Fiction: “Rebecca” by Daphne Du Maurier

rebecca-daphne-du-maurier-book-cover-artI was planning on going on a major rant about how much I suck, seeing as how I finished this book back in effing January and here it is nearly St. Paddy’s Day, and I was going to vow that I was going to get better at this, but we all know I’m lying (mostly to myself), so let’s just skip all of that and go right into the review with much less preamble than I’m used to, because this is one of my favorite books and I really think everyone I know should read it if they haven’t already.

Before I can get into the thick of the book, however, I do need to discuss one thing: a major choice in the narrative structure. Ugh. Now I know why I’ve procrastinated this review so much – I really have no idea where to begin with it.

Rebecca is the tale of Mr. and Mrs. Maximilian de Winter, and it takes place in 1930s Britain. Maxim (to his friends) is the landed inheritor of the family estate, Manderley, and it is extremely famous. (I guess, for an American equivalent, it would be like Monticello, but without the historical prestige. It’s a fancy house and everyone knows about it.) The estate is so famous that the Future Mrs. de Winter purchased a postcard of Manderley as a girl and dreamed of visiting it.

She remembers her postcard when she first meets Maxim in Monte Carlo, as she’s working as a hired companion to the American tourist Mrs. Van Hopper. Mrs. Van Hopper introduces herself to Maxim, who clearly wants nothing to do with her. As he politely takes his leave of Mrs. Van Hopper and her companion (who also happens to be our narrator), Mrs. Van Hopper tells the girl (and I’m gonna paraphrase, because the book is in the kitchen and I’m, as we should all know by now, lazy) that Maxim must be devastated after the loss of his wife last year; it must be why he left Manderley.

A couple of days after this incident, Mrs. Van Hopper comes down with the flu or something, and her companion goes to have lunch, where she promptly spills her water glass all over her — she’s very awkward, young, nervous, and klutzy at times. Maxim is dining near her and he immediately insists that she have lunch with him, and lunch turns into spending the afternoon driving around Monte Carlo, and that turns into spending every afternoon together in friendship. Mrs. Van Hopper gets better, and when she learns her daughter is getting married in New York, she and her companion pack up for America. The girl manages to get away long enough to say goodbye to Maxim, but instead of exchanging mailing addresses for postcard-sending, Maxim proposes marriage to her instead. Stunned, and not entirely understanding (but enough to know she didn’t want to go to America), she agrees. Mrs. Van Hopper doesn’t wish her well, instead telling her that she’s making a huge mistake, and that Maxim’s only marrying her because he can’t stand living alone after the death of Rebecca.

That’s right, friends – our narrator is not Rebecca. Rebecca is Maxim’s first wife, who died in a boating accident. Our narrator is only known as Mrs. de Winter, and as “she’s” telling the story, “she” feels no need to introduce herself. In addition, all the other characters she comes in contact with either call her “Mrs. De Winter” or “dear” or some other derivative. I’ll get more into that in a minute.

Their honeymoon is wonderful – full of happiness and light, though we never see these weeks directly. We only hear about them after the fact, once the happy couple have returned to Manderley. And as soon as they drive through the gates, a change comes over Maxim. In public, in front of the servants, he is reserved. In private, he is adoring of Mrs. de Winter – unless something put him into a mood before the scene.

Her introduction to the house includes the servants: Frith the butler, and Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper. Mrs. Danvers does not take to Mrs. de Winter, and the latter feels as if the housekeeper is constantly looking down her nose at her.

Her first day as mistress of the house doesn’t go the smoothest. Mrs. de Winter has breakfast with Maxim before he goes to the estate office, but then she doesn’t know what to do. She heads to the library (one of the rooms she knows how to get to), and is trying to start a fire because it’s chilly when Frith asks if he can be of service.

“I felt rather cool in the library, I suppose the weather seems chilly to me, after being abroad, and I thought perhaps I would just put a match to the fire.”

“The fire in the library is not usually lit until the afternoon, Madam,” he said. “Mrs. de Winter always used the morning-room. There is a good fire in there. Of course if you should wish to have the fire in the library as well I will give orders for it to be lit.”

“Oh, no,” I said, “I would not dream of it. I will go to the morning-room.” [p. 80]

(Yeah, I went and got the book out of the kitchen.)

When Mrs. de Winter goes into the morning-room, everything has Rebecca’s touch over it. The stationary, the furniture, the accents, the decorations. The feeling of being a stranger in someone else’s house begins to overwhelm her, and when Mrs. Danvers calls her on the house telephone (oh, the 1930s), she gets frightfully mixed up:

And when the telephone rang, suddenly, alarmingly, on the desk in front of me, my heart leapt and I stared up in terror, thinking I had been discovered. I took the receiver off with trembling hands, and “Who is it?” I said, “who do you want?” There was a strange buzzing at the end of the line, and then a voice came, low and rather harsh, whether that of a woman or a man I could not tell, and “Mrs. de Winter?” it said, “Mrs. de Winter?”

“I’m afraid you have made a mistake,” I said, “Mrs. de Winter has been dead for over a year.” [p. 83]

And it keeps getting worse. She learns that Rebecca and Maxim used to have their rooms in the west wing, which overlooks the ocean, but when they returned from their honeymoon Maxim put them in the east wing. Mrs. de Winter bows down to Ms. Danvers constantly, not making any changes or even attempting to assert herself. And throughout everything, she believes that she has been chosen as a replacement for Rebecca just so Maxim doesn’t have to be alone; she truly believes that he doesn’t love her at all, and that he is still in love with Rebecca.

And then, there’s the fancy dress ball. The villagers (most of them are rather wealthy, so don’t think they’re serfs or anything) want Maxim to reinstate the fancy dress ball, and Maxim eventually caves in. Now, I have read this book at least four times, and I’ve seen the movie at least twenty times (oh SHIT guys, don’t let me forget to talk about the movie), so I know how this is going to go. Every time I read this book or watch the movie, I blow through the first two hundred pages, but when I get to the fancy dress ball? I slow my reading down, because what happens is so awful that I just want to reach into the book, grab Mrs. de Winter’s shoulders and yell, “WHY ARE LISTENING TO MRS. DANVERS??!”

The night after the fancy dress ball, Mrs. de Winter has a confrontation with Mrs. Danvers, and just when it looks as if Mrs. Danvers is going to finally strike the death blow on Mrs. de Winter — a ship runs aground in the harbor. Their confrontation forgotten, Mrs. de Winter runs out to find the constable, and she learns the horrible truth — The ship ran aground on Rebecca’s boat.

And the diver found a second body in it.

Okay, I can’t comfortably speak about any of the rest of the plot, because from here on in, we’re in Major Spoiler Country. And while I’m okay ruining some things – especially when I feel like the time limit has run out (Rosebud was the name of the sled, Gwyneth Paltrow’s head’s in the box, and Norman Bates dressed up like his mother to kill people) — but I refuse to spoil this book, because if you don’t know what happens, it makes the book so much better.

(As perfect evidence, I recently lent Gone Girl to my mother:

“Mom, I know you’re like me — I know you want to know what happens, and you’ll want to read ahead to find out what happens. I am telling you – RESIST THAT URGE. Do not — DO NOT — skip ahead in this book. If you do, you will regret it.

She didn’t skip, even though she was tempted, and she really … I wouldn’t say “enjoyed” the book, because it’s not an easy book to “enjoy,” but the experience of reading the book was better.)

Here’s why it’s so important that Mrs. de Winter doesn’t have a first name – you can substitute yourself into the role of the narrator much easier. When everything is I feel, I thought, I wondered, but you don’t have another name to attach to that, you can almost find yourself feeling those same feelings. So then, when you put yourself into this nameless narrator, and all she’s seeing are memories of her husband’s first wife – in the few notes that are still hanging around in frontispieces of books, in the stationary, the monogrammed handkerchief she finds in an old raincoat – and she deeply believes that her husband doesn’t actually love her, that he’s still in love with his first wife – that first wife almost becomes a physical presence.

It’s a claustrophobic feeling – it’s a heart in a death grip, and you’re also not strong enough to be your own voice. It’s terrifying.

Ugh, this is really hard to explain. The best thing about this book is the atmosphere. It’s Gothic, it’s Romantic, it’s oppressive. There’s nowhere to escape. You’re stuck in Manderley just as badly as Mrs. de Winter, and you’re not sure if you even have allies, because it seems that everyone can’t stop talking about Rebecca.

“He doesn’t love me, he loves Rebecca,” I said. “He’s never forgotten her, he thinks about her still, night and day. He’s never loved me, Frank. It’s always Rebecca, Rebecca, Rebecca.” [p. 225]

It’s heartbreaking.

Now, the movie – it was directed by Alfred HItchcock, first of all. It starred Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine as (Oscar-nominated) Mrs. de Winter, and my all-time favorite, George Sanders, as Rebecca’s cousin Max Favell. George Sanders, for those who may not know, voiced Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book, but most importantly, played my Role Model For Life in All About Eve – theatre critic Addison de Witt. The movie continues the atmosphere found in the book, and Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers is the epitome of creepy, evil housekeepers.

Quick note: the death of Rebecca has a different outcome in the movie than in the book. I am able to separate the two and I can’t say which version I like better. But be aware that, if you read the book first, it’s different in the movie, and vice versa.

Okay, I’ve been writing this for two hours and it’s nearly midnight, so I’m going to wrap this up by saying: seriously, read this book. Watch the movie. I don’t even care which order you pick. But after you’ve done one or the other, let’s talk about it, because I love both of them.

Grade for Rebecca: 6 stars

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