You have never known a writer as uniquely talented as this.
Publisher: Virago Modern Classics (Virago)
First Published: 1938
Date Reviewed: 27th April 2012
The heroine meets Maxim de Winter while she is training to be a lady’s companion under the tutorage of an American woman. Bored of her life, and fed up with the snobbery possessed by Mrs Van Hopper, when Maxim makes a surprise proposal of marriage, the heroine accepts. Maxim’s first wife has died, but that does not worry her; however on arriving at Manderley, the de Winter’s home, she finds that Rebecca is very much alive in the constant references and laments of staff and those who knew her. And from being happy, the heroine sinks into a place where she feels as though this haunting atmosphere will always be about her. What does it matter how Maxim tells her it’s fine, when everyone else is living in the past?
Rebecca, the novel with the unnamed heroine, is rather individual. The basic plot itself is far from incredible as it has been done before, indeed comparisons could be made with Jane Eyre in many respects, so what makes the novel spellbinding is Du Maurier herself. The writing in Rebecca – the structure of the book, the characterisation, and the detailing – is exceptional. The words themselves may be usual enough, and it might be a difficult task to identify any short passage of the book as Du Maurier’s without knowing beforehand, but the overall presentation is completely unique. No other author has ever brought such individuality to the table as Du Maurier does.
I thought how little we know about the feelings of old people… Did she know that Beatrice was yawning and glancing at her watch? Did she guess that we had come to visit her because we felt it right, it was a duty, so that when she got home afterwards Beatrice would be able to say, “Well that clears my conscience for three months”?
The characters in Rebecca are rather abrupt, almost in your face. There is no added lingering emotion, and Du Maurier never starts from the shallows – she throws you in the deep end. There is no time for the reader to become acquainted slowly with Max, for example – you either become acquainted instantly or you shy away.
And no matter how far into the book you are, these characters, despite being personalities confined to fictional history and therefore of a different nature to readers further on in the world’s years, continue to shock. They are the sorts that waste no time, don’t bother with pleasantries, and have no time for dreamers.
Maxim is, by himself, a fantastic creation. He never shows emotion whilst at the same time practically oozing it. He is completely obvious whilst being totally obscure. Yet he is utterly likeable for the way he has been written. Rather like Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, he defies the usual limitations of books, and comes out as one of the best heroes in literature in terms of being memorable.
I wanted to go back again, to recapture the moment that had gone, and then it came to me that if we did it would not be the same, even the sun would be changed in the sky, casting another shadow, and the peasant girl would trudge past us along the road in a different way, not waving this time, perhaps not even seeing us.
The heroine, who can never be named, is the opposite. She is emotional, she is an analyst, and she is a compulsive dreamer. A great deal of the book is taken up by her daydreams and worrying, her “what if”, her dissection of her relationship, her craving to relieve the past, and her function in a home wherein the dead wife is still the queen. Her role at Manderley she doesn’t actually realise because she spends so much time daydreaming. That Du Maurier was a daydreamer herself is obvious. She writes so knowingly, expressing how easy it can be to look to a future that may or may not be, how easy it is to think over and over of the past. Her writing here is most universal and eternal, and Du Maurier aptly portrays the plight of a woman who feels she cannot bring up in conversation the woman who came before her.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the book’s themes arise from, and orbit around, the heroine’s story and her development. The reader can see in her thoughts where she is thinking the wrong things, how she has come to believe that she is secondary to Rebecca despite never asking if she is so, and how she has come to be confused as to who she should be. From being a little interested, the heroine becomes obsessed by the idea of Rebecca, so much so that the amount of her (artificial) memories of Rebecca eclipse those of any other character, perhaps of all the other characters combined. She is the reason the reader can sit back and think that yes, this book does indeed deserve to be called after a dead and never fully introduced person, because the heroine always puts Rebecca before herself.
Because that’s the nub of the book, one of the elements of it that leaves you amazed. There is this sense throughout that somehow, some when, you as the reader are going to meet Rebecca. You are going to be able to see her away from biased thoughts, and hear her speak for herself. But Rebecca has gone, and Du Maurier never suggests otherwise. Yet so crafty is the author, so clever are her dialogues and scenes, that just like the heroine, you can never fully believe that Rebecca is dead. The phrase “Rebecca has won” crosses over into reality. The fictional never-actually-there woman does win, because despite never being fully realised she is likely to be the “character” that remains in your mind. And the fact that we can only call the heroine “the heroine” is surely further testament to this.
Perhaps the most apparent quality to the book is the way that the reader is obliged to read it. The pages don’t often beg to be turned, in fact for the most part, if not all, of the book, there is no pressing reason to finish it quickly. Each section is long, and the climax itself is drawn out, but the pace is never fast. In any other situation, that would be a bad thing. The genius of the narrative lies in the way that once you do pick it up it’s incredibly easy to get carried away and lose track of time. Chapters go by without notice. Du Maurier’s writing is so effortless to read – whilst being far from dull – that although she favours descriptions often, it’s difficult to really comprehend that that’s the case until you have moved on to dialogue. She employs an intriguing balance, while her descriptions are detailed and run on for pages at a time, the dialogue is edited to perfection, there are no superfluous words and every response to a question has a ton of subtext and meaning to it. A simple seeming “yes” is never that, but instead holds in three letters an entire story all of its own. The book is a glorious example of showing rather than telling.
Regarding the detailed descriptions, the way Du Maurier includes so much of the goings on in the day is refreshing. The mundane she makes interesting and of those days during which she chooses to spend hours with the characters, you feel as though you have indeed spent the entire day with them. The mixture of these detailed days and the ones she leaves in the dark make for a shock when you discover, for example, that far from being a few months down the line, the characters are still leaving in the same week.
Just as Rebecca herself is stunningly beautiful, so is the book that Du Maurier has written. The plot may be straightforward given the heroine’s analysing nature that takes time, and Du Maurier’s almost carefree attitude to events that other authors would turn into thrillers, but there is a splendour to the complete creation that defies any notion of the glory bestowed upon other stories. The heroine may be alive and Rebecca dead, the heroine may have gained our admiration whilst Rebecca is in no position to speak, but it is Rebecca we will remember evermore. And so we should, as it is a book that surely heralds an addition to our lists of eternal classics.