Monday, July 18, 2016
'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier
"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . ."
The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady's maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives--presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.
First published in 1938, this classic gothic novel is such a compelling read that it won the Anthony Award for Best Novel of the Century.
Genre: Classics, Gothic fiction, 1930s.
My main reservations about this famous book can't be given without spoilers, but I'll clearly mark them down below if you wish to dodge them.
The young narrator starts off as a paid companion to the domineering Mrs Van Hopper. She accepts a shock marriage proposal from Maxim de Winter, a fairly recent widower who is twice her age. His property, Manderley, still bears the strong influence of his former wife, Rebecca, whose beauty, cleverness and charm seem to be legendary. The new Mrs de Winter discovers that trying to stamp her own distinct personality over someone else's life is a disaster, but believes that any attempt to change things would end badly too. It's the worst position for a shy and uncertain person to find herself in.
The young Mrs de Winter's personality was the best part of the book for me. She captures so accurately the agonising thought processes of a shy person, and I can relate to her.
Shy people are cowardly and brave at the same time. We are too nervous to earn censure by objecting to anyone's demands, yet carrying them out often takes every ounce of courage we have. We're hard on ourselves, judging every minor slip-up as incredibly stupid. I kept wishing she'd stop mentally beating herself up, when she was coping with the circumstances as best she could. Shy people can be too acquiescent, going along with anything for nods of approval. This girl considered buying a whole new set of lingerie just to impress the maid. The danger in this sort of behaviour is that it becomes so easy to relinquish your own personality. People who keep saying 'yes' when they really mean 'no' are puzzles for others. They aim to be low-maintenance, but end up being high-maintenance because their loved ones just can't figure them out.
She omits her name throughout the whole story. We only know that it must have been unusual, since it was rare to find it spelled correctly. So all we know is that she would more likely be a Persephone or Hermione than a Hannah or Jane. I think the purpose might have been to highlight the fact that she considered herself so completely in Rebecca's shadow, she never even ventured her own name. I quite liked her, whatever her name was, because the running commentary in her head shows that she was really a loving and original person with great depth of thought. And she loved Jasper, the dog. Anyone with such a kind heart toward animals has to have some good in them.
The one thing I didn't relate to was her great affection for Maxim. I couldn't take to him at all, and liked him less the further I read. He comes across with no compassion for his wife. Since he brought her to Manderley, I thought he had a certain responsibility to help her fit in, but he just shrugged off her anxieties with no regard for her feelings. And he treated her like a pesky little kid, putting her in her place so many times. He's the type who can stir the feminist in any woman. Even at his best, it's, 'Pour out my tea, sweetheart, and forgive me for being such a bear to you.' I was hoping she'd throw it at him. Later, when we discover the reason for his dark preoccupation, my first thought was, 'Ha, I never liked him anyway!' That brings me to the plot spoilers.
How did he get away with it???
No justification for Maxim's act of murder was really given. I feel Daphne du Maurier copped out a bit by not filling in details. He tells his second wife that Rebecca was completely despicable and vile with no redeeming features, but I don't want to simply take Maxim's word for that. All we see is a headstrong woman who entertains lovers and does as she pleases. Her worst crime, in his eyes, seems to be that she despised him. Well, I didn't like Maxim either, so I concur with Rebecca as far as that goes. Taking it into his head to shoot her in cold blood makes him a murderer, plain and simple.
The new Mrs de Winter's instant support of him had me shaking my head. All she expresses is relief that Maxim hated Rebecca and loved her all along. Come on, get your head straight, girl! I would've thought, 'Gee, I hope I never tick him off during a marital tiff to the same extent.' She should have been more worried, especially when he showed signs of being less than pleased with her. 'You were so aloof. You seemed to have more to say to Frank than to me.' Well, I could tell him why. Frank was a much pleasanter person.
Finally, I found the twists predictable, to the extent that I wondered if I'd ever seen or read 'Rebecca' before and forgotten about it. When Mrs Danvers suggested the fancy dress costume, I thought, 'I bet it'll be something Rebecca wore.' And when we readers are set up to believe Rebecca had been pregnant, I thought, 'Naw, it'll be bound to be some terminal illness which will provide a suicide motive.' I couldn't believe my instincts were right every time. Maybe I'm used to the sorts of events which happen in melodramatic old stories. It was also no surprise when Manderley joined the ranks of gracious old literary mansions which go up in flames.
What a weird story. Rebecca's cousin, Jack Favell, is right in his accusations the whole time, yet it's written in such a way that readers are supposed to take the sides of a murderer and his confidante. Maxim shouldn't have got away with it, but as one commentator mentioned, aren't they getting their just desserts when you think about it? They end up as jumpy, homeless vagrants hanging out in average hotels.
END OF SPOILERS
Overall, it wasn't my cup of tea, although I might have felt differently if I could've mustered more sympathy for Maxim. As it was, when he started kissing his new wife passionately and talking about starting a family, I could only shudder. Would you adore a tetchy grouch who addresses you as, 'Child' and assumes your worst motives over an accident? Best book of the century? No way!