I had the same English teacher from 8th grade on through the rest of high school, save for one semester, and she was the best teacher I had. In our senior year, she assigned “leisure” reading, letting us choose from a pool of books to read on our own every few months, without class discussion, with only a very basic quiz to show we’d actually done the reading. She wanted us to develop a love of reading for reading’s sake, wanted to expose us to a wider variety than the standard curriculum and limited time could offer, and hoped that we’d talk amongst ourselves about the different books we were reading.
One pool of books included Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I remember this for two reasons: (1) most of the class chose that book, so we watched Hitchcock’s fantastic adaptation in class; and (2) since I was both morbid and contrarian, I opted for The Bell Jar. That was more than 25 (ouch) years ago, and since I’m pretty sure this is one of the books I’ve claimed to have read but never actually have, I figured it was time to give it a go.
Beginning with that famous opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, the story is told by an unnamed narrator, a young woman acting as a paid companion to a boorish, older woman vacationing in Monte Carlo in the 1930’s. She meets a recently widowed man, Maxim de Winter, who proposes marriage after only a few weeks’ time when the woman finds out she’s to leave immediately to accompany the widow to New York. After a quickie wedding and a honeymoon in Italy, they return to Manderley, Maxim’s famous Cornish estate, filled with bright blooms of flowers yet darkened by the ghost of Maxim’s widow, the titular Rebecca.
The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is chilly from the outset towards the new Mrs. de Winter, who struggles in her role as the lady of a large household. She’s not helped much by her husband, who becomes sulky and detached and even infuriated when his wife makes any number of small, unknowing blunders. He’s told her virtually nothing about Rebecca, so she has to find out on her own, at first out of her own curiosity but later out of survival instinct as she struggles to maintain her marriage and her own sanity.
On the whole, this book was about average for me. It’s easy to see why this gothic romance/thriller appealed to Hitchcock, and I don’t doubt I would have loved this book in high school. I loved the sort of upstairs-downstairs tension between the new Mrs. de Winter and the more experienced household staff, a sort of reverse snobbery and contempt for this lower class upstart who doesn’t know the first thing about the duties of her position. I particularly enjoyed the interplay between the narrator and Mrs. Danvers, a delightfully wicked villain determined to destroy husband and wife and everything around them. The tension is electrifying anytime she’s even mentioned, let alone when she’s in the room, and I wish there had been even more of her.
But reading this as an adult, I’m painfully aware that the writing is very much of its time. One minor but key character, an adult man with obvious mental disabilities, is described over and over as “an idiot” with clownish physical attributes that cause discomfort to the “normal” people. When the time comes for a fancy dress party, Maxim tells his wife she can dress however she likes “as long as you don’t black your face like a monkey” and another character prepares to have his wife “stain his face” for his Arabian sheik costume. I’d like to think I would have been bothered by these things as a teenager, but now they’re just too distracting, too hard to ignore, as well they should be.