Book review: Rebecca
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Highly recommended.
Rebecca is a mystery novel in which nearly every character makes false assumptions that lead to false conclusions. From the catty and gauche widow Mrs. Van Hopper to the suave widower Maxim de Winter, nearly everyone in Rebecca is wrong about something. For the nameless narrator, her incorrect assumptions are founded on Mrs. Van Hopper’s gossip and build on each other until they have constructed a person and a past that never existed and a future in which every action and utterance have two meanings — the one that the narrator perceives and the real meaning.
For example, Maxim’s sister Beatrice tells the narrator that she is nothing like his first wife, the late Rebecca de Winter, who died in a tragic boating accident. The narrator accepts this statement and remembers it as she learns more about Rebecca. She feels herself to be plain, uninteresting, shy, and unsophisticated. By contrast, and by all accounts that the narrator hears, Rebecca was beautiful, fascinating, charismatic, and witty. Even Maxim’s carefully diplomatic estate manager, Frank Crawley, tells the narrator, “. . . I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life.” Not surprisingly, the more she learns, the more the narrator needs to know about Rebecca — a first wife whom she cannot have replaced in the brooding, moody Maxim’s affections.
The narrator falsely interprets other people and what they say and do. The intimidating housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, gives her several hints that Rebecca was exacting and demanding in her management of the household and staff. The second Mrs. de Winter is also told how much Mrs. Danvers loved and admired Rebecca. The implication is clear; the narrator’s only hope of coming to terms with the formidable housekeeper is to take charge. Instead, she decides that the best way to mollify Mrs. Danvers is to make herself unobtrusive and to let her have full rein over the household’s management. Her naïveté and self-effacing behavior give Mrs. Danvers a reason to despise as well as dislike her.
Many, if not most, readers are probably misled as well. Rebecca’s appearance and charms are described by several people in several places, and her name or initials appear on nearly everything she owned. On the other hand, the narrator is never described or named. Even when Mrs. Danvers calls her “Mrs. de Winter” over the house telephone the first time, the narrator responds with a denial of her new identity but without reference to her former one. “I’m afraid you have made a mistake. Mrs. de Winter has been dead for over a year.” Surrounded by Rebecca’s belongings, Rebecca’s servants, and Rebecca’s friends and husband, the narrator sinks further into anonymity.
There are few clues to the narrator’s looks, other than that she has “lank hair” (compared to Rebecca’s “clouds” of black hair) and that she is “plain,” according to herself. Yet Rebecca’s cousin, Jack Favell, flirts with her and repeatedly hints that she is a fresh, attractive younger wife of the sort that affluent older men like Maxim often choose. The reader should also ask why Maxim does marry someone who apparently is so different from the first wife he adored.
In Rebecca, passion seems as repressed as open communication, but sexuality is not far beneath the surface. The relationship between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers is full of sexual overtones. While Maxim may be willing to replace Rebecca in his affections and his bed, Mrs. Danvers clearly is not. As a comfort, she clings to Rebecca’s old bedroom suite and to her apparent contempt for men. Mrs. Danvers says of Rebecca, “She had all the courage and spirit of a boy, had my Mrs. de Winter. She ought to have been a boy, I often told her that.” Even Maxim says, “She [Rebecca] looked like a boy in her sailing kit, a boy with a face like a Botticelli angel.”
The narrator also refers to herself as being like a “schoolboy” or “boy.” The incident at the costume ball and Mrs. Danvers’ ensuing description of Rebecca begin the narrator’s transformation into Rebecca, or at least a woman more like Rebecca — confident, assertive, and, later, sexualized. She tells Maxim, “I’ve grown up, Maxim, in twenty-four hours. I’ll never be a child again.” With her new knowledge of Rebecca, she makes an offer to Maxim: “I’ll be your friend and companion, a sort of boy.” It is this offer and admission that finally elicits the truth — a truth that was under all the cascading false assumptions, misinterpretations, and lack of communication.
Rebecca is an outstanding mystery and character study that captures a world on the cusp of irrevocable change. Maxim’s marriage to Rebecca seems to have been made in the old tradition; as his grandmother says, “She’s got the three things that matter in a wife . . . breeding, brains, and beauty.” Their marriage is a contract in which each plays a role. In contrast, Maxim’s second marriage is modern; it is based on impulse and emotion, and thrives away from the constraints of society and tradition. When Maxim and the narrator come to Manderley, they are bound by the past — Rebecca’s past, as well as a past world in which they are surrounded by servants and constrained by a decorum that requires the suppression of communication and feelings.
The world around them is changing, however. When a ship wrecks off the coast and a crowd gathers to watch the rescue and salvage operation, a tourist points out to the narrator how Manderley, and all it represents, has become an anachronism. “Those are nice-looking woods over there, I suppose they’re private . . . My husband says all these big estates will be chopped up in time and bungalows built . . . I wouldn’t mind a nice bungalow up here facing the sea.”
From the memorable opening, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” to the well-paced unravelling of every false assumption and conclusion, Rebecca is an engaging, evocative, thoughtful novel that acknowledges the past before moving toward the future. The next time the night is deep and you can imagine both the silence of the woods and the roar of the sea, read Rebecca.
22 April 2006
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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