Jonathan Yardley’s publication of Second Reading, Notable and Neglected Books Revisited, inspired me to revisit a few classics and old favorites. There are 60+ book reviews in this collection which had me seek out a few authors I had passed over – I had never heard of Paper Tigers by Stanley Woodward, nor The Fathers by Allen Tate. But when I discovered that most of one of my book groups had never read Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier, 1938), I checked out the Book Group in a Bag at the Library and we started reading.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again,”
I didn’t remember it being so melodraumatic and, reading it now, I was far more impatient with the unnamed non-Rebecca wife. But this is a classic gothic novel, and much of our book discussion centered on that history. Gothic novels have haunted castles or mansions, windswept moors, usually obsessed handsome dark brooding men with defenseless young women, a few family secrets and an atmospheric romantic suspense plot. They are often adored by readers (and bestsellers!) and even more often deplored by reviewers.
Some of the best gothic novels are Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! I would also include works by 19th century writers Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker and Elizabeth Gaskill.
The physical descriptions of the various settings in this book are vivid and richly detailed. I absolutely love books and/or movies where the house is just as much a character as the people in the book! And I enjoyed learning that the house actually exists, and the success of her book enabled her to renovate the ruin and make it her home for a number of years. Much of the novel was written while she was staying in Egypt where her husband was stationed, and may also be filled with the longing and nostalgia for home.
In Rebecca, the plot has the unnamed narrator recall her past: As the companion to a rich American woman vacationing in Monte Carlo, she is courted (apparently unknowingly) by a wealthy Englishman, Maxim de Winter. After a week of courtship (not even recognizing the proposal), she marries him, and they move to his Cornish mansion, Manderley. There she discovers that his first wife, Rebecca, is still alive in the memories of all the estate inhabitants; but especially its domineering housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers – one of literature’s great infamous female villains. I was actually horrified that the narrator felt relief that Max didn’t love Rebecca when he reveals that he murdered her! (Remember the Hitchcock film has a different ending!) But because of the film, Rebecca has been in print since 1938.
I loved the comment that “If I wanted to go to Manderly again, I would just reread Rebecca.” Still, there are several books that have been approved by the du Maurier estate:
- Mrs de Winter (1993), by Susan Hill is a sequel originally written in the 1980s
- The Other Rebecca (1996), by Maureen Freely is a contemporary version.
- Rebecca’s Tale (2001), by Sally Beauman, is a narrative of four characters affected by Rebecca. (My bookclub’s best comment: “Rebecca left no man untouched.”
- Daphne by Justin Picardine, is also a fascinating fictional account of DuMaurier.
Rebecca won two Academy Awards: Best Picture and Best Cinematophotography in 1940 with Alfred Hitchcok as director. Olivier played Max, Joan Fontaine, the unnamed Heroine, and Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers. Rebecca has been adapted for television by both BBC and ITV (then Masterpiece Theatre 1997 with Diana Rigg playing Mrs Danvers).