Reading Jane Eyre at about this time last year brought my interest in Gothic literature back to the surface. I bought a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a classic Gothic tale from the 1930’s, but sadly I kept putting it off. This year I made sure to add Rebecca toward the top of my classics list for 2018 because I knew I would love it, and sure enough…
About the book: Our unnamed narrator is living a bland but tolerable life as the paid companion of a snobby woman vacationing in Monte Carlo. Everything changes when the two women meet the infamous Mr. de Winter at their hotel just before the narrator’s employer falls ill. As she convalesces, the narrator forms a friendship with the odd but endearing Mr. de Winter; though he does not mention love, he does offer marriage when the sudden end of the vacation threatens to separate him from the young woman he’s been entertaining. Without knowing much about Mr. de Winter beyond popular rumor and the memory of a pretty postcard of his estate (called Manderley), the narrator agrees to the match and leaves Monte Carlo abruptly to become the new Mrs. de Winter. She learns quickly upon arriving at Manderley that there’s an intense but secretive history surrounding the fate of the first Mrs. de Winter, and the end of that marriage might also mean the doom of her own.
“Happiness is not a possession to be prized, it is a quality of thought, a state of mind. Of course we have our moments of depression; but there are other moments too, when time, unmeasured by the clock, runs on into eternity and, catching his smile, I know we are together, we march in unison, no clash of thought or of opinion makes a barrier between us.”
There is some romance in this book, but I would not call Rebecca a romance novel. Despite its ties to Jane Eyre, I would not classify Rebecca in the same category as Bronte’s classic. Ultimately, I would say it’s a tragedy. It’s psychological and character-driven, mysterious and macabre. There are underlying messages about female power, especially in a marriage (particularly in a marriage of the 1930’s. Things have changed a bit, though I think the lessons still apply). Rebecca is a lot of things, but foremost it’s a masterpiece.
My favorite aspect of Rebecca is the way the late and present Mrs. de Winters are reflected against each other. On the surface, Rebecca and our narrator are opposite in every way, though under their differences there is an unmistakable similarity between them. Even as the narrator ruminates over her predecessor’s personality, noting all the things that were perfect about Rebecca that are not about the new Mrs. de Winter, she’s emulating Rebecca. She’s becoming her, in some ways. The two are at once so far apart, and yet they present like different sides of the same person.
“She’s the real Mrs. de Winter, not you. It’s you that’s the shadow and the ghost. It’s you that’s forgotten and not wanted and pushed aside.”
The characterization/perspective is wonderful. Mrs. de Winter is so full of daydreams and assumptions that the reader has a clear sense of Manderley and all of its characters, while remembering that these are only Mrs. de Winter’s ideas of them, rather than facts. These pictures she spins of the various characters and locations are as much a reflection of our narrator as of the characters themselves, which leaves plenty of room for surprise as secrets are revealed throughout the course of the book.
But perhaps the most interesting detail is that Mr. and Mrs. de Winter are presented as the “heroes” of the book, though we know from the very first chapter that neither of them are winners in this tale. The irony of Rebecca is that there is no escaping the horrors of the past without losing the potential of a pleasant future. The events of Mr. and Mrs. de Winter’s star-crossed marriage have been in motion since Mr. de Winter first married Rebecca, and there is little any of them can do to come out ahead. The marriage they salvage is a farce at best, an empty display. That future is laid out in the first chapters of the novel, before the narrator goes back to explain how the de Winters fell into that fate. It’s pieced together beautifully, and in the end it reads more as a commentary on marriage and female agency than love.
“As I sipped my cold tea I thought with a tired biter feeling of despair that I would be content to live in one corner of Manderley and Maxim in the other so long as the outside world should never know. If he had no more tenderness for me, never kissed me again, did not speak to me except on matters of necessity, I believed I could bear it if I were certain that nobody knew of this but our two selves. If we could bribe servants not to tell, play our part before relations, before Beatrice, and then when we were alone sit apart in our separate rooms, leading our separate lives.”
The edition that I read also includes an afterword by Sally Beauman, who wrote a sequel to Rebecca in 2000 (I think). I don’t think I’m interested in reading a sequel by anyone other than du Maurier at this point, but I did enjoy Beauman’s afterword. I agreed with a lot of her points, and even when I didn’t they were certainly thought-provoking and engaged the text in an interesting way. I would recommend reading that afterword if you like Rebecca.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book, from chapter 2 onward. I wasn’t sold on chapter one (I don’t like plot-less descriptions of scenery, no matter how beautiful, or conveniently true-to-life dreams; both of these techniques appear in chapter 1), but in the end I saw that it had its place in the narrative and I appreciated the whole book. It all fits together so perfectly. I’m planning to pick up Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel sometime in the not-too-distant future because I think it will deliver more of the elements I loved from Rebecca.
- Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is worth the read for fans of Gothic literature. Though there is a heavier romantic plot line, the book also focuses on a doomed marriage and its secret aftermath, which unravel in a psychological and creepy sort of way.
- If you read Gothic books for the atmosphere and horror, try Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, in which a spooky old mansion slowly drives the narrator down an irreversible path toward tragedy.
- And if the psychology and the superbly written structure of Rebecca is what you’re interested in, try Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a close look at the life of a woman who is increasingly disturbed even as she her life seems to be steadily improving from outward appearances.
Do you have a favorite Gothic novel? This is exactly my brand of creepy literature, so I’m open to all suggestions!
The Literary Elephant