100 Women Novelists of the 20th Century: Daphne du Maurier

Blog Post 2: Rebecca (1938)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

For my second novel I have chosen a classic, loved by many. Like ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’, my first choice, ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier is a novel that is hard to define: Is it psychological suspense? Gothic romance? Murder mystery? Maybe it is all of these but however you define it, it is a book that you can revisit and each time you can wonder at its power to make the reader complicit in the central crime.

I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden too, whatever the poets may say. They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word.

One thing for certain is that ‘Rebecca’ is not a love story, but rather a dark treatment on the nature of obsession and jealousy. The influence of a first wife on a second. A first wife whose absence is as strong as the presence of the other characters. We never see the first Mrs De Winter for ourselves, we only hear about her from other people, what a wonderful, vibrant, beautiful woman she was. It is only Maxim de Winter, her widower and now new husband to the young nameless narrator, that we hear an alternative view of Rebecca, that she was a cruel, taunting, faithless wife. We, the reader, can never really know her true character. The second Mrs de Winter has to invent her own haunting picture. She is surrounded by the physical belongings Rebecca has left behind. Her opulent bedroom which is curated by the creepy, hostile housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. Her signature with its swooping letter ‘R’. Her organised writing desk. Even her scent. But it is the house itself, Manderley, that holds fast the ghost of Rebecca so that the narrator convinces herself that she can glimpse her beautiful, elegant shadow lurking in the dark corridors and alcoves. She knows that she will never live up to her predecessor.

Like Thornfield Hall in ‘Jane Eyre’, Manderley is a character, as are the grounds in which the great house nestles, and the turbulent sea beyond. Du Maurier uses the pathetic fallacy to make the landscape a living, breathing thing, to give it human qualities. We experience Manderley through the narrator’s viewpoint, feeling her emotions in relation to it, her isolation and sense of unease. The suffocation of the blood-red rhododendrons, the persistence of the crashing waves, the superior grand west wing where Rebecca and Maxim de Winter once slept, all of these build a claustrophobic nightmare from which she feels she cannot escape. As much as she loves Manderley, she wishes she was back in Italy where she honeymooned with her new husband, a brief interlude where he was happy and free. Now he is moody and distant and she feels she is diminishing in his eyes by the day.

If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.

The most deftly written part of this novel is how the narrator becomes complicit in the dark deed at the core of the story and that her overwhelming feeling on its discovery is relief that Maxim loves her, not horror at what he has done. And we, the reader, feel that too.

Rebecca, published in 1938, was a novel for uncertain times. So it is no surprise that ‘Rebecca’ has never gone out of print.

And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.

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