"Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again." So begins what is considered to be one of the best works by British author Daphne du Maurier. First published in 1938, Rebecca became a run-away success with its first printing selling 20,000 copies, launching its author to fame which continues even today. Though not considered to be "intellectual heavyweight", du Maurier's works continue to be a wonderful example of first-rate storytelling and classic suspense. With its riveting story and unforgettable characters, Rebecca continues to mesmerize its readers and to stand with works like Jane Eyre as a classic of the Gothic genre.
In the 1920s, our young, female narrator (her first name is never given) is working as a paid companion to a wealthy American woman vacationing in Monte Carlo. While there she meets a handsome English widower named Maxim de Winter. After a whirlwind courtship of about 2 weeks, she agrees to marry him and returns with him to his beautiful estate on the English coast, Manderley.
The shy young bride is rather intimidated by her new role as mistress of Manderley. She ends up leaving most of the decisions to the cold and haunting housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. As time passes, she begins to learn bits and pieces about Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, who drowned the previous year. Everyone agrees that she was a charming, beautiful, witty woman who ran Manderley perfectly. The more she hears of Rebecca, the more sure she is that Maxim's increasing aloofness is due to his continuing love for his dead wife. An accident then occurs that brings the past back to life and reveals the truth about the beautiful Rebecca.
My Review (Caution-Spoilers):
It is virtually impossible to review this book without giving away MAJOR spoilers. So, if you are not familiar with the story of Rebecca, my advice is to stop reading now, and to go find a copy of the book.
First off, I guess that I should say that most critics are right when they say that Rebecca is not great literature. It is, however, an example of the good literature that floats along between being entertaining fluff and being a member of the "sacred" texts. The writing, though often bordering on the flowery, is very descriptive and completely immerses you in the world of Manderley. And let's be honest with ourselves, we can't live on "great" literature alone. Every now and again we need a book that simply let's us escape into and fall in love with the story. Rebecca is perfect for that.
What made this story so good for me were the many similarities between it and Jane Eyre. We have a young, innocent woman who falls in love with an older man. Both involve great mansions that are burned in the end and both involve first wives that "haunt" the couples' relationships. It is very apparent that the works of the Brontes influenced du Maurier greatly and these elements really help to cement Rebecca in the Gothic genre rather than the "romance" genre.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about du Maurier's writing was her ability to create characters that leap off the page even though they aren't alive. Rebecca herself, though dead for a year and a half, is perhaps the most solid of all of the characters. We know what she looked like, what she wore, what her hobbies were, who her friends were, and even what she smelled like. She is also the driving force of the story, dictating the motivations of the other characters. It is the narrator's jealousy of Rebecca that creates her interpretations of life at Manderley, it is Maxim's hatred of Rebecca that drives "a shadow" between him and his young bride, and it is Mrs. Danvers' obsessive love for Rebecca that fuels her loathing for her new mistress. Rebecca is the key to the whole story.
The other character that serves as a force throughout the story is Manderley itself. For Maxim, Manderley is the source of his pride and dignity and the ultimate reason why he killed Rebecca. For Rebecca, Manderley was simply a part of the large charade that her life was. For Mrs. Danvers, it was her last connection to her beloved mistress, one that she was willing to do anything to protect. And for our narrator, it was a symbol of her struggle with Rebecca, the prize to be won. The irony in that, of course, is the fact that just when the narrator feels that she has conquered her rival and is truly ready to be mistress of Manderley, her prize is snatched away from her. Du Maurier really spends a lot of time describing both the beauties and the terrors of Manderley. I think that it was interesting how she used different rooms to show the different personalities of it's 2 mistresses. Wild and confidant Rebecca liked the showy, formal morning room and the large bedroom overlooking the sea, while the shy and retiring narrator preferred the quiet, intimate library and the smaller bedroom overlooking the garden.
Though the story can drag at parts, and some of the elements are rather predictable, Rebecca is still a worthwhile read. Even though I was familiar with the story, I still had a hard time putting it down. I simply flew through its 380 some pages. It isn't a "page turner" per se, but its twisting plot is very engrossing and by the last 100 pages or so, you won't be able to stop.
There have been quite a few versions of this story adapted to both the screen and the stage. The most popular version is the 1940 version directed by Alfred Hitchcock which won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Picture (the only Hitchcock film to ever do so). It stars Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson. Though it doesn't follow the book exactly, it really preserves the Gothic suspense of the story. The acting is good: Olivier is at his most dashing as Maxim, Fontaine is sweetly convincing as the shy girl bride, and Anderson provides an especially creepy Mrs. Danvers. This is a film that both Rebecca fans and Hitchcock fans should see.
In 1979, the BBC and Mystery! produced a version starring Jeremy Brett, Joanna David and Anna Massey. Many who have seen this consider it to be the best adaptation of the novel, and based on what I know of Jeremy Brett's acting as well as the few clips I have seen, I can easily believe it. Unfortunately, this version has never been released on DVD and I couldn't find the whole thing online, so the jury is still out on that.
Finally, the BBC and Masterpiece Theatre produced a version starring Charles Dance, Emilia Fox and Diana Rigg. This version trades a lot of the suspense in favor of more romance. It's not a bad film in and of itself, its just not the best representation of the novel. I think that the actors had the potential to make it great if the screenplay had been a little different. They also made the HUGE mistake of showing Rebecca in flashbacks. That is a big no no. Not the worst thing that I have ever seen, but not the best either.
Trivia: Joanna David who played the 2nd Mrs. de Winter in the 1979 version is the mother of Emilia Fox who played the same character in the 1997 version.