Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/28/10
Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca is a 20th Century version of what the Brontë sisters may have written. It is not a deep nor great novel in the way A Tree Grows In Brooklyn nor The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter are, but it is a good novel, in the Gothic tradition, and a very good read. Du Maurier is a skilled writer whose conversations and paragraphs are shorn of any excess verbiage. Many chapters start off with wonderful description or philosophic engagement, which then fades into the continuing narrative. Here’s the start of Chapter Five:
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. To-day, wrapped in the complacent armour of approaching middle age, the infinitesimal pricks of day by day brush one but lightly and are soon forgotten, but then- how a look, a glance over the shoulder, branded themselves as things eternal. A denial heralded the thrice crowing of a cock, and an insincerity was like the kiss of Judas. The adult mind can lie with untroubled conscience and a gay composure, but in those days even a small deception scoured the tongue, lashing one against the stake itself.
In a sense, the book is a murder mystery, but since we only find out of a murder midway through it really isn’t.
The heroine is an unnamed intelligent young woman who marries Max de Winter, a widower two decades her senior, whose first wife, Rebecca, drowned at night in sailing accident in a bay by his home on the Cornish coast called Manderley. They meet and marry in Monte Carlo, and the staff at Manderley gets to know her upon their return. The head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, seems demonically obsessed with her dead mistress, and keeping her memory alive by making the manse a veritable shrine to Rebecca, and also making the heroine’s existence at the estate a nightmare, to the point of almost coaxing her to jump to her death out a high window. Rebecca’s old friends alternate between hostility and indifference to her, and she feels she is always being compared to Rebecca, and that Max still loves his dead wife more than he loves her. But things seem to be going along fairly well until a boat is discovered on the harbor floor. It is Rebecca’s boat, and her body is found. This panics Max, who admits that he murdered Rebecca, and staged her drowning, because she was an unfaithful shrew who loved torturing him. Her lover was her own cousin Jack Favell, and Rebecca claimed to be pregnant with his child. They quarreled one evening, at a boathouse, and he shot her, then set her boat out into the harbor, and sabotaged it, so that it would sink. This actually turns the heroine on, to know that Rebecca was never as loved as she, and a rotten person. When a nameless body was later washed ashore Max identified it as Rebecca, and it all seemed behind him. Max then goes through a coroner’s inquest, and Rebecca’s death is ruled a suicide. Jack Favell does not believe it, and accuses Max of murder, claiming he was Rebecca’s lover, and that he can prove Max killed her, but settles on blackmail for his silence. Max refuses to be blackmailed and they call the local magistrate, Colonel Julyan, out in the middle of the night, where Favell accuses Max of murder. This is the biggest silly plot twist, and is too Miss Marple for words. But, Favell’s attempts to get a retarded beachcomber and Mrs. Danvers to implicate Max fail, until they track down that Rebecca was secretly seeing a Doctor Baker in London. Jack suspects that she was pregnant with his child, and this will prove Max had a motive. But, in the end, it turns out that Rebecca had cancer, and was infertile, and was going to die in a few months- so her murder was superfluous. It also bolsters the theory that she committed suicide. Favell is bitterly rebuffed by Max and the Colonel, but swears vengeance. As the heroine and Max return to Manderley it is burning down. It seems that Mrs. Danvers may have lost her mind, torched the mansion, and disappeared.
Rebecca is one of those books that is, in a sense, perfect.
Without reading it, or seeing the Hitchcock film based upon it, there is
absolutely no way to guess the outcome, and this is not due to her really
twisting the narrative like a contortionist. Still, there is nothing of a deeper
nature present. The book is one of those works that rise above mere
entertainment but don’t quite have the heft to be called ‘literature’. And
it’s not as if Du Maurier was not capable of more. Her short story Monte
Verità is one of the best I’ve ever read- filled with depth and insight. Rebecca,
however, is just really an Agatha Christie mystery- or Arthur Conan Doyle, on
steroids. It is scrupulously written, and wonderfully paced. Here is Chapter
I wonder what my life would be to-day, if Mrs. Van Hopper had not been a snob.
Funny to think that the course of my existence hung like a thread upon
that quality of hers. her curiosity was a disease, almost a mania. At first I
had been shocked, wretchedly embarrassed; I would feel like a whipping boy who
must bear his master’s pains when I watched people laugh behind her back,
leave a room hurriedly upon her entrance, or even vanish behind a Service door
on the corridor upstairs….
Its flaw is that it simply has little heft behind it. It is to real literature what your typical Playboy Playmate is to potential spousal partnership. That said, it’s no wonder it was a smash bestseller in 1938, both in the UK and the US. Gothic writing, of which this is, always has been a good formula to popular success. And any greater depths ascribed to Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights are merely 19th Century chauvinism. Neither Brontë sister was the craftsman with words that Du Maurier was, and neither book yields itself up to rereading the way Rebecca does. That is because details overlooked on one read come through on another. The Brontë sisters’ books, while solid novels, are conventionally ‘out there’ enough that a single read is all that’s needed. Du Maurier’s book, while not one of the great treatises on memory, is certainly a book which depends highly upon the remembered, and the heroine often struggles with her perceptions of what is real or not as she conveys the story to the reader via one long flashback. Here is a passage that neither Brontë sister could have written, both for the psychological depth displayed and the wordsmanship, as well- I might add- for the fact that such plumbs into the psyche were not in vogue in the mid-19th Century:
I wanted to go on sitting here, not talking, not listening to the others, keeping the moment precious for all time, because we were peaceful all of us, we were content and drowsy even as the bee who droned above our heads. In a little while it would be different, there would come tomorrow, and the next day, and another year. And we would be changed perhaps, never sitting quite like this again. Some of us would go away, or suffer, or die, the future stretched away in front of us, unknown, unseen, not perhaps what we wanted, not what we planned. This moment was safe though, this could not be touched. Here we sat together, Maxim and I, hand-in-hand, and the past and future mattered not at all. This was secure, this funny fragment of time he would never remember, never think about again. He would not hold it sacred, he was talking about cutting away some of the undergrowth in the drive, and Beatrice agreed, interrupting with some suggestion of her own, and throwing a piece of grass at Giles at the same time. For them it was just after lunch, quarter-past-three on a haphazard afternoon, like any hour, like any day. They did not want to hold it close, imprisoned and secure, as I did. They were not afraid.
In it we get revelations of what is to come in the heroine’s life, which is in her past, as well, yet there is no ‘Aha!’ moment that would veer into melodrama- think Tom Clancy or Dan Brown! Instead, the heroine is merely caressing a moment of peace in the maelstrom of what her tale entails. Yet, as well as the plot works until the scene with Favell’s blackmail attempt, the end of the book seems forced, and pasted together by the demands of its plot, which goes from strength to bane. In looking about online for other critics’ views of the book I came across this quote by contemporary novelist Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘Plot is the Achilles Heel of so much great western literature. In the great Victorian novels for instance, things always seem to go down hill in the last quarter because the plot, which has hitherto served as a useful mechanism, begins to make all sorts of difficult demands on the author.’ All I know is that he wrote The Remains Of The Day, which later became a film. I do not know whether the book was any good, but the quote is, and is a good diagnosis of the failure of the end of the book. The plot demands strangle the book, despite the clever ‘twist’, and leave the characters seeming far more one dimensional at the end than they do at the start.
However, the preceding parts of the book are good enough to make this flaw a non-killer. Then book is an easy read, but has a depth that potboilers lack, and the grand conceit of the nameless narrator is its best feature- even more so than its twist ending, for it shows how utterly subsumed in Rebecca’s world the heroine is, and makes the reader feel as if a confidante of the heroine, for whom no nominal formalities are needed. Rebecca is the book’s title, and her ghost infects Mrs. Danvers, and Manderley. In a sense, the heroine is reborn as Rebecca’s stand-in when she marries Max, for the whole tale centers on that portion of her life- not what comes before nor after. In short, Rebecca is pulp writing at its finest, much the same as Gone With The Wind, by Margaret Mitchell is, although Rebecca does disappoint in comparison to her short stories. It should not surprise that, like Mitchell’s book, Rebecca has inspired at least two ‘authorized’ sequels- Mrs. DeWinter, by Susan Hill and published in 1993, and Rebecca’s Tale, by Sally Beauman and published in 2001. It’s a better book than Mitchell’s, and far more fun than books such as E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. Read it, and you, too, may dream of Manderley again….
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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