Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .
The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives – presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.
I am a huge Lily James fan girl, so of course I watched the Netflix adaptation of Rebecca as soon as it came out. I enjoyed it. The scenery was rich and immersive, the outfits gorgeous and Mrs Danvers downright weird. Then… I didn’t think a lot more of it. I rarely read the book after having watched the film – I don’t know why this is. I will often watch the adaptation of the book, but something about the other way around doesn’t tend to call to me unless the film was one I particularly loved. Which I did not – though I of course enjoyed it, it wasn’t an experience that was going to linger in my mind for years to come.
What changed? Well, I started to notice that there was a response I was seeing from a particular group – women around my mum’s age – of total dismissiveness of the film. They got it all wrong, they said, that wasn’t Rebecca at all. So when I went to visit home over Christmas and spied my mum’s copy on the book shelf, I decided it was time to pick it up.
And that, friends, is the last anyone saw me for the next couple of days.
In general I have really enjoyed my reading lately, but it has been a while since I have truly resented having to do anything but curl up in a corner and scour the pages like I did with this.
Because despite having watched the movie, what I did not anticipate was: this book is seriously messed up!
Rebecca is a tale of toxic relationships, patriarchy, sexuality and death – actual, real death and the insidious, incremental, unbearably slow death of the self, a common phenomenon driven by a particular type of consuming, domineering relationship.
In Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier serves us the two Mrs De Winters as foils to one another. We have the deceased Rebecca: wildly sexy, charismatic, beloved and great at parties, presented in stark contrast to the new bearer of the title. The narrator and current Mrs De Winter: youthful and inexperienced, mousy, shy and not even allowed the respect of her own name – a symbol, we soon realise, of her willingness to completely abandon herself to this relationship with the cold, mysterious Maxim – couldn’t more different. And oh, is she aware of it. She is consumed by it, in fact. Her intrigue about Rebecca – driven by her husband’s absolute refusal to discuss her – quickly crosses over into obsession, and perhaps some admiration too, for this woman who was so loudly, so profoundly, herself.
Then we have the other domineering female presence of the book: Mrs Danvers. The house keeper at Manderly, she is a black cloud hanging over everything right from the start. She’s a like a dark shadow stretching throughout the house – the thing moving in the corner of your eye that you don’t notice until it’s already too late. She too can’t help but compare the current Mrs De Winter to the former – who, you get the feeling as the book goes on, she was probably in love with (apparently Du Maurier was bisexual herself, so even though this book came out in the 1930s it seems likely this is what she meant to imply). She makes it her mission to nurture the narrator’s Rebecca obsession, feeding her small details that add up to a comparison in which she is found desperately wanting.
What is especially intriguing about this book, is that about three quarters of the way through, the narrative utterly flips – if you’ve watched the movie you’ll know this already, but it not, I won’t spoil it for you (also, it’s way better in the book). Du Maurier executes a genius twist that sees everything the narrator had come to believe about her life at Manderly crumble away, revealing an even darker reality.
At its core, I think, Rebecca is a book about identity. As the story goes on and the gothic undertones draw in closer around her, you start to see the narrator as a woman divided – one part of her explores her power, experimenting with what she understands as Rebecca-like behaviours, only to be shamed and rejected for them by Maxim. The other, dominant side is the submissive wife, the blank page willing to be whatever her husband wishes of her – a husband who on the rare occasions he engages with her at all speaks of her innocence, her fragility and her youthful inexperience as what attracts him.
I know which side I want to see win out.
Rebecca was thrilling, compelling and totally, totally addictive. Clearly, I need some more Du Maurier in my life.