Daphne du Maurier
Here’s a classic Gothic novel about a young, unsophisticated and insecure second wife who tries to overcome the memory of her husband’s revered first wife, Rebecca. When Maxim de Winter brings his second wife to Manderley, she hardly knows how to act. She and Maxim have only just met in Monte Carlo, where she worked as a companion to the social busybody Mrs. Van Hopper. Newly widowed and darkly brooding, Maxim was in a hurry to forget the past and they soon marry.
Rebecca’s memory and her recent tragic death in a boating accident hang heavily in the air at Manderley, an isolated mansion on the Cornish coast in England. Told from the new Mrs. de Winter’s point of view, who is unnamed in the story, the narrator agonizes about Maxim’s dark and often patronizing moods and how to manage a large staff and social engagements.
Her first opponent is Mrs. Danvers, Manderley’s severe and sinister head housekeeper. Deeply resentful, Mrs. Danvers determines to preserve Rebecca’s memory and make the narrator’s life miserable. The new Mrs. de Winter has never run a household, directed servants or called on neighbors and Mrs. Danvers upends the narrator’s unsteady confidence with aggressive questions about household decisions and continuous praise of Rebecca.
Although sure she can never live up to Rebecca’s faultless reputation, the narrator is nevertheless curious about Rebecca and her death. Why are Rebecca’s rooms preserved, untouched, as if Rebecca will return to them? Why won’t Maxim walk down the Happy Valley trail to the shoreline or talk about the cottage at the beach? And who is the mysterious and half-witted man who hangs around the cottage? Few will answer, but she has tentative allies in Maxim’s agent, Frank Crawley and Maxim’s sister Beatrice. They may at least give her the confidence to learn the truth.
The story reaches its climax at the fancy dress ball where Rebecca’s costume causes a shock. Maxim shuns her and the marriage seems doomed. The second Mrs. de Winter should have listened to Mrs. Van Hopper when she said, “I think you are making a big mistake—one you will bitterly regret.” Mrs. Van Hopper was quick to add, “The fact is that empty house got on his nerves to such an extent he nearly went off his head. He admitted as much before you came into the room. He just can’t go on living there alone…” Maybe Mrs. Van Hopper was right.
After the ball, an accident at sea propels Manderley into an unstoppable finish, but Rebecca’s newfound confidence may be enough to save their marriage.
I could say a lot more about Rebecca and how it fits right in with what I love about certain books that incorporate nature into their story lines. There are hundreds of examples of how Manderley is surrounded and defined by the plants, flowers and the sea and how it’s affected by changes in weather. And I love stories in which the house plays a major role in the atmosphere. I would love to be able to walk through the rooms of Manderley and imagine its characters there with me. Or walk down the paths to the sea…
I highly recommend Rebecca, which was published in 1938 and is a best-seller that has never gone out of print. The 1940 film of the same name was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. (Daphne du Maurier also wrote the story for Hitchcock’s film, The Birds.) And Netflix is releasing a new version of Rebecca on October 21. You can watch the trailer here.
Have you read Rebecca or watched the movie? Leave a comment and let me know what you thought!
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