Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…
Working as a paid companion to a bitter elderly lady, the timid heroine of Rebecca learns her place. Life is bleak until, on a trip to the South of France, she falls in love with Maxim de Winter, a handsome widower whose proposal takes her by surprise.
Whisked from Monte Carlo to Manderley, Maxim’s isolated Cornish estate, the friendless young bride begins to realise she barely knows her husband at all. And in every corner of every room is the phantom of his beautiful first wife, Rebecca.
Rebecca has been on my TBR for a VERY long time. It’s one of those books that I’ve attempted to read on several occasions but just never quite gelled with, despite being told by many of my fellow readers that it’s their favourite of Du Maurier’s novels. I struggled to get past the opening section and got annoyed by the insipid main character. Friends assured me that it got better once I got to Manderley – and that the shock of the ending along made the book worth reading – but I just couldn’t give myself the push to continue.
So when the chance came to take part in a readalong of Rebecca with some members of the lovely gang over at The Write Reads, I joined in without hesitation. Reading with others is a fantastic way to tackle a book that you might otherwise struggle with. I recently read James Joyce’s doorstop modernist novel Ulysses with some friends at university this way and, whilst I can’t claim to have loved (or even fully understood) the novel, our discussions of it certainly allowed me to appreciate it – plus we had a great deal of fun!
And my verdict having now finished Rebecca. It’s…okay?
Surprisingly, I found myself quite enjoying the opening sections in Monte Carlo this time around. I got a real sense of the era but, more importantly, these early chapters gave me an insight into the unnamed narrator. Barely out of school and wholly lacking in confidence, she is utterly unsuited to life in a glamourous resort – or as mistress of a large country house. There is almost no pretence about her about all and, in her honest naivety, she came across as a schoolgirl acting a part – an impression that lingers even after she has married the brooding Maxim de Winter and found herself mistress of his imposing estate, Manderley, and learned of the tragic death of his first wife, the titular Rebecca.
As the famous opening line suggests, Manderley is a character as much as a place within this novel. It lies at the heart of everything that happens in the novel, lingering in the background to each conversation and casting its shadow over the choices of the characters. Whilst is is, in one sense, a beautiful place – described in lush prose and quite clearly based on Du Maurier’s own much-loved Cornish home Menabilly – there is something quite forbidding about Manderley and it is this mixture of the seemingly ordinary with the sinister that I found particularly impressive about the novel.
Du Maurier is a master of suspense and foreboding and this atmosphere casts a pall over the whole novel. I found it particularly impressive that the most vivid character in the book was Rebecca, a woman who is dead before the first page. Rebecca haunts the novel – and the reader – as she haunts Maxim and his second wife. Rebecca is a ghost story, even though the ghost never actually appears.
Whilst all this makes Rebecca an intensely atmospheric novel there was, for me anyway, just something missing. Whilst I love the way in which Rebecca herself is evoked, I felt this came at the expense of characterisation elsewhere. The narrator, for example, never really seems to escape the dreamy world of the schoolgirl, diving off into fantasies and gloomy premonitions and second-guessing everything that anyone ever does. Even after the revelation in the closing chapters (my friends were right – it IS a great twist), she still felt like a character wholly disconnected from the events going on around her and, at times, from reality itself.
The infamous Mrs Danvers is, of course, an utter delight to read. Deliciously malevolent, her presence at Manderley was always going to be a catalyst for sinister happenings. Maxim de Winter, on the other hand, came across as a frightful bore – brooding and quick to anger, he had few redeeming features and I genuinely couldn’t see the appeal, even after you learn about his true history. Other characters felt fleeting – sketches more than fully rounded people – and, often, I felt they were there to serve the plot or provide a convenient deus ex machina. This was particularly true of the ending which, though shocking, did feel somewhat contrived.
This probably makes it sound as if I didn’t enjoy Rebecca and that isn’t true. There is a lot that I liked about the novel and I certainly had an excellent time reading it and then debating it with my The Write Reads friends! But, alas, I didn’t love it. I can see why others adore it – and it really does have a killer twist – but it for me, it’s not up there with my favourites. I am very glad to have finally read it though so thank you to The Write Reads gang for keeping me going and providing some fun conversation along the way!
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier is published by Virago and is available from all good bookshops and online retailers. If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
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