I’m just going to start this review by saying that Rebecca is great. I had such completely wrong expectations of what this novel was about and I honestly don’t know where I even got them from. I’ll admit all my ignorance here: I thought that Rebecca was part of the Jane Eyre or Pride & Prejudice brigade of novels – set back in classic ‘old’ times, with female protagonists bucking society expectations by realising their agency and forging their own destiny (albeit mostly through marriage). Whilst Rebecca does deal with a lot of these themes, its setting in the 1930s brings a more modern approach, adding extra scandal, making it unexpectedly thrilling.
The novel starts in Monte Carlo and is told from the perspective of a young (very young, it seems) woman who meets, falls in love with and marries an older, widowed gentleman, Maximilian de Winter. Mr de Winter is a veritable catch – he is rich, charming, handsome and educated, but there’s a sense right from the start that behind his charming exterior, there lies a troubled soul. The rest of the book is about the new Mrs de Winter’s experiences of moving to her new home, Manderley, and being unable to shake the pervading presence of the first Mrs de Winter – the mysterious Rebecca.
The first half of this book, I would say, is a bit of a struggle. It moves fairly slowly and there’s nothing really to hang your hat on as a reason to carry on. But carry on you must. All of a sudden the narrative picks up at breakneck speed with plot twists appearing you hadn’t dreamed of, and before you know it the book is over and you’re left there with a bit of residual shell shock at what you just consumed.
My main issue with the first half of his book is the first Mrs de Winter. She is young, naive and impossibly innocent, which serves to make her (in my view) incredibly irritating. Her self doubt and lack of confidence becomes tiresome, and you just want to reach into the book, grab her by the shoulders and shake her, before giving her a stern pep talk and a stiff drink. I probably have a lot less patience than most people but I feel even those that identify with our narrator would find it all a bit much. However, this is undoubtedly the point. The two Mrs de Winters must be set up as completely antithetical to each other in order for the story to maintain its mystery and thrill. The eerie presence of the perfect Rebecca penetrate the novel from start to finish – you hear stories of her beauty, wit, vivacity, expertise and charm from all angles. All those who knew her praise her, and Max will never talk about her, presumably out of unspeakable grief that remains still raw. This is what du Maurier does that is so clever – we as readers are also brought under Rebecca’s spell. We would rather be her than this timid child who has miraculously landed herself one of the country’s most eligible bachelors. Nothing could be a more obvious sign of this than the novel itself being called ‘Rebecca’ while the current Mrs de Winter remains throughout the book bereft of a Christian name to identify her.
But as the plot unwinds around us and we discover that all is certainly not as it seems, this book really comes into its own. The scandal and intrigue of the story really surprised me (again, because I was expecting it to be quite old-fashioned and, dare I say it, generic), which kept me hooked. My love for Max made me anxious about his part in the story, and the machinations of the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers gripped me to see how far her undying loyalty to her old mistress would go. I think Du Maurier does a masterful job of characterisation, creating dual interpretations and playing on readers’ prejudice in order to pull off so successfully the plot twist at the end.
The story has a very dark, gothic sense about it, and the descriptions are so thoughtfully written that it is so easy to picture the characters and their setting – the beautiful house, Manderley, on the Cornish coast whose turbulent weather mimics the fluctuations in the story itself, is the perfect backdrop to a tale that is both beautiful and dangerous, romantic and mysterious. The wonderful illustration of this allegorical setting has cemented Manderley as one of the most famous locations in English literature. This is probably why I enjoyed the book so much – it seemed to cross two different genres. First there is the classic romantic novel, but it is then overlaid with a darker thriller, forcing the reader to question, theorise and read on to discover the truth.
This was my first Daphne Du Maurier book and it has really spurred me on to read more. After this I read Frenchman’s Creek (also a surprising, slightly shocking and great read) and there are more on the list to follow! Anyone who enjoys the murder mystery genre or would pick Wuthering Heights over Jane Eyre should give this book a go; it doesn’t feel like you’re reading an outdated classic or a dry period novel. It’s timeless, exciting and high on my recommended list!
Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥