by Sam Cleal
“The letter R was the last to go, it twisted in the flame, it curled outwards for a moment, becoming larger than ever. Then it crumpled too; the flame destroyed it.”
A dark and foreboding tale, Rebecca has captured the imaginations of three generations of my family – it was my Nan’s favourite book, my mother has read it, and now so have I. A bestseller in the United Kingdom and the United States, it was this fifth novel from Daphne Du Maurier that would be the one to launch her into the literary stratosphere.
Rebecca is the story of two women, one man, and a house. Set in the south west of England, the novel begins with the unnamed protagonist realizing that her life as a paid companion to a petty tyrant is the most she will amount to. This changes almost immediately when she meets the alluring and affluent Mr de Winter. Whisked away from Monte Carlo to his grand home named Manderly, the new Mrs de Winter experiences a deep incongruity with her new settings and tries to make the best of her situation, despite the enduring absence of her new husband. Mrs de Winter becomes obsessed with her husband’s first wife, the eponymous Rebecca, growing more and more lonely and becoming convinced that Rebecca was everything she is not.
Du Maurier described her story as "a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower… psychological and rather macabre." She feared the book would be too gloomy to be popular, but her publishers took a rather different perspective, promoting it as an "exquisite love story." Du Maurier loathed being categorized in such a way. After all, her tale proffers a much more interesting take on other worldly issues of the female mind than just love, demonstrating for once, the scale of emotions and ideas that women encompassed. Rebecca de Winter is described as 'the most beautiful creature', but the real Rebecca represents something more groundbreaking: a woman in charge of her sexuality, her day-to-day life and her destiny.
It would be unfair to brand Du Maurier’s work in the same way that critics did at the beginning of the twentieth century: just a novelette. While it has been suggested that Rebecca is a story for women, and I can understand where this assertion emanates from (the narrator is emphatically feminine, obsessing about love, her husband and being a dutiful wife), I believe it is also a thriller and a mystery: the dark and broody Virago book cover has become the image of Du Maurier’s novels. As Sally Beauman writes, ‘The plot hinges upon secrets; the novel’s milieu is that of an era and social class that, in the name of good manners, rarely allowed the truth to be expressed.’
However, though themes of murder and sexual emancipation are weaved into the plot, whatever gothic flair lurks within the story is stifled by the insufferable inner monologue of the dreary heroine of Rebecca. Miles apart from the piquancy of Du Maurier’s figure, Mrs de Winter is flustered and anxious, and she straitjackets the more interesting themes of the story with her naïve narration and unwavering alliance to her husband. Many readers will lose sight of the conceit Rebecca. As Beauman pin-points here Maxim does not murder just one wife: "following him into that hellish exile the second Mrs de Winter is subsumed by her husband… [becoming] again what she was when she first met him, a paid companion."
Albeit told by a fastidious character, Rebecca is enigmatic and intricate, and promises to be a darkly perplexing story.
**** (4 stars)