What an exceptional read. Reading Rebecca is like reading My Cousin Rachel all over again. Because I know Du Maurier’s writing style, that she was capable in destroying or even killing off main characters that readers grow to love, it was quite a nerve wrecking experience reading Rebecca. On top of that, Du Maurier was gifted in writing suspense novels as well as breathing life to her characters. This makes Rebecca a thrilling read, from start to finish.
One year ago, after reading the library copy of My Cousin Rachel, I love the book so much that I bought a copy for my keeping. While I was at it, I bought a copy of Rebecca too. I have been wanting to read Rebecca for quite some time. Haven’t got around to. On our recent trip to Hong Kong, I brought it along as my reading companion.
Although Rebecca was first published in 1938, I found it as entertaining as some of the modern literature published today. There are four major components in this book. Manderley, which is an estate dominating the entire story, with a west wing facing the sea and an east wing facing a rose garden. Max de Winter, who owns and lives in Manderley. Rebecca – Max’s first wife and is dead. The narrator – Max’s current wife and remains nameless throughout the book.
Rebecca is intriguing in a couple of ways. Rebecca is dead, since the beginning of the book. Yet, under the hands of Du Maurier, this character has come alive through the recollections of others, the metaphors that represent her, the legacy Rebecca has left behind, even the drama that still continues. It is as though her presence and physical dominance is felt strongly throughout the book, as a dead character. It is only fitting that the book is titled as such.
The narrator – also presence throughout the book – on the other hand, is very different from the Rebecca character. She is shy and young. Coming from a humble background, the narrator is socially awkward and unsophisticated. She is the opposite of Rebecca, and without a name. She is the living Mrs de Winter but with an identity slowly dissolved away, what good is her existence? The dualism of Rebecca and the narrator is striking, best to be explained by Sally Beauman in her afterword.
Shy, and socially reclusive, [Daphne Du Maurier] detested the small talk and the endless receptions she was expected to attend and give, in her capacity of commanding officer’s wife [in Egypt]. This homesickness and her resentment of wifely duties, together with the guilty sense of her own ineptitude when performing them, were to surface in Rebecca: they cluster around the two famale antagonists of the novel, the living and obedient second wife, Mrs de Winter, and the dead, rebellious and indestructible first wife Rebecca. Both women reflect aspects of du Maurier’s own complex personality: she divided herself between them, and the splitting, doubling, and mirroring devices she uses throughout the text destabilise it but give it resonance. With Rebecca we enter a world of dreams and daydreams, but they always threaten to tip over into nightmare.
The way this story is narrated is worth a mention too. It starts with a dream by the narrator, on the house Manderley. It then transits to a present day narration that gives hints to what the ending of the story may be. The narrator reading a story aloud to a nameless partner that brought her back in time years ago when she was the paid companion for a Mrs Van Hopper doing similar things. What a full circle. The flow in time is so smooth that it took me several repeated reading of those pages in order to fully appreciate it. The story ends with a dream – the only two true dreams in Rebecca – that wraps it back to the beginning. The ending is so abrupt that left me speechless.
I am torn between My Cousin Rachel and Rebecca. Till now, I am still unable to decide which one is my favorite.
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An excerpt below demonstrates how Du Maurier brings Rebecca to life literally through the narrator.
[Maxim] did not look at me, he went on reading his paper, contented, comfortable, having assumed his way of living, the master of his house. And as I sat there, brooding, my chin in my hands, fondling the soft ears of one of the spaniels, it came to me that I was not the first one to lounge there in possession of the chair; someone had been before me, and surely left an imprint of her person on the cushions, and on the arm where her hand had rested. Another one had poured the coffee from that same silver coffee pot, and placed the cup to her lips, had bent down to the dog, even as I was doing.
Unconsciously, I shivered as though someone had opened the door behind me and let a draught into the room. I was sitting in Rebecca’s chair, I was leaning against Rebecca’s cushion, and the dog had come to me and laid his head upon my knee because that had been his custom, and he remembered, in the past, she had given sugar to him there.
And as in her previous book My Cousin Rachel, there is some interesting observations that may still ring truth today.
‘You have qualities that are just as important, far more so, in fact. […] … but I should say that kindness, and sincerity, and – if I may say so – modesty are worth far more to a man, to a husband, than all the wit and beauty in the world.’