Friday, July 1, 2016

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

There was a time when I tried to like Daphne du Maurier's books. In my late teens I read The King's General, but it left me with a sour taste in my mouth and a sense of moral outrage. Then I read Frenchman's Creek, with its delicious premise - pirate romance on the Cornish coast - and was once again repulsed; I could find no sympathy with the romance, since the main character was married to someone else. By that point I really should have known, but I went and read Rule Britannia anyway, since it seemed a fun alternate-universe romp about one clever woman leading a resistance against an invasion of Britain. And I actually don't remember anything about that book except hating it in a bored sort of way.

So, realising that Daphne du Maurier and I did not get on, I simply didn't read anymore. Not till this year, when a friend started raving about Rebecca. Oddly enough, I'd often heard of Rebecca as being du Maurier's magnumopus, and I'd occasionally toyed with the idea of reading it. A gothic romance (I love gothic romances) with a famous twist (I like a good plot twist), Rebecca seemed to have sunk into the cultural consciousness.

Maybe du Maurier had written one worthwhile book.

And after all, it was years since I'd touched her work. Maybe, now that I was older, I'd appreciate it more. So I decided I'd read Rebecca.

The first thing that surprised me about the book was how rich and evocative the writing was, and how rather unabashedly romantic and suspenseful it was in a mid-century way. Young, shy, and awkward, our first-person narrator meets the older and more sophisticated Maxim de Winter during a holiday on the Continent--and to everyone's surprise, is swept off her feet. Before she knows it, our heroine is Mrs de Winter.

The second Mrs de Winter.

Maxim takes his wife home to Manderly--the beautiful, overgrown estate on England's south coast where he once lived with his first wife, Rebecca. Though Rebecca is dead--lost in an accident at sea--the new Mrs de Winter feels overshadowed and oppressed by her memory. Servants, faithful to the previous mistress, who take every opportunity to maker her feel inferior. Rooms and schedules that Rebecca arranged. The neighbours and family who leave her in no doubt about Rebecca's beauty, charm, vivacity, and capability.

Can our shy and awkward heroine ever hope to fill Rebecca's shoes? Is Maxim too much in love with his first wife to make a place in his heart for his second?

Or does Manderly conceal a much darker secret than the second Mrs de Winter can guess?

In some ways this was a brilliant novel. The atmosphere of brooding suspense, the hot, almost jungle-like atmosphere of Manderly, the slowly building mystery, the aching romance, the shocking twists and turns in the second half of the plot--this novel, despite its lit-fic pretensions, does the gothic/romantic suspense thing tremendously well, straddling the transition from Charlotte Bronte to Mary Stewart in one unforgettable story.

Rebecca's literary pretensions were evident in the narrator's stream-of-consciousness style (which I thought worked very well to weave an atmosphere of suspense) and the rather slower, meanderingly-plotted, character-driven first half of the novel, as well as the ending, which (depending on how you look at it) might range from bittersweet to sombre to downright tragic. I thought all of these choices worked very well in the story; it was a little more than just another romantic potboiler with a neat happy ending.

In other words, I would have really enjoyed this novel. If it wasn't for one thing.

The shocking plot twist comes at about the three-quarter mark, when we learn the big secret that Manderly has been hiding. Like everything else in this book, it's a very well-done twist: you never expect it, but all the clues are definitely there. Sadly, though, this twist falls into the pitfall of originality: to be perfectly blunt, it's shocking because of its amorality, not because of its cleverness.

Reading the last quarter of Rebecca, I was once again reminded why Daphne du Maurier has always so repulsed me. Her amorality--perhaps a better term would be immorality--crops up in all the novels of hers I've read, and it's no surprise to see it cropping up in her own life as well. After a superficial look at her personal life, the reader would be pardoned for wondering if the three most prominent women in Rebecca--both Mrs de Winters and the ominous housekeeper Mrs Danvers--with their jealousy, obsession, and secrets--may have all been autobiographical to some degree.

So, in the end, I have to shelve Rebecca with all the other morally repugnant Daphne du Maurier books I've ever read. I know this won't be popular with some readers, especially those who loved the book. I want to be honest with you--I think it's brilliant, and I think a mature and tough Christian could read it for the good art with little ill effect. But it's foolish to believe that that a book this brilliant, this memorable and moving, will leave no impression on the reader.

Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is an immersive, magnificently atmospheric apologia for moral relativism. But I don't recommend it. If it doesn't offend you deeply, you aren't ready to read it. And if it does, you won't enjoy it.


Joseph J said...

This book is a family favorite. I think of it as a sort of modern version of Jane Eyre, updated both in style, setting, and morality. I remember enjoying it a lot when I was younger, probably because of the semi-gothic atmosphere of suspense set in a beautiful world, but I too found myself repulsed when I re-read it recently. I don't remember the details, but I remember that the a/immorality of the characters revealed at the end sucked the pleasure out of the story. I little more virtue would have gone a long ways. Selfish people are so boring. They can't even be truly tragic, just miserable.

Anonymous said...

If "it's foolish to believe that that a book this brilliant, this memorable and moving, will leave no impression on the reader", I wonder how that relates to the film - which I saw, seem to remember having enjoyed, but have no detailed memory of at all!

I thought Rule Britannia sounded interesting when it came out - and have never caught up with it! (I did enjoy seeing a production of Shaw's The Apple Cart, by way of something of analogous matter.)

I've embarked upon a radio-play adaptation of The House on the Strand (in One of the Usual Places) but have not gotten back to it to finish it...

So, I don't have an impression of her (work) yet, somehow - but it was interesting reading this! (Reading her Wikipedia article is a pretty hair-raising experience, though!)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Suzannah said...

Joseph - yes, it really does read as an update of JANE EYRE. With the twist that whereas Jane stands on her principles, the second Mrs de Winter...really, really doesn't. JANE EYRE ends far more hopefully than REBECCA does, of course, but du Maurier might argue that that's only because of a last-minute deus ex machina. Nevertheless, one of the benefits of being a Christian at all is that we believe in a Deus ultra munda, who rewards those who diligently seek Him. All du Maurier has to rely upon is the rewards that can be grabbed through compromise, not bestowed for faithfulness.

David - I haven't seen the film of REBECCA, though I hear they had to alter the final plot twist in order to keep within the Hays Code. And then, maybe, being in the target audience, I find myself particularly susceptible to the wiles of this book, and resent it the more ;).

Lisa S said...

It's been years since I've read Rebecca. It's the only novel of hers I've read and I don't remember it well now. But I do remember it leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Like trying to reread Wuthering Heights at an older age. When the characters are so unlike able, you just want there to be something redeeming about the book. At least Anna Karenina had a balance with Levin. I even felt sympathy with County Vronsky eventualy.

Suzannah said...

Lisa, dear me! I didn't like WUTHERING HEIGHTS when I read it as a teen. I'd been hoping I'd like it better on a re-read!

Yes, ANNA KARENINA would have been intolerable without Levin. But I suppose that if you are championing relativism, you can't have a subplot filled with triumphant virtue. Kind of undermines your arguments :)

Shalet Jimmy said...

This is the first Maurier book I read and I loved it. I read this review after writing my own review. I loved the book. Let me be very honest, I have just started reading classics and classic mysteries. So I just wrote what I felt after reading it and based on my limited experience with classics.

By the way...I love your blog. If you are interested, this is the link of my review on Rebecca.


Suzannah said...

Glad you enjoy the blog, Shalet! Thanks so much for linking your review, and all the best with your excursions into classics - I'm sure you're going to enjoy yourself!


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