I thought I’d start my Classics Club challenge with a title that has a little personal history attached. Allow me to take you back in time, to the year 2004. The setting: my junior school, where I was then aged 11. The mission: our end-of-year play.
The play in question was entitled The Rocky Monster Show, and it was as full of cultural parodies as you’d expect, encompassing everything from classic rock music to Hammer Horror characters. (My own part in this cultural gem? Chief Inspector Baskerville, of Arkham CID. And yes, I did have a sniffer dog.) One notable consequence of this was that half of one whole afternoon’s rehearsal involved the teachers laboriously explaining all the references to us so that we understood why our parents would find it so funny.
The most prominent of these was the fact that every time the main character introduced herself as Rebecca (Shelley), the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, would go into a traumatised trance and start talking about Manderley. Suffice to say that the experience was memorable enough for a vague awareness of the book to stay with me over the course of many intervening years.
So some part of me had always intended to read the original Rebecca. And pre-existing affinities aside, there are many reasons for the fact that, once I finally came to do so, I barely put it down before finishing it.
First sentence: Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.
The unnamed narrator of Rebecca starts out marooned in Monte Carlo as a downtrodden lady’s companion. When she meets the lone traveller Maximilian de Winter, they’re magnetically attracted by the escape they each gain from their grim respective worlds. By the time they leave Monte Carlo, they are married. But the new Mrs. de Winter hasn’t learnt much about just what it is in her husband’s world that he’s trying to escape. When they arrive at Manderley, his ancestral home, she finds that everything from the staff to the soft furnishings is suffused with the presence of de Winter’s recently deceased first wife. She thus spends the first months of her marriage convinced that Maxim must still be pining after the lost Rebecca, and desperately trying to live up to the standards against which she imagines herself constantly compared. But the revelation of the true state of the first marriage brings about total understanding between them, even as it threatens to blow their newfound happiness apart.
What strikes you first when you start reading Rebecca is the narrator’s vivid imagination. Everyone knows the first sentence, but what follows is five or six pages of tortuously vivid description before we even get to the top of the drive. This is someone who spends a lot of time inside their own head, exploring the landscape of their dreams, and so you can understand her later tendency to catastrophise constantly about events around her.
This makes sense of much of her relationship with Maxim de Winter. So much of the misunderstanding between them occurs not through clash of temperament, but through not saying anything at all. Each is trying to deal with their own demons to protect the other from the reality of their own selves, and the consequence is that the demons almost win. Or, as Maxim says, Rebecca does. It’s when they’re forced to sit down and explain their feelings to each other (after a few excruciating false starts) that they realise that the way to weather the storm ahead is by supporting each other – and that they always could have done so.
I have to admit at this point that one reason I was so keen to get through the book is that I had already seen the 1940 film. (Hence my use of the film poster as header image.) This led to a number of surprises when encountering the plot differences, including the denouement, but the most pervasive change I noticed was how much more tactile the de Winters’ relationship is onscreen. The core of Mrs. de Winter’s agony in the book is that Maxim barely touches her, and this is what makes each longed-for moment of intimacy so precious later on. In Hitchcock’s film, although this escalation is still there, they’re constantly affectionate even in the early days at Manderley – and just look at the poses and wording on the film posters. For a straight, unashamedly romantic viewer, it’s much harder to doubt the actions, motives and honesty of a Maxim depicted in this way (and by Laurence Olivier…) than those of a character so apparently lacking in emotional warmth. It’s in the name.
While we’re on the subject of motives, I can hardly not mention Mrs. Danvers, not after using her as my initial justification for reading the book. What I love about her, and this is something I thought was marvellously faithful in Judith Anderson’s terrifying rendition, is how ambiguous she is. Is her lifelong devotion to Rebecca sapphic? Quite possibly. Has she been driven insane by what she knows or suspects? Maybe. But she’s hardly the madwoman in the attic herself; she isn’t gossiped about by the housemaids or found drowning her sorrows in the cooking sherry, and despite Maxim’s fears about dismissing her, she never tries to use her suspicions as leverage on anyone other than the narrator. She’s a highly efficient housekeeper who keeps everything in perfect order, is respected by the other servants and maintains a flawless veneer of a professional relationship with the second Mrs. de Winter, even as she shows her adoringly around Rebecca’s rooms, plots to have her enrage Maxim and finally tries to drive her to suicide. It’s through her that we gain most of our impressions about what Maxim and Rebecca used to be like, and it’s difficult to doubt her sincerity. It’s the interchangeability that’s so unsettling.
I found it interesting too that her power diminishes as the second Mrs. de Winter grows into herself. It’s after the narrator has asserted that ‘I am Mrs. de Winter now’ that she first realises how old Mrs. Danvers must be. It’s when the de Winters have learnt to trust each other and stand together that the veneer cracks and the efficient housekeeper bursts into tears, because that’s when she knows her ability to keep Rebecca’s influence alive is waning. What once seemed sinister becomes pitiful, and all her actions can be looked back on in that light, by reader and narrator alike. And her fate, unlike in the film, is left unclear.
But it’s the narrator herself who’s won a place in my heart. Rebecca has many and much-studied parallels with Jane Eyre, but aside from the presence of the Other Woman and the pervasive use of red, the most obvious for me is the way that the introverted protagonist grows into her own skin, and learns to be comfortable in it. Jane loves being at Thornfield with Rochester because of the way it and he nurture her own self-worth: ‘I have lived in it a full and delightful life … I have not been trampled on.’ And in the same way, Mrs. de Winter learns to stop torturing herself over her own shyness and ineptitude, to stop feeling like a doormat, once she realises that she is where she is because of, not despite, who she is.
Her struggles with her own identity – so all-consuming that she omits to tell the reader her name – make this one of the most vivid portrayals of introversion I’ve yet come across. (And I find it telling that Daphne du Maurier herself dealt with many of these same struggles.) Other characters twit her for her shyness and her catastrophising; even Maxim can’t comprehend that her social agonies can’t just be got over by trying harder. She constantly frets about what others must be thinking of her. For someone defined in name and deed by her relationship to others, it’s this that makes the need to fill the shoes of an apparently perfect predecessor into such torture. And it’s her realisation that this perfection never existed that enables her to cease pursuing it, to allow herself to become fully herself. Maxim laments the loss of ‘that young, lost look I loved’, but he also never calls her a child again.
What I sometimes forget is that the book begins with its ending. The whole novel is a retrospective, narrated from a voluntary joint exile. That’s what enables that opening line. Going back to read it again after suffering with them the emotional turmoil and catharsis of Manderley, it can be alarming to read of the passionless existence to which they seem to have reverted. They actively take refuge in mundanity, to recover from the traumas by which each of them is still haunted. But it’s in these terms of recovery that the narrator herself refers to their existence, and that suggests to me that the intimacy will return when it can, bringing their relationship full circle.
And this rare emotional realism, this raw empathetic suffering that brings the whole novel to life, is the reason I care about whether or not they recover from it. I feel like I’ve been through the ordeal of Rebecca’s Manderley together with the de Winters, and they will stay with me for a long time to come.