on-purpose meet-up with Maxim, it eventually leads into Mrs. de Winter’s arrival at Manderley, where the novel picks up pace. Maybe it’s the first chapter-and-a-half, with the memorable opening line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, which is more like an epilogue, but without the context of the ending. It’s both good and bad in the same breath. On one hand it dragged on and on, and I’m not one for a constant repetition of how Manderley looks in Mrs. de Winter’s dream. However, after finishing the book, I went and read the second chapter (and end of the first), you really begin to appreciate its beauty. There was this short story my class analysed in a university creative writing class called Cold Snap by Cate Kennedy. My creative writing tutor told us how great Cold Snap was for being a story you had to read it twice: once to read it, and twice to understand it. Rebecca is the perfect example of this as a novel. While I probably won’t be rereading the novel again for a while, quickly checking over those first two chapters shows just how well-written it is.
One of the reasons I enjoyed Rebecca was because of its characterisation. Particularly with the connection between the unnamed Mrs. de Winter and her predecessor, Rebecca. Being introverted and relatively shy, I could empathise with the protagonist and her life, as she dealt with youthful inexperience and the many dramatic things that were happening to her. For most of the book, she felt completely in the shadow of the woman who came before her, and it completely overwhelmed her. Despite being shy and passive, she had so much personality, and she didn’t even need a first name for it to be so. She complemented Rebecca, who was her opposite in every way. Despite being deceased a year, Rebecca is a prominent character, and her actions affect every character both before, during, after her death. Where Mrs. de Winter is unnamed, passive, accepting, and kind, Rebecca is named constantly, extroverted and outwardly antagonistic at times, mocking of everyone she knew, particularly the men (if she was an early anarchist feminist, i.e. intersectional feminist, I wouldn’t be surprised). Mrs de. Winter feels like she’s stuck in the shadow of Rebecca and this is shown, mainly through the other main female character Mrs. Danvers, but also with Maxim’s sister Beatrice Lacy. Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca’s devoted maid-servant, is frankly frightening at times, and you never quite know what she’s planning to do, right until the very last few pages. She’s the live stand-in for Rebecca, it’s both her (and Maxim, later on) who reveal the truth about the first Mrs. de Winter. Beatrice, on the other hand, while similar in personality to Rebecca, is incredibly different. While most of the men, apart from Maxim and Jack Favell (and maybe Ben), seem positively bland, the majority of women appear to be strong and have differing personalities. It’s easy to mix male characters like Colonel Julyan, Frank Crawley, and the many men at the inquest and Kerrith (the town closest to Manderley), who all appear the same, but you’ve got women like the brash, manly Beatrice, who kind of helps Mrs. de Winter become her own person, and you’ve got shadowy sinister figures like Mrs. Danvers. While characters like Maxim and Jack Favell are fleshed out, they are only two, and not interconnected and intricate as much as the women. It’s only their relationship with the women (Favell with Rebecca, Maxim with both of his wives) that the men come into their own.
Rebecca had many twists and turns that I did not expect, other than a few accidental spoilers (thanks IMDB page for the movie!). I originally thought Maxim de Winter was standoffish and didn’t care too much about Mrs. de Winter. After the big revelation, I began to feel for him, because I knew nobody would ever believe him (and many men even today are still not believed). With the final twist at the end, thanks to Dr Baker, I completely understand his behaviour in the second chapter epilogue. No matter what he—and later his second wife—do, they can never, ever escape from Rebecca. She’s everywhere, and duMaurier makes sure we as the reader know this constantly.
Despite a few spelling mistakes (most likely the editors of my edition weren’t thorough enough!), my only problems with Rebecca were the slow pace, and much of it is quite dated, which I can’t fault, but a lot of other parts stand the test of time. It’s great to have a character who isn’t a unique special snowflake but can still come into her own. While I do think it could have been shorter, I did wish it was longer when I reached the end and wish it continued with their lives post-big-reveal, so I think The Rebecca Notebook And Other Memories (or maybe the s0-called sequel) is on the cards for me to read in the future! The ending was completely shocking, and I never expected what happened. I can now understand why Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca is considered a classic.