Wednesday, August 17

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I suspect that had I gone into this book with a slightly clearer idea of what it was like, I would have appreciated it a little more. I had the idea from the blurb and Goodreads reviews that it would be a straight Gothic romance in the spirit of something like Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, with an infuriatingly weak protagonist. I think I only really realised after finishing the book that it is in fact a distinctly modern work, more psychological horror than romance, with a strongly-characterised narrator who is chilling in her single-minded obsession with Rebecca, and all she represents.

In fact, the book it reminded me most of was The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Both works are defined by a flawed upwardly-mobile narrator whose obsessions with social class come to the forefront when they establish a presence in the manor houses in the orbit of which they spent their childhoods. Both are ghost stories, though in both the 'ghost' in question represents something much realer, if psychological and equally intangible; here of course, the figure of Rebecca which haunts the narrator isn't a real presence in Manderley. Instead she is solely a product of the narrator's troubled psyche, and those of the other inhabitants.

Rebecca feels claustrophobic. Reading it, we are trapped in the viewpoint of the narrator - the second Mrs de Winter - and we cannot escape experiencing every neurotic and paranoid thought that passes through her head. And there are so many. Her terrible self-image - it's hinted that some childhood trauma is the reason behind it - is reflected in the text at every point, from her whirlwind romance with (the fabulously named) Maximilian de Winter (which at first she refuses to believe could possibly lead anywhere because honestly who would be interested in her?), to her total inability to impose her will on the staff at Manderley, despite their clear desire for her to do so.

And the more the narrator learns about Rebecca, the more her thoughts tend towards holding her predecessor up as an example of everything she can't be. Rebecca was beautiful. Rebecca was aristocratic. Rebecca knew her own mind. Rebecca was loved. The second Mrs de Winter will never be as good a mistress of Manderley, or a wife to Maxim, as Rebecca was. In fact, the narrator doesn't even possess a name - at least one we're ever told - while Rebecca's name is the title of her book! There's a horrible, telling moment soon after the narrator's marriage and arrival at Manderley, when, in response to a caller asking for "Mrs de Winter", the narrator replies that she's sorry, but Mrs de Winter has been dead for months.

Soon, this obsession turns a little creepy. Finding a dedication to 'Max' from Rebecca in a book of poetry that he's lent to her, the narrator tears out the page (something I was taught at a young age by my grandfather never to do) and sets it on fire, even as her suitor is in the next room. She looks for traces of Rebecca everywhere, once she gets to Manderley, and probes the staff for information about Rebecca's marriage to Maxim. She imagines Rebecca's mannerisms and tries them on herself, to the consternation of her husband. The vividly-drawn character of Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, with her terrifying devotion to her late mistress, is often cited as a key reason for the book's enduring success. However, contrasting the narrator and Mrs Danvers, and the changes that each undergo in response to the revelations of the final third, it strikes me that it is the former who is the more terrible of the two.

All that having been said, I don't want to give the impression that it's not an easy or pleasurable read. In fact it's a joy, and I found myself marveling at the language frequently. It's written in an elevated, archaic style, reflecting the Gothic romance novels of a century prior which inspired it. Du Maurier uses words like Bradshaw (a railway guide) and questing (as a verb, a lot) and luncheon and wagon-lit. The characters say things like "don't you really?" and "you look very well in that costume!", and the narrator complains that even the lowliest servant belongs at Manderley "more than I should ever do." At one point, a rather unsavoury character is said to have "laughed, opening his mouth", which is excellent and made me do a double-take.

The most evocative language is perhaps to be found in the book's opening pages, with the famous first line - "last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" - preceding an elegy to a lost, rural, manor-house idyll to rival anything I've read in its sense of yearning. It's a haunting theme that recurs throughout the book, and du Maurier conjures it well.

Rebecca's writing captured my attention even when my interest in the plot waned, and wane it did. Though reflecting in hindsight, my opinion of the book has improved, and I can appreciate the artistry with which du Maurier achieves what she's set out to do, not fully understanding what I was getting into meant that I couldn't appreciate it at the time. Instead I was annoyed at the slow-moving plot, the twists that I saw coming before they happened, the twists that I saw coming that failed to materialise, the constant Rebecca Rebecca Rebecca of the narrator's train of thought. I was nonplussed by the will-they-won't-they exercise in tension-building that made up the whole final quarter of the novel, and that ending! well! No spoilers here, but I would advise anyone getting into Rebecca to look at it as a meditation on the nature and consequences of obsession told in the guise of a Gothic romance.

Going into it straight, like I did, you might feel a little like the butt of a practical joke that du Maurier's played. And it's a good joke, skillfully told. I'm just enjoying it more now that I'm in on it.

Notes on the audiobook:

I didn't know this until I started doing the research for this review, but the audiobook is narrated by Anna Massey CBE, a BAFTA-winning actress known for playing "nannies, nuns, and nurses", often in period dramas and thrillers, including a 1979 TV adaptation of Rebecca in which she played Mrs Danvers!

Her Guardian obituary (she died in 2011) makes mention of her abilities in playing "cold and repressed" characters and of her "capacity for stillness". Indeed, her audiobook performance of Rebecca is perfect and chilling, and probably played no small part in my assessment of the second Mrs de Winter's character. She suits Rebecca perfectly, and I don't regret in the slightest listening to the book instead of reading it.

Rating: 3/5
Amazon: Rebecca
Audible: Rebecca
Goodreads: Rebecca

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