Yes, I know it’s not Wednesday anymore, but some wretched flu has been trying all week to lay waste to my household, so I’m a bit behind schedule.
This week’s review by a female author of a book written by a different female author is Marie Marshall’s response to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
I was first turned on to Rebecca by my agent, Paul at Bookseeker Agency, who enthused about it, discussed it with me, and gave me some of the insights into it that I’m about to describe. Rebecca is one of those remarkable books that has always been a modest seller but has never been out of print. Probably more of the potential contemporary readership saw Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film based on the novel than actually read the book – after all, the film starred the dashing, handsome Shakespearean Laurence Olivier and garnered a string of Oscar nominations. Obviously Hitchcock and David O Selznick saw something in Rebecca that critics at the time did not see.
The place of the novel itself in the twentieth-century literary canon came to be granted only gradually and perhaps grudgingly. At publication, a review in the Times said of it, ‘the material is of the humblest… nothing in this is beyond the novelette’. Writer and critic V S Pritchett said it ‘would be here today, gone tomorrow’. Even recognizing its prominence in 2013, The Guardian listed the character Mrs Danvers amongst the ‘top villainesses in children’s literature’ – yes, children’s, on the grounds that it was some kind of ‘transitional’ novel that people tend to read first in their teens. But then I read Steinbeck and Kafka in my teens – are they ‘children’s literature’ too? It seems that Rebecca is met everywhere with an indulgent smile at best; its publishers touted it as a ‘gothic romance’ and ‘an exquisite love story’, but no one equated it with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which it references in so many ways. It seems instead to occupy a kind of proto-chick-lit status.
Yet Rebecca is a carefully-constructed, tautly-written novel of psychological suspense, by an author who gave us works in many genres, from short stories like The Birds and Don’t Look Now, to plays such as The Years Between. It starts with one of the most famous opening lines in literature –
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…
ranking it alongside A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Pejudice, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Catcher in the Rye for instantly-recognisable openings. And straight away du Maurier does what – surely! – no author in her right mind should do. She gives away the ending! The whole novel is about how this couple ended up as a pair of rootless exiles, living the life of conjugal ennui we are shown right at the beginning. It is du Maurier’s expertise as an author that makes the whole book, essentially one long back-story, readable from this point.
Aristocratic Maxim de Winter, a recent widower, meets an ingenuous young woman from a down-at-heel, upper-middle-class background. After the headiness of a quick love affair by the Mediterranean, they marry, and he takes her back to his family mansion, Manderley, in Cornwall. There she feels gauche and awkward, out of harmony with him, barely accepted by his circle, and sneered at by the servants. The house still seems full of the presence of de Winter’s first wife, the eponymous Rebecca – everything is done her way, anything not done her way seems not to fit. The external action of the novel seems to happen without the new Mrs de Winter, entirely beyond her control at all points. The ‘real’ action, the narrative that compels us, takes place entirely within her imagination. Obsessively she dramatizes what she imagines is going on behind her back, what other people surely must be saying about her, how married life ought to be with her and Maxim, how the omnipresent Rebecca might have behaved in such-and-such a circumstance. There comes a moment in the book when an irritable remark from Maxim makes us realise that not only is this obsession internal, but it manifests itself externally in mutters, gestures, and facial expressions as the young wife ‘acts out’ the scenes that have occupied her mind.
Du Maurier’s major device of never letting her protagonist’s name be known – though there is a hint that her maiden surname is an unusual one – is well recorded. More subtle is the way in which we are led to think of her as plain and dowdy. This again is a product of her mind and of du Maurier’s authorial skill. Buried in the book is evidence that she is in fact ‘very pretty’, and Maxim himself sums up her psychological state when he says “I’ve never said you dressed badly or were gauche. It’s your imagination…” (my emphasis). Up to that moment we have been accepting her self-description totally; even after that throwaway remark we stay entirely wrapped up in her mind, seeing everything through her eyes – there is no relief for her at Maxim’s observation.
One other character has a deeper obsession than she does. Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, was possibly in love with the late Rebecca, and makes it plain to the new wife that she is a usurper, not fit to live in the same house, not worthy to bear the de Winter name. Mrs Danvers is responsible for two of the dramatic crises in the novel – the new wife’s appearance in a masquerade costume that Rebecca herself had worn, and the moment when the new wife is almost driven to throw herself out of a window.
The major crisis of the novel comes when Maxim feels compelled to reveal the truth about Rebecca and about his relationship with her, and this truth turns his wife’s imaginings on their head. From that moment she becomes a little stronger, more practical, effectively an accessory after the fact of murder. But ironically, in doing so she loses forever much of the ingenuousness and innocence that had originally attracted Maxim to her. Both she and Maxim are now swept along by events, rather than affecting them, Maxim adopting a kind of bitter fatalism, but in the end they do literally get away with murder. It is in the closing episodes of the book that the Hitchcock film diverges from the novel, firstly by making Rebecca’s death an accident (the film-makers’ code imposed at the time dictated that the murder of a spouse must not go unpunished in an American-made movie), and secondly by showing Mrs Danvers setting fire to Manderley and perishing in the conflagration. In the book we see the glow of the fire on the horizon, but who or what started it remains a mystery.
An aspect of the novel which often escapes readers is that it is a satire – though one in deadly earnest – on the fading English aristocracy between the two world wars. It is remote from real life, heading for destruction, and the rottenness at its core is the destructive presence, even after death, of Rebecca. Manderley will never become a hotel, a health spa, a conference centre, or a National Trust property, it will never be bought by a Saudi Arabian businessman, because it is reduced to a ruin, seen only in a dream. If you like, fate catches up with the world of Downton Abbey! Some twenty-first century feminist readers have re-interpreted the character of the late Rebecca as a fearless challenger of the norms of male-dominated society, but really this won’t do. She is sociopathic, maybe psychopathic in her childhood cruelty; she does not simply use her adult sexuality as a weapon, she has used it probably since pre-puberty to manipulate any trace of hebephilia she can detect in men; she is selfish, hedonistic, and ultimately, despite her dying at someone else’s hands, self-destructive.
The final section of the book is fast-paced, almost reading like a detective novel. This is the main reason I decided to write a pastiche ending as though the whole story had been handled by Agatha Christie instead of Daphne du Maurier. My ‘Murder at Manderley’ has a denouement courtesy of Hercule Poirot! In the novel, as pointed out by the detective in my story, the de Winter couple do not really escape the consequences of Rebecca’s death. Their punishment is the life sentence of the lustreless marriage we see at the beginning of the book. Not every element of the plot is resolved, there are questions hanging over the couple both as we saw them in the prologue and at the end as they see the conflagration’s glow in the distance.
Read it. No ‘novelette’ this, no ‘exquisite love story’, just a damn fine fiction-writer at the top of her game.
Marie Marshall is a Scottish author, poet, and editor, living near Dundee. She has had three novels published, two of which have been for the teen/YA market, and she’s writing a sequel to one of them. She’s also had two collections of poetry published, one of which was nominated for the 2013 T S Eliot Prize. “Really,” Marie suggests, “there’s nothing else of any interest to say about me. I did snog a rock star once, but she was drunk and it was a long time ago, so I doubt if she remembers.”
To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.
The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.