From the very first moment I opened Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca, I was caught in the exquisite writing and tone of the book. Sinister and often macabre, reading the book felt like I was submerged in half-realities and daydreams, caught in the hot, oppressive summer air and waiting for the building thunderstorm to crack open the sky.
The plot is of a nameless narrator, young, shy, and self-effacing, that marries a rich and silently brooding (sorry, I mean grieving) widower to become the new Mrs de Winter. She moves into the famous Manderley estate and bitterly struggles to fulfil her expected role – that of Rebecca, Mr de Winter’s previous wife.
Rebecca’s ghost fills every inch of the house itself; its furniture, menus, gardens, and the very rituals expected of the new Mrs de Winter. The formidable housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, grimly enforces Rebecca’s set traditions, jealously preserving her memory with all the fervour of a grieving lover. The narrator, in turn, obsessively daydreams about Rebecca, hording any crumbs of information she can find about Rebecca’s personality, actions and mysterious death.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
The first chapter describes (if such a word can encompass the sheer number of adjectives, similes and metaphors I read in that one chapter) the narrator revisiting her old house within a dream. Manderley is slowly, inexorably and menacingly being subsumed by nature. The flowers’, whose previous purpose had only been to sit still and look pretty (nature being the symbolism for women), had grown to monstrous heights and became angry slashes of colour in a war waged against the surrendered, crumbling house (a man-made structure that previously bent the natural gardens to its will). Barely before the book has begun, the ending has been given away: a woman has triumphed over an imposing and dominant man.
The second chapter introduces the narrator in her present condition – a quiet and tedious life lived in exile with her companion. She daren’t say anything to upset him and seemed resigned (as did he) to their painful existence, here and there living on a skerrick of a memory. The two chapters could not have been more different, and this difference is the very crux of the story.
The plot is executed brilliantly, but it wasn’t until I had finished reading that I could step away and look at the picture before me. What I read wasn’t a ghost story, thriller or romance (all labels that have previously been affixed to the novel), it was an angry exploration of power in a slyly subverted love story that become anything but.
(Edit on 16 May 2010: The novel uses intertextuality to reference Jane Eyre in quite a few plot elements. This choice by Daphne du Maurier provides even greater depth to her novel, although I wouldn’t recommend reading Jane Eyre just to see this in action. Wikipedia it instead.)