Friday, July 1, 2016
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
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.