Rebecca tells the story of a young woman who meets a handsome, older gentleman, Maxim de Winter, in Monte Carlo. It is the gossip of the moment that Maxim’s wife Rebecca, has recently drowned at sea. After a whirlwind romance, the couple are married with our protagonist becoming the new Mrs de Winter. On arriving home to Maxim’s West Country estate, ‘Manderley’, after their honeymoon, Mrs de Winter faces a painful struggle against Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, whose presence at Manderley remains overbearing even from beyond the grave. Maxim’s new wife is constantly compared to Rebecca, who was loved and admired by all. She faces particular cruelty from the malevolent Mrs Danvers, Rebecca’s maid and housekeeper. As the lady of the house, the new Mrs de Winter struggles to adjust to a more privileged way of life and to find her own identity. However, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Rebecca was not as wonderful as people believed her to be, and her death is not the tragic accident that perhaps it had seemed.
Rebecca is a tour de force of a novel, which gathers pace and speed as it hurtles to its denouement. It grows in strength, becoming more gripping as it develops, as the tensions build between the main characters. There is a sense of foreboding in the dramatic setting of Manderley. Rebecca is a first person narrative, that of the newly married Mrs de Winter, and begins after the climax of the book – so the reader knows what the score is from the outset. It then cycles back to explore the manner of the meeting of Mr and Mrs de Winter, by chance when she was a companion to an elderly American, Mrs Van Hopper, and how they end up drifting around Europe as man and wife. In fact, when I finished the novel, I re-read the opening pages, because I felt I’d missed something in the first reading. I closed the book as Mrs de Winter ended her reflection on the exodus in Europe, before she begins the story as the lowly companion to Mrs Van Hopper.
Essentially, Rebecca is a book about jealousy and relationships, and the sheer cleverness of it has struck me more and more. The main protagonist, the new Mrs de Winter, is never named in her own right. She is always an appendage to someone else – initially Mrs Van Hopper, and then Maxim de Winter. This is a powerful observation, when even the book title is Rebecca, the name that haunts the young woman throughout, being Maxim’s first, now deceased, wife. Rebecca called him Max, the new wife is instructed to call him Maxim. Our heroine starts as a shy, young thing, acquiescing to everyone around her – to her charge, to Maxim, to the staff at Manderley. It seems she is only comfortable around Maxim’s Agent, Crawley, a man more of her equal.
Mrs de Winter’s living antagonist is the sinister Mrs Danvers, or Danny as she was fondly referred to by Rebecca. She had been her maid since a girl, and had taken on the role of housekeeper at Manderley. Du Maurier’s characterisation of her is brilliant – a shadow in black with the face like a skeleton, who pops up in places where Mrs de Winter least expects. Just as her husband will never be Max, Mrs Danvers will never be Danny. The running narrative that the obsessive young Mrs de Winter runs through her mind is expertly crafted by du Maurier. She tortures herself in imagined conversations and scenarios, just like the soppy young thing that she is. I found this mildly irritating at first, frustrated by the naivety of the girl with a big crush – and a bigger jealousy. This almost possessive jealousy, fanned and stoked by Mrs Danvers is the crux of the novel. This tension between the wives. It is symbolised even in the rooms they occupy in Manderley. The passionate Rebecca had her rooms in the west wing, with the sound of the sea, and the new Mrs de Winter, the east, overlooking the rose garden. It is only later in the book that it is revealed quite why Maxim de Winter loathes the sound of the sea.
It is gothic literature at its finest. To think that I nearly didn’t read it because I perceived it as a romantic nonsense that my grandmother had on her bookshelves. I thought it would be dated, but the human conditions pervade all the advances that mankind has made in the decades since it was published. Du Maurier is skilled in her craft as a writer, but for me, she does not match the acute eye as an observer of people as one of her contemporaries, Elizabeth Jane Howard. That said, it is a magnificent book.