Book: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (1938)
Age/Genre: Adult Fiction, Gothic, Suspense
Reading Accoutrements: Tea! There is so much tea in this book. Bake up some fancy cookies (biscuits) and sip some tea while surrounded by flowers if you can.
Content Notes: Murder, Homophobia, Racism, Ableism
Months and months ago, I was digging through boxes of free books in front of a closing bookstore when I stumbled across two Daphne du Maurier books. Now, I’ve never read any of her books, but I knew her name and I knew that several of my friends like her writing. So I decided to take them. Looking deeper into the books, I honestly was not sure they’d be too great. I decided to read du Maurier’s most well-received work, Rebecca, so that I’d know if the other books are worth finishing.
Rebecca follows a young woman who starts out as a societal companion to an obnoxious American Woman in Monte Carlo. While her employer is laid up ill, the young woman meets with and becomes attached to Maxim de Winter, a charming widower about twice her age.When the time comes for she and her boss to leave, de Winter proposes and whisks the companion away on a honeymoon before they return to his massive estate, where she must overcome the memories of and expectations set by his deceased wife.
Here’s the kicker, that young woman is NOT REBECCA. Rebecca is the dead wife. The protagonist is unnamed, which I have a LOT of thoughts about. First, I want to say that I think there’s a lot about the main character to relate with, even if her choices are frustrating at times. She’s young, naive, and hopelessly insecure. She fantasizes conversations that she imagines people have about her. There are quite a few scenes that are simply her imagining made up scenarios. She’s completely out of her element in her new surroundings, but by the end of her book, seems to find her footing in the world.
Now, about the lack of name for our main character. It took me a little while to notice this, and when I realized I didn’t remember her name, I went scouring to find it. Of course, it’s not there. At the beginning, her employer sees her as so inconsequential that her name isn’t necessary. Then, she takes her husband’s name and is forever referred to as Mrs. De Winter. I think this goes a long way in establishing the fact that the events of her life (and consequently, the most interesting parts of the plot) center around and are determined primarily by other people. And at the end, when she finds her confidence? Well, she remains unnamed, because that confidence is once again wrapped up in someone else. This frustrates me, but I also find it inspiringly illustrative. While women today are more encouraged to be individuals and follow their dreams, many people don’t get that opportunity. They get swept up in other people’s lives and play a side character. For all that we see the protagonist’s thoughts and emotions through the events of the book, she really is tangential to the plot. Had she not been involved, events would have unfolded somewhat similarly. It actually makes me kind of sad, which, if intentional, is really artful writing.
I really enjoyed a lot of this book. I thought it built suspense well, and even long scenes with pointless conversations were engaging enough to avoid being frustrating. But I was disappointed with the ending.Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that this book builds up a lot of possibilities and doesn’t deliver on all of them. Rebecca, though dead for the entire novel, is an engaging character, and I would have liked to see her developed more, both as a memory and as a spiritual presence. The supernatural elements are enough to build intrigue and suspense, but are never solid enough to really grasp. Some might enjoy not knowing whether the creepy vibes are because of the existence of ghosts, but I think the confirmation would have added a lot of substance to the plot.
Of course, being a gothic romance set in a huge mansion, the book builds up to a large ball. Unfortunately, the events of the ball are overshadowed by the climactic event that fills the rest of the book, making all the preparations seem like pointless filler. There’s a predictable betrayal resulting in our character’s embarrassment, but that is never resolved because other events become more important. Since the betrayal is not surprising to the reader or the character, it doesn’t seem to serve any important function. I wasn’t even too nervous about the results of the betrayal, because I figured it would only result in temporary embarrassment, which was even more the case than I expected.
After completing the book, I read about Daphne du Maurier, and her life seems pretty interesting. She was born into a wealthy family of artists and entertainers, and benefited greatly from her family’s status and experience. There are accusations that Du Maurier plagiarized both Rebecca and The Birds, the sources of which she feasibly had access to, according to the accusing authors.
I’m always interested in the personal lives of successful female authors more than fifty years ago. Du Maurier’s success seems largely related to her family connections, but more interesting is her personal life. Several sources confirm she had attractions to and relationships with women, and she spoke of feeling like she was host to two energies, one female and one male. I’m happy to add du Maurier to my list of 20th Century Queer Women that I should learn more about.
If you like period pieces, you might enjoy Rebecca. Though there were parts that dragged, I found it vastly more readable than Jane Eyre. Now that I’ve completed Rebecca, I am going to give the other books a shot. Hitchcock made several movies based on du Maurier’s works, so at the very least, I expect some suspense. This could also be a good excuse for that Hitchcock marathon I’ve always wanted to get around to.