The du Maurier classic, Rebecca (read the book review), was publicised as a Gothic Romance even though the author disagreed. She wrote it as a study on jealousy and power shifts between relationships. For Daphne, it was a difficult novel to write and it drew heavily on her own life and experiences.
Rebecca reads like a thriller as well; there is an air of mystery, there is a murder and vile characters abound. The book has its fair share of machinations. The plot has a murder, sunken ships, suicidal tendencies, uncontrolled feminine sexuality. But most of all, Rebecca is a study of memories and impressions.
The place is Manderly. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.” This famous opening sets the tone of the novel. It is a dream sequence in which the narrator describes the iconic mansion. It stays dreamy; much of the book’s narration is set in the mind of the narrator, the unnamed young woman, gauche, confused, painfully shy who even after becoming the second Mrs de Winter, struggles to act in a socially acceptable manner.
Apart from the dreaminess, the book is characterised by glorious detail that does complete justice to the beautiful house and the gardens of supposedly one of the best properties in England. It is not just the house or the gardens or even the sea, it is also the details of the people and their thoughts and motivations that make up much of the story.
Rebecca, the book, curiously has a narrator whose first name is never disclosed; we only know that it is an unusual name that most people cannot spell right (though Maxim de Winter gets it right the first time around). But the woman after whom the book is named is dead and yet she looms larger than life, casting her shadow on the places she has been and the people she has been with, long after she has gone.
Manderley, the house and Rebecca, the first wife, come together to exert the strongest influence on the narrator and the rest of the cast.
Manderley is revered- it is so beautiful and mysterious and it has had its rituals set into place from the time Rebecca reigned. And yet, Manderley is destroyed by the time we close the book, we see the flames licking the walls from the ‘ashes (that) blew towards us, with the salt wind from the sea’.
Rebecca, the woman is the epitome of benevolence, charm and beauty, when she is alive and yet she has a hard fall from grace, mostly through her husband, Max, when the circumstances of her death are reopened and an inquiry conducted.
At a deeper level, Rebecca is a psychological drama. The dead woman is portrayed to be manipulative. Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper cum companion for Rebecca is malevolent, manipulating the second wife to immense social embarassment. Maxim is not above suspicion, for all the reader knows, he could be manufacturing the truth about his dead wife, painting her in sinister tones just because he could not rein in her individuality.
It has been 80 years since Rebecca was first published. On March 1, a new Virago edition of the book is being published and it has been speculated that the book not only mirrors the places (Menabilly in Cornwall) she has loved and the people she has felt jealous of (her husband’s fiancee) but also her own sexuality. In Rebecca, Daphne gives a free reign to the first Mrs de Winter who makes unconventional sexual choices. The author is aware that this does not go well with the society and even though not explicitly stated in the book, Maxim is possibly the husband who felt unable to ‘control’ his wife, leading to resentment and violence. This failure leads him to marry the second time to a young, impressionable girl who is likely to obey and revere him.
Two years after the book was published and notched up impressive sales, it was adapted for a mystery film by Alfred Hitchcock. The murder in the book had to be erased in the film for the murderer could not go scot free as per the cinematic conventions of the time. This has an oblique parallel in the book, where the person who murders is forgiven by his wife, inspite of it being a morally dubious choice.
Over the years, the popularity for the book has only grown and the dark, brooding thriller continues to enthrall millions.