REVIEW: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
I don’t remember when I first saw the film version of Rebecca – I probably caught it on Turner Classic Movies when I was in my teens. I don’t think I saw it all the way through the first time, and it’s possible I’ve actually never seen it from beginning to end in one sitting. But piecemeal, here and there, over the years, I believe I’ve seen the whole film. I’ve certainly seen it enough to be pretty familiar with the story, and the movie is compelling enough that I remember large parts of it, even with my current sieve-like memory. Laurence Olivier as the dashing yet troubled Max de Winter, Joan Fontaine as the infuriatingly mousy unnamed heroine, and Dame Judith Anderson as the magnetic, maniacal Mrs. Danvers. Worst. Housekeeper. Ever./Comic Book Guy voice
Anyhoo, a while back I was thinking I should really read Daphne du Maurier; I never had. I considered getting My Cousin Rachel, which I knew (and still know) nothing about. I toyed with Jamaica Inn, which I remember from a 1980s television movie (maybe a miniseries?) starring Jane Seymour, with whom I had an abiding childhood fascination (she was so beautiful and British!). But Rebecca came up on sale and though I had my reservations (see: annoying mousy heroine), I snapped it up.
The narrator of Rebecca remains famously unnamed throughout; I’ve seen her referred to outside the novel as simply “the second Mrs. de Winter.” Du Maurier seems to tease us with her namelessness; there are a couple of references to her first name being unusual; Maxim comments on it and later she receives a letter and is surprised that her first name is spelled correctly. Mostly the lack of name is an obvious commentary on the narrator’s own lack of sense of self and the fact, or at least perception, that she stands always in the shadows of the titular character, Max’s dead first wife.
The story begins in some unnamed locale in Europe; Max and the second Mrs. de Winter are exiles, drifting through a rather sad and tedious-sounding life after some scandal/disaster. They stay in small hotels so as to avoid people they know and cleave to small, familiar rituals, like reading English newspapers that arrive in the mail. The cricket scores have become a link to the life they’ve lost.
The story soon shifts back in time, to Max and the narrator’s meeting in Monte Carlo. The narrator is companion to a loud and brassy American woman, Mrs. Van Hopper. The elder lady has the habit of imposing herself on anyone prominent or noteworthy, and she zeroes in on Maxim de Winter when she spies him in the lobby:
“It’s Max de Winter,” she said, “the man who owns Manderley. You’ve heard of it, of course. He looks ill, doesn’t he? They say he can’t get over his wife’s death…”
Mrs. Van Hopper, armed with a total lack of shame, manages to engage Max for coffee. Her efforts to pursue him further are stymied when she falls ill, and while she convalesces Max and the narrator form a friendship, taking meals and drives together. The narrator (gosh that gets annoying to type) is so young and green that it doesn’t seem to occur to her that Max has any romantic intentions towards her until, as she and Mrs. Van Hopper prepare to leave Monte Carlo for New York, he proposes. Though shocked and plagued by self-doubt (maybe “self-doubt” is the heroine’s unusual name; it would certainly fit), she accepts. After a brief honeymoon, it’s off to the famous Manderley.
The second Mrs. de Winter is immediately overwhelmed (to be fair, she’d probably be overwhelmed by a rousing game of tic-tac-toe). Manderley is huge and imposing and full of history and servants, and she has no experience with or understanding of how to go about things. Making matters worse are two things (well three things, because Max is certainly no help): 1) the omnipresent shadow of Max’s dead first wife Rebecca, and 2) Mrs. Danvers, the uber-creepy housekeeper who is Rebecca’s #1 stan.
Rebecca de Winter died in a boating accident the previous year. She supposedly went out in her small boat, got caught in a storm, and sank. Maxim had identified her body when it washed up some time after the accident. When alive, Rebecca was universally (well, almost) adored and admired for being beautiful and charismatic and just about everything the second Mrs. de Winter isn’t (or at least doesn’t think she is).
As I think I’ve made clear, I’m not a fan of the second Mrs. de Winter. I wasn’t in the movie and I definitely wasn’t in the book (actually, reading the book allows me to appreciate how well Joan Fontaine embodied the awkward, self-conscious and perpetually dithery narrator). To be fair, I don’t think I’m necessary supposed to like her. Rebecca isn’t a romance, for all it contains a number of tropes familiar in romance, particularly gothic romance.
So the narrator settles in to Manderley, or tries to, but she’s thwarted at every turn, often by her own child-like fearfulness. For instance, she breaks a small china figurine in her (Rebecca’s old) morning room, and afraid to tell anyone, she hides the pieces. Except it turns out that the figurine was valuable, and when the staff is accused in its disappearance, she has to confess, making herself look ridiculous in the process. Part of me understood her reticence and general lack of backbone – under certain circumstances, I can imagine acting similarly, particularly in my younger days. (Maybe that’s why it bugs me so much?) Another part of me wants to slap her and tell her to fake it til she makes it, or some similar. I feel like I should be more sympathetic to her, but her behavior (and her endless obsessive daydreams about how everyone is looking down on her or how Rebecca would have done such-and-such so much better) make her really irritating and hard to like.
The narrator encounters various other characters once she arrives at Manderley: Rebecca’s oily cousin Jack, with whom Rebecca was apparently, um, really close; Maxim’s brusque but kind sister Beatrice; Frank Crawley, Maxim’s land agent (about the only character I unreservedly liked in the book); and a young local who is developmentally disabled and seems to have been afraid of Rebecca. But she’s also often alone with her thoughts, and with some manipulation by Mrs. Danvers, her thoughts are often focused on her own inadequacy in comparison to the sublime Rebecca. Matters come to a head when the narrator (again with Danvers’ malevolent “help”) commits a huge faux pas at a costume ball that she and Maxim are pressed by locals into throwing (Rebecca used to throw one every year and of course everyone just adored it). From there, things begin to fall apart as the truth of Maxim’s marriage to Rebecca is revealed and the dead refuse to lie quietly.
The movie departs from the book in one significant detail (BIG SPOILER FOR BOTH THE BOOK AND THE MOVIE!):
Spoiler (spoiler): Show
Everything that happens in the last quarter of the book is pretty much a big spoiler, so I’ll stop recounting the plot here. Normally I’m not as concerned with spoiling older books, but so much of Rebecca depends on the twists and turns at the end. If by chance someone *doesn’t* know the story (I think of it as one of those books that one picks up at least some knowledge about via cultural osmosis, but maybe not), then they deserve a chance to read it (or see the movie!) without having those twists and turns ruined.
Often when I review a classic, especially if I mention the romance/romantic elements in the book, someone will pop up and say, “but X isn’t a romance!” And that’s usually true, and definitely true here. I was thinking about why I associated Rebecca with romance. Is it because of the central “aha!” moment, where the heroine learns she’s been mistaken all along in thinking the hero doesn’t love her? That is, after all, a common enough romance cliche. (Mary Balogh comes to mind here, for some reason.) It may be that Laurence Olivier sells it in the movie better than du Maurier does in the book. It was, after all, a big 1940s studio film, even if it *wasn’t* a romance, so I expect it to be more conventional and straightforward in its psychology than the novel might be. I also think the well-established (if twisted) ways in which Rebecca echoes that seminal romance, Jane Eyre, kind of messes with my perceptions of it.
(I was also just re-reading the afterword to my edition of the book, which mentions that du Maurier’s publisher touted Rebecca to booksellers as an “exqusite love story.” Which is kind of crazy if you’ve actually read the book.)
Rebecca really isn’t about love or romance at all, and certainly not about the love between the nitwit narrator and the morally weak and corrupt Maxim de Winter. I don’t see them as being in love – she doesn’t rhapsodize about characteristics of Maxim’s that she admires in the text. If anything, she seems afraid of him – not on a physical level, but she fears his disapproval. She is rescued from drudgery (shades of Cinderella) and appreciates the attention of an older, worldly man, a sort of father figure who will take care of her. She wants to make Max happy the way a dog would want to please its master.
Whereas Max, again in a sort of parody of romance-novel think, is drawn to the heroine’s purity and innocence, her untouched gaucheness. Once the reader knows more of the story, it becomes clear that what he wants is the anti-Rebecca, which, while understandable given the circumstances, really isn’t very romantic.
So what is Rebecca about, then? Mostly obsession, I think. The second Mrs. de Winter is obsessed with the first Mrs. de Winter, as is, of course, Mrs. Danvers. Max is obsessed with Manderley and keeping up appearances, like the good English aristocrat he is, but he takes this obsession to an extreme level (though not so extreme that he doesn’t take pains to cover his ass – Max is at heart a self-interested coward). Rebecca, though ostensibly the point around which the other characters orbit, is a bit of a MacGuffin – she’s just a cold, dead bitch that those characters pin their longings and insecurities to. Her power is illusory, but no one seems to realize it.
Rebecca wasn’t exactly a fun read – my distaste for the narrator was too strong for that. But it is masterfully plotted and written and definitely makes me want to read more by du Maurier. I’ll give it a B+.