Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…’

One of the most iconic and well remembered openings to a literary novel, Rebecca is possibly the most recognised piece of work from Daphne du Maurier among her dozens of works of fiction and non-fiction that she wrote throughout her lifetime. Set against the backdrop of the 1930s on the Cornish coast of England, a tale of gothic measures which is shrouded in secrets and mystery encapsulate the reader to the very last page…

I grew up in a household where there was always my mums copy of Rebecca residing on her bookshelf or seen dotted about the house on one of my her many re-reads, however I never thought of picking it up, with the prospect of the story surrounding a young wife’s experience of marring a widower and living in the footsteps of his first wife, not particularly intriguing and seem way too focused on romantics than anything else, but how wrong I was! My only previous experience with this story was watching the TV adaptation with my mum when I was around 11 years of age and seeing a poorly adapted play of it, so all in all I couldn’t remember much about the story apart from Amelia Fox playing Mrs de Winter and the slightly unhinged and obsessive character of Mrs Danvers. So after it being on my reading pile for a while, I decided to pick up Rebecca as the days got colder (I find November is always a good time for a slightly creepy read).

All this beloved Dartmouth cove needs to make it perfect for Rebecca is a little cottage. My aim next time I visit is to sit and read Rebecca amongst all of the sounds, senses and environment of this beautiful cove.

I’ve only just finished listening to the audiobook of Rebecca read by the brilliant voice of Anna Massey a few days ago, mainly whilst working in the bookshop over the lockdown that we’re currently having here in England. At first, I found the narrating characters story a little mundane and slow to begin with, but on reflection, I think it’s meant to be that way, as she sees herself as just these things – not abundant in a face-paced life or exuberant in manner; however this slower start to the story sets everything up and gives the reader time to connect with our infamous narrator with no name before journeying with her to Manderley. With the first few chapters spent looking back at the events that lead our narrator to become Mrs de Winter, we learn that she encountered her future husband whilst in Monte Carlo where she is aiding her loud and brash employee Mrs Van Hopper, whom she is companion to. Having met Maxim through the nosiness of Mrs Van Hopper, events soon turn their acquaintance into love.

Once at Manderley the reality of the now Mrs de Winter really sink in, and it is far from what she imagined. Out of her comfort zone in terms of her position now in life as a wife, the society in which she is now adopted into and her responsibility of running the grand house of Manderley is overwhelming and challenging for this shy young woman. Yet it is at Manderley that we meet our central character to this story who’s namesake is the title of the book. Rebecca de Winter despite being deceased, still seems to reside in every room of the house, the running of the day, the food that they eat, the decor and even the decisions that are made within the walls of the estate. The wildness of Rebeccas character is the complete opposite of our narrators – Rebecca is rich in ‘breeding, brains and beauty’ and is held in the highest regard by all those around her. Confident, personable and talented Rebecca can do no wrong in the eyes of their society but after her tragic death to the sea, our narrators arrival upon Manderley is in contrast awkward, uncomfortable and strained. Although some of Manderleys inhabitants are accepting and welcoming to her arrival such as the gentle Mr Frank Crawley and Maxim outspoken but lovely sister Beatrice, the rest of the household seem to find Mr de Winters meek, timid and young bride laughable and she goes unrespected by many, but none of their ill regard for the young wife equates to the level of bitterness and covert slyness that is shown by Rebecca’s devoted ladies-maid and confidante Mrs Danvers.

This is actually a photo taken at Greenways, however the land in which it’s situated on definitely gives off a bit of Manderley vibes!

Throughout Rebecca we experience the secretive nature that harbours amongst the pages of the book and see first hand the effect it has on the characters lives. The complexities of the two female lead characters are also fascinating to learn about, and to have a character such as Rebecca herself as the lead role at the time of it’s publication, I imagine was quite something for those days, as woman were expected to be quiet, ladylike and well mannered, yet Rebecca as you find out, has much more to her than these qualities. It is said that Daphne du Maurier herself attributed traits of herself in both of the wives of Maxim de Winter and it makes you wonder how much of her life is reflected in the pages of the book, having herself struggled with having to be the entertaining wife to her Commanding Officer husband Frederick Browning. The narrator herself, is someone that I found able to quite easily relate to though. Her blundering social awkwardness and clumsiness, her uncourageous fear of not wanting to rock the boat or step on toes, her plain demeanour and aesthetics, and her quiet and rather simple nature as well as her solitary love for the outdoors, were all things that I could connect with as well as the thoughts she has of how others would negatively view her in a society where she feels out of her depths in. But the evolution in her character when she finds a bit of confidence in herself and the air of maturity that she grows into overnight, come into it’s own when life demands her to metaphorically sink or swim. A particular moment got me audibly cheering her on and is something that I think many a reader can connect with and share a feeling of triumph for her, as she shows that just because someone is plain or reserved, it doesn’t mean they can’t hold their own and stand up for themselves.

When first published this almost Jane Eyre-esk novel, was adored by readers but didn’t get quite the same reaction by the critiques of it’s time who generally dismissed it as a romantic novel of no great measure. But Rebecca not only holds up a viewing glass to parts of the authors personality but it reflects a time where manners and societal protocol were revered higher than acknowledgment of the truth even more so than in today’s society. The whole cast of characters act and live with secrets pinning them to the beautiful and picturesque Manderley in it’s Cornish coast; all hiding parts of the truth for fear of it unveiling impossibly complicated and life changing events. It sometimes felt almost like they were playing a real life game of poker – a few glints of expression and finely chosen words which hints at more to the story than meets the eye. I really enjoyed the aspect that you as the reader are learning about Rebecca at the same time as the narrator, and that Rebecca is just as much a character in your own head as she is in hers. The idea that is examined of having the central character whom effects every single individual in the story being no longer of life, yet still with the immense power to influence so heavily the course of their lives, is quite remarkable and intriguing.

Agatha Christie who wrote to Daphne du Maurier to enquire after the name of our narrator also lived in the South-West of England. Here is a view from the surrounding of her home at Greenways.

The descriptions of the land and environment surrounding Manderley is also part of what makes the book so captivating. It’s descriptions are evoking and abundant, showing a clear love for the natural world through the authors writing. The South-West of England is like a home from home to me so it didn’t take much imaging to picture the beautiful setting of this story which, much like in gothic tales, reflects the emotions and characteristics of the cast. But I warn you, if you have a fondness for this area of the world, Rebecca will make you long even more to escape to the Devonshire and Cornish coast, let alone leave you wanting your own sea-weathered cottage like that of Rebecca’s in a little cove. If it wasn’t for the somewhat ill at ease atmosphere Rebecca gave to her surroundings, the cottage and cove would be simply idyllic.

Reading Rebecca was a different reading experience for me as it’s not the usual story that I tend to read and at parts it was challenging to keep motivated at the beginning but I’m so glad that I persevered otherwise I would’ve missed out on such an book. At times it made me audibly gasp out loud and completely capsulated me into 1930’s England and has left me wanting to re-read it straight away. I’m hoping a re-read will help me to understand the depths of the story more, connect deeper to the characters and explore their motives and behaviour in a more methodical way. With heightened suspense smattered throughout and anticipation at many a turn, the experience of reading this part thriller, part gothic, part story of self-discovery and love, is a bit like the temperament of the unspoken crucial element of the tale – the sea. At once calm and then thundering in a storm, Daphne du Maurier writes a story worthy all of its praise.

Thank you for reading today’s blog. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and that it encourages you to pick up a copy of Rebecca. Also, if you’ve already read Rebecca but are in need of some more time at Manderley, check out Sally Beaumans companion novel – Rebecca’s Tale. Until next time, stay safe, stay well and as always – happy reading!

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