“The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.”
Every so often, we pick up a book that enthrals us like none has before. The narrative, the prose, the pacing, or perhaps a combination of these, strike a cord somewhere deep inside our soul. For the bibliophile, reading serves numerous purposes – we do not expect that every book we come across will enlighten us, or provide us with earth-shattering revelations. But we are all patiently waiting to stumble across the next book that will capture a part of our mind, and remain unforgotten however many hundreds of novels we work through in a lifetime. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is a book that has crossed my path a number of times in the past but has, for some unknown reason, held little intrigue for me. Despite a love for Alfred Hitchcock films, I have also managed to mystically avoid his screen adaptation of the novel. It wasn’t until a book shopping trip, and a recommendation from a stranger, that I finally decided that it was time to give this classic a try. And, with that, this unsuspecting reader entered a world from which she had difficulty returning.
“In a little while it would be different, there would come tomorrow, and the next day and another year. And we would be changed perhaps, never sitting quite like this again. Some of us would go away, or suffer, or die, the future stretched away in front of us, unknown, unseen, not perhaps what we wanted, not what we planned. This moment was safe though, this could not be touched. Here we sat together, Maxim and I, hand-in-hand, and the past and the future mattered not at all. This was secure, this funny little fragment of time he would never remember, never think about again…For them it was just after lunch, quarter-past-three on a haphazard afternoon, like any hour, like any day. They did not want to hold it close, imprisoned and secure, as I did. They were not afraid.”
Rebecca is the story of an unnamed young woman (the book’s narrator), plucked from a life of financial insecurity and boredom by the mysteriously illustrious and wealthy Maximilian (Maxim) de Winter. Our narrator learns of Maxim’s deceased wife Rebecca and, despite some trepidation regarding Rebecca’s continuing influence, agrees to Maxim’s proposal of marriage. They return to Maxim’s ancestral home of Manderley where the new Mrs de Winter meets the sinister and suspicious housekeeper Mrs Danvers. As Mrs de Winter attempts to get to grips with life at Manderley, she learns that Rebecca’s legacy still dominates the running of the estate, and struggles to escape the image of Rebecca as a perfect wife and hostess. With Mrs Danvers determined to undermine Maxim’s new wife as proof of her lasting loyalty to Rebecca, Mrs de Winter finds herself isolated and inadequate. Only on confronting Maxim regarding his feelings towards Rebecca does Mrs de Winter learn the truth. And it is a truth that places the couple on a dangerous and life-altering path.
“We’re not meant for happiness, you and I.”
Accepting that I was a little late to the party in reading this novel, I do not regret the timing. Had I decided to read Rebecca at an earlier point in my life, I doubt that it would have had quite the same remarkable impact. However, this is undoubtedly a novel that will forever hold a place as one of the greatest books I have read. Having no knowledge of the storyline beforehand, I was enthralled from the first page. Published in 1938, the book follows very much in the footsteps of page-turning classics such as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Yet Rebecca catches the mind in a different sense. The pacing of the story gives this novel the character of a thriller, not unlike those still published today. Yet it has a poeticism that certainly harps back to the Brontes. I found myself utterly unable to put this book down.
Beyond this, the comparison with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is one that I could not help. Rebecca is, in one sense, a study of love – its character, extremities, and what individuals will endure in its name. This love is not, however, wild and damaging in the sense of Cathy and Heathcliff. Instead, it is slow and determined. While the story reeks with elements of animalism, this lies very much in contrast with the love depicted between the new Mrs de Winter and her husband. Indeed, the novel’s narrator is the opposite of Bronte’s Cathy Earnshaw. Her quiet commitment to her husband and her determination to love him, even if in the shadow of his former wife, speaks to a gentility and sincerity entirely absent from Cathy’s character. When you read Rebecca you will, however, understand the appropriateness of comparing the two classics.
“I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say. They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word. To-day, wrapped in the complacent armour of approaching middle age, the infinitesimal pricks of day by day brush one but lightly and are soon forgotten, but then–how a careless word would linger, becoming a fiery stigma, and how a look, a glance over a shoulder, branded themselves as things eternal. A denial heralded the thrice crowing of a cock, and an insincerity was like the kiss of Judas. The adult mind can lie with untroubled conscience and a gay composure, but in those days even a small deception scoured the tongue, lashing one against the stake itself.”
This is one of the few novels I’ve read that, in my estimation, has it all. A gripping plot, well-developed and multifaceted characters, poetic prose, and remarkable insight into the nature of the human condition. For the literary-minded, the novel abounds with themes and motifs. For those looking simply for an excellent read, Rebecca also fits the bill. It is a truly remarkable work of fiction, and one that I highly recommend to all.