You could not find a more perfect beginning to a novel. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ Such a simple sentence, but it fills the minds of curious readers with so many questions. What is Manderley? Where is Manderley? Manderely – such a romantic sounding place, followed by a beautiful description of the dream. A walk up a long driveway, surrounded by exotic, overgrown plants and trees. It is a magical opening to a truly magnificent book.
After reading Jamaica Inn, I could not bring myself to put my big book of du Maurier’s “Four Great Cornish Novels” to one side. I had to keep reading, and the next novel in the collection was Rebecca. I read this brilliant book a few years ago, and it is still as creepy, suspenseful and beautifully written as I remember.
Rebecca is not actually the name of our young protagonist – whose first name remains unknown throughout the book – it is the name of the popular, elegant and dead first wife of Maxim de Winter, owner of the famous Manderley.
The protagonist, who is also the narrator, is an inexperienced and awkward girl, training to be a ‘companion’, when widower Maxim de Winter meets her in Monte Carlo. While her employer, the awful Mrs. Van Hopper, is in bed for a week with the flu, Maxim de Winter takes his new friend out everyday in his car. The girl falls head over heels in love, and it seems that all of her dreams have come true when at the end of the holiday, Maxim de Winter asks for her hand in marriage.
After a small, whirlwind wedding and honeymoon, the newly married couple arrives at Manderley. The young bride, with a husband old enough to be her father, is nervous in this large and elegant house. She is intimidated by the servants, shy when meeting visitors and as everyone keeps telling her; “so very different from Rebecca“. There is one servant in particular, the menacing, skeleton faced Mrs. Danvers, who frightens the second Mrs. de Winter more than anything else. At first Mrs. Danvers makes her feel uncomfortable, but as time goes on, her unease grows until she feels like an intruder in her own home.
And then there is Rebecca – the woman who the book is named after. Everywhere she turns there are signs of Rebecca; in the choice of furniture, the arrangement of the ornaments and the smell of azaleas. The ghost of the first Mrs. de Winter watches over Manderley, haunting the bride that has taken her place.
As the protagonist hears more about the much loved Rebecca, she is suffocated with insecurities. Her husband is different from the man she walked hand in hand with in Venice and is distracted and moody. Is it that he misses his beloved dead wife, or is there something else bothering him?
This book is such a pleasure to read. du Maurier has created a tension filled novel by reflecting the mood with the oppressive weather and wild sea of the Cornish coast. The character of Mrs. Danvers is also a fantastic creation. I don’t think I have ever found a character so creepy and so horrible.
Rebecca is a must-read, but make sure you take the time to truly enjoy it, because when you read it for the first time, with fresh eyes, it will be breathtaking. Once you know all the secrets of the novel, reading it a second time will not be the same.