I’ve just finished reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, the 1937 classic that to me hangs tough on the same street corner as the Jane Eyre and The Turning of the Screw crowd. My mother had just watched a biography of du Maurier on BBC, and her comments and recounting of her life was in my mind when I spotted the book amidst the countless others on the shelves in my room. Having just read a large number of light and humorous Urban Fantasy novels, I thought to try something different. Something a little darker, more brooding and brilliantly written. So I pulled the book down, settled myself in the corner of my couch, and read it from start to finish today.
And it was good. It’s easy to forget why these books garner the reputations they have. To dismiss them as dusty and boring. But Rebecca was engrossing, for several reasons, which, surprise surprise, I shall recount for you here.
No, really, it’s my pleasure. You don’t have to thank me.
First, the atmosphere. du Maurier was clearly in the throes of a love affair with the setting, the manor house of Manderley. About a third of the entire book was dedicated to describing its drives and woods, coves and gardens, hallways and galleries, libraries and bedrooms. If somebody were to indicate this as a selling point for a book, I might normally shy away, but de Maurier seduces you with her language, her effortless and pellucid envisioning of the grounds and house. By the end of the book I felt as if I myself had walked and seen that which she described; the story was at once grounded by the tangible setting and elevated by the rare and brooding atmosphere of it all. Increible!
If the setting grounds us, ensorcells us so that we feel that we ourselves stand beyond the rhododendron garden, the sea crashing at our backs as we look up at the shuttered windows of Manderley’s mysterious West Wing, it is Rebecca herself who haunts the book, that animates the mystery the setting promises. I won’t go into details, but never have I read about so powerful a haunting that didn’t feature a ghost.
And of course, who could forget Ms. Danvers? Come on out, you old biddy, and take a bow! Gosh, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t she a darling terror? Oh, stop simpering, Danny! Nobody’s fooled. Back up to the West Wing with you, get on before you put the guests off their appetites…
So yes. Between the house and Rebecca, the gorgeous writing and Ms. Danvers, the book is a splendid and chilling read. The plot is almost superfluous, with not much happening until a rabid burst of action seized the characters in the final fifth. For much of it, I was content to simply observe, to drift about the gardens, to speculate and feel righteous indignation over the heroine’s poor treatment. So vivid was it all, that when du Maurier begins the novel with her famous lines, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”, one can’t help but believe that this is du Maurier herself confessing, and that she remained haunted by this creation of hers until the end of her life.