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.


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!

3 stars



  1. Agree, agree, agree!

    I listened to an audio version of this last year - I think it was narrated by Vanessa Redgrave, and the narration was excellent. But even the best narration couldn't make Maxim anything other than an overbearing parent figure.

    I have a hard time with any romance when I can't see what the heroine sees in the hero - especially as with Rebecca, where we see Maxim entirely through her eyes and she *still* can't make me like him.

    In regard to the obvious plot turns ... I suspect they were new and original when this novel was first written, but have now been overused to the point they've become cliches.

    1. Hi Iola,
      Yes, in fairness to Daphne du Maurier, she was probably one of the authors who made these predictable plot twists so popular in the first place. This novel was written in 1938, after all. There have been a good number of Gothic knock-offs since then.

      I wonder if it had been written in such a way to make us really dislike the Rebecca we saw in the flashbacks, and love Maxim, the suspense in the hearing, magistrate's words etc, might have had the opposite effect on us.

    2. Iola I read it more than 30 years ago and didn't see the twist coming then, but would be interesting to read it again now with lots more twists under my belt. Too bad we can't blot out the part of our memory that remembers the twist :)

  2. Paula, I agree with everything you have said re this book. I've only read it once but my sister reads it at least once every year. It is one of her favourite books.

    There was also a movie made in 1940 directed by Alfred Hitchcock as well as a TV mini series in 1997 both of which I have not seen and with the inevitable changes to some scenarios from the book.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

    1. Hi Lesley,
      I know a few people who also love this story, like your sister :)
      I've seen either of the film versions either, but just saw that Rotten Tomatoes gave the old Hitchcock version 100, so I wonder if it improved on the book in some ways. It was a 1940 film, and considering the book was published in 1938, was pretty recent. I wonder what Du Maurier thought of it.
      It had Joan Fontaine and Sir Laurence Olivier as Mrs de Winter and Maxim. When I saw him in Wuthering Heights I thought his Heathcliff was really inaccurate, but that was the sort of dark, brooding role he used to get :)

    2. Ooops, I meant I haven't seen any of the screen versions.

    3. Paula and Lesley, you MUST find the 1940 film version. The first 15 mins on the French Riveria with the old battleaxe isn't so good, but once they get to Manderley, it's brilliant. Fantastic cast and you just want to throw Mrs Danvers out the window! One of my top five films of all-time.

    4. Thanks Nola,
      Yes, I'm getting it for sure. Rotten Tomatoes gave it such a high ranking, and it's among your top five films. I'm really curious now.

    5. LOL - Hope I haven't created too high an expectation now. But I loved it (apart from the first 15 mins).

  3. Great review, Paula. I think (from memory) in the mini-series Maxim strangles Rebecca in a fit of rage when when she taunted him with the news that she was pregnant and that the child wasn't his. I've only seen the mini-series, not read the book yet. Charles Dance does give Maxim a certain brooding charm - but I tend to agree, such a domineering (and violent) man doesn't do it for me - it's more a tragedy (in real life) than romantic.

    1. Hi Jenny,
      It sounds like the mini-series changes a few details but not the essential plot, as is often the case. Considering it was far more recent than either the book or the Hitchcock movie, I wonder if they updated it to appeal to a more modern audience in some ways.

  4. I saw the movie before reading the book. It was at the Schonell theatre at QLD Uni and I was about 19. I absolutely loved the movie and didn't see the twist coming (though i's a bit different than the one in the book). At the end of the movie, the audience clapped. I'm not kidding! It's still one of my favourite movies.

    I think I read the book not long after that and I remember loving it at the time. It would be interesting to see if I had the same view now. I wasn't sure what she saw in Max either, but I did like the book.

    1. I imagine it might have been easier not to anticipate the plot twists if you'd seen the film first. I'm looking forward to comparing film and book.

  5. Oops ... and I should have said, 'Great review Paula'. It got me thinking about it again :)