Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.
I have been trying to remember when I first read Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier, and decided it was likely in late elementary/junior high school. It most certainly is at least part of the reason I am such a fan of gothic mysteries. Rebecca is gothic mystery at its finest, no matter your age. Daphne Du Maurier and Agatha Christie are probably almost entirely responsible for my love of writing – and my love of mysteries.
There is no finer gothic mystery, and that’s the truth, plain and simple.
The way the novel is laid out is so elementary, and yet so creative. I know of no other novel in which the main character is dead on page 1, and never makes a single appearance, even as a ghost. And yet the reader knows more about Rebecca at the end of the book than we even know about the narrator — the nameless second Mrs. de Winter.
Although it might not even be incorrect to say that the main character is Manderley itself. Du Maurier’s gift of description certainly gives us the opportunity to picture it in our minds. Down to the blood red rhododendrons.
Rebecca is not a grisly novel at all. The writing is lovely, if a bit slow-going at times. There are no ghosts or vampires or secret rooms, or even a crazy wife hidden in the attic. But there is Mrs. Danvers, and she is creepy enough to make my skin tingle a bit, if not crawl.
The second Mrs. de Winter (whose name we truly never learn) meets Maxim while visiting Monte Carlo as a companion to an obnoxious American woman. He sweeps her off her feet and they marry and return to his grand mansion, purportedly in the Cornwall area of England (though we are never told for sure). While Maxim de Winter is never introduced to us as a lord, his life and responsibilities remind me very much of Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey fame.
The new Mrs. de Winter is young, painfully shy, and has absolutely no experience as the lady of a grand estate. And here she is, having to compete with the first Mrs. de Winter, who was beautiful, intelligent, gracious, and loved by all. Or was she?
The interactions between the narrator and the odious house manager Mrs. Danvers are painful to read. Mrs. Danvers simply can’t forgive the second Mrs. de Winter for not being the first Mrs. de Winter. That, plus she is slightly crazy.
Du Maurier lays out the novel in a very interesting manner – beginning with the end, as it were. As such, the reader learns in the first few pages that Mr. and Mrs. de Winter survive and that they are not living at Manderley. And the reader also has an inkling that something was not so right at Manderley because of the opening line of the novel.
There are lots of surprises along the way – unless you’ve read the novel before, as I had. Still, even then the book kept me in suspense.
Rebecca is a slow read, but one that is entirely appropriate for a middle-schooler who likes to read and has no need for lots of action. It is a love story, but not as its main element. It is a suspense novel, but there is no violence or action that would keep you awake at night.
I have never read anything else by du Maurier, and am somewhat reluctant to do so since this was far and away her most successful novel. I don’t want to be disappointed.
I highly recommend Rebecca as a great read for a rainy day with a cup of tea at your side.