Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, is a classic that has been characterized as a romance and some sort of gothic chick lit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rebecca is a dark and suspenseful novel, reminiscent of Jane Eyre, with an ending that involves violence and is far from happy. Like Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the reader might find him/herself rooting for a murderer and feeling distinctly uncomfortable about that.
Rebecca is set in the 1930s mostly at a seaside estate called Manderley and narrated by the second wife of its owner Maxim DeWinter. We never know her first name, but through her we learn about the fate of his first wife Rebecca. The current Mrs. DeWinter is quite young, 21-ish, about half the age of her husband. She meets Maxim while working as a lady’s companion at Monte Carlo. This young woman is orphaned, poor and of no social standing, with a drab wardrobe and unremarkable looks. And yet the wealthy widower Maxim DeWinter takes a fancy to her, marries her after knowing her for a few short weeks, and whisks her back to Manderley. But for Mrs. DeWinter, despite the beauty of her surroundings and her newly acquired wealth, life becomes very hard. She is too shy and unsure of herself to act as a true lady of the manor, and she lives in the shadow of Rebecca. All those who meet the new Mrs. DeWinter comment on how very unlike Rebecca she is. Rebecca seems to have been perfection, in possession of everything that the current lady lacks — she was beautiful, educated, worldly, at ease in society and loved by all. Moreover, Rebecca’s maid, the skeletal and menacing Mrs. Danvers, takes a dislike to the new mistress and seems to delight in belittling and embarrassing her.
While the deceased Rebecca is the centerpiece of the novel, it’s Mrs. Danvers who steals the show. The woman is a total head case, and her loyalty to Rebecca is frightening. Whenever she appears, the reader knows something awful is about to happen. Rooms darken, winds pick up and mists seem to appear with her. Her relationship to Rebecca and Rebecca’s true personality are slowly revealed throughout the story, and with that, the true personality of the often aloof Mr. DeWinter as well. One of the things I found engaging was watching the change in personality of our narrator. When she begins, she is so innocent and easily intimidated. She is sure that her husband pines away for Rebecca and regrets his second marriage, and given his poor communication with her, one can understand why she might think that. With knowledge comes courage, however, and the narrator begins to see the shocking truth of the relationship between Maxim and Rebecca.
The novel begins with the narrator and Maxim in exile reflecting on the past, and provides one of the best known first lines in literature: “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” We know that something has been lost and that these two people are living a shell of their former lives. Rebecca is an unsettling and suspenseful story that makes the reader feel uneasy about his/her allegiances to characters in the novel. I had a hard time putting this one down and now I can’t stop thinking about it.