Book review: Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca again. I called out in my dream to Mrs Manvers who I found lighting a fire in my bed in the East Wing of Manderley. And Max was firing his revolver again and again into Rebecca’s sailing boat before he turned and with an expression that was part anger and part sorrow asked if I would like to take tea in the library.

When I awoke, I couldn’t remember what part was the novel and what part was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 movie with Joan Fontaine as the narrator and the second Mrs de Winter and Laurence Olivier as Maxim. Did Mrs Manvers really set fire to Manderley or did she simply spend hours and hours folding and refolding Rebecca’s negligee as she mourned the loss of her secret (or not so secret) love? Such is the mistake of reading a novel and watching the film of the book at the same time.

A second reading of the novel 20 years apart convinced me Rebecca is one of the best novels I have ever read. A thrilling psychological mystery with layers of guilt, of manipulation, of gothic detail and of the inner thoughts that give the narrator’s convincing coming of age story such depth. The second Mrs de Winter, the unnamed narrator begins the story reflecting from her Mediterranean exile on all things English countryside. We then flashback to the ghastly Mrs Van Hopper in the south of France – her pompous and obnoxious employer who unwittingly introduces her to Maxim to whom she absconds with and the story begins.

The narrator begins as a young and naïve woman fresh out of school with a sense of right and wrong but ends the story protecting a murderer by failing to give evidence in a legal case concerning the death of Rebecca. Her love for the moody and short-tempered Maxim is all consuming, putting up with his guilty grumps and the psychological damage that his relationship with the first Mrs de Winter had done to him. Dismissed as nothing more than a romantic novel on publication in 1938 it was an immediate best seller and has never been out of print since. But for me it’s the way the narrator describes each character and her reactions to them which transcend this novel from the everyday to a modern classic.

It’s the narrator’s thought process which so grips in all its candid nature and her obsession with the ghostly presence of the ‘remarkable Rebecca’ whose glamour and personality so dominates all at Manderley. Eventually of course she exorcises the Rebecca’s phantom only to see her stately home above the Cornish cove destroyed, sending her into exile and back to the famous opening line in Chapter one.

Harry Mottram

The novel was remade as a 2020 movie directed by Ben Wheatley from a screenplay by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse.

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