I remember the summer I met her. I was in junior high, to old for kid’s books and too young (and snobbish) for the historical romances my mother favored. When I whined that I wanted something new to read, Mom looked at me thoughtfully and handed me a library book with a drawing of the English countryside on the cover. “Try this” she said.”It’s surprising.” I glanced at the title, turned to the first paragraph and was hooked with the first line,”Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Some forty years later and I’m still hooked, returning as often as possible to the house in Cornwall called Manderly. You see, I’m obsessed with Rebecca.
For Rebecca is a novel about obsession. The book began while the author, Daphne du Maurier, was living Egypt with her husband, Lt. Col. Tommy Browning and it grew out of two secret obsessions of her own: her intense homesickness for England and a packet of letters she found. The letters were from an unstable, beautiful woman Tommy had been engaged to for a short time, long before he met Daphne. Daphne and Tommy had not been married all that long when she found the letters and although the former fiance couldn’t threaten their relationship (she was already dead) Daphne felt haunted by the specter of her husband’s earlier love affair. These feelings are at the heart of Rebecca.
The shyest, most awkward girl in the world becomes the second wife of Maxim de Winter, Englishman and owner of the country estate, Manderly. Becoming lady of the manor would be difficult enough for this child under any conditions; it becomes almost impossible after she learns how Max’s gorgeous first wife, Rebecca, accomplished the job beautifully. The second wife imagines everyone is comparing her to the first wife and found wanting. This is certainly true with Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, Rebecca’s former nanny and one of the scariest women in English Literature. Seriously, Maleficent, Medea and Lady Macbeth combined couldn’t best Mrs. Danvers in a stare-down contest. She is one sinister, terrifying lady and she haunts Manderly the way Rebecca DeWinter is supposed to. By the way, Je Reviens is the name of Rebecca’s boat. It means I return and believe me, in some ways, she does.
But the first wife isn’t the only character with obsessions and I’m not going to spill any more of the story in case there is someone left on the planet who doesn’t know the plot backwards and forwards. Ms. Du Maurier makes it clear such fixations never bring a positive result but the book is not about moralizing; it’s about about mood, atmosphere and tension, three things her writing captures so well that reading Rebecca is like diving below the surface of a pool. While you are in the book, the world above seems far away and unreal. Everything below is quiet and enveloping but at Manderly, everything is also under stress..
For those who love Rebecca, I did find something fascinating in my latest copy of the book. While drafting her famous novel, Daphne du Maurier came up with a Rebecca epilogue she eventually cut up and use parts of in the intro. It gives a few details missed getting into the finished book (did you know Maxim was originally going to be named Henry?) and there’s a little dose of that mood that made the novel famous and it suggests that the now resort, Manderly, like Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel retains impressions of its previous inhabitants.
“If you are stouthearted and not overburdened with imagination you can walk anywhere in Manderly with impunity, but if London life has put a strain upon your nerves there are one or two places I should avoid. The deep woods, for instance, after dark, and the little woodman’s cottage. Here, there may linger a certain atmosphere of stress. That corner in the drive too, where the stomp of a tree encroaches upon the gravel, it is not a spot in which to pause….”
I don’t know about you but I always feel overburdend with imagination when I read Rebecca. I can be as sensible and wholesome as fresh milk most of the time but not when I’m reading Rebecca. Then I believe in ghosts.