‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ The famous opening line of Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic thriller Rebecca is not only pleasing to read aloud, it succinctly sets the scene for the novel ahead where themes of longing and dreaming as well as a haunting estate house feature prominently. First published in 1938, Rebecca has never been out of print and now, having finally read it myself, I can understand why.
The novel is written in the first person and follows an unnamed narrator, a young woman who while working as a companion for a boisterous American meets the dashing yet mysterious Maxim de Winter. Our narrator quickly falls in love and in what feels like no time at all she becomes the second Mrs de Winter and the mistress of Manderley. After arriving at Maxim’s ancestral home she struggles to settle into her new role for the presence of the first Mrs de Winter, the recently deceased Rebecca, continues to overwhelm every aspect of life at Manderley. Our narrator is anxious, jealous and prone to fantastical thinking, especially when it comes to Rebecca.
What has often been considered a romance, is in actuality a bleak study of jealousy and sexuality. The first two chapters are really a conclusion, painting a picture of a couple living in exile, a fate we then come to understand via twists and turns by the end of the novel. Such is Du Maurier’s ability to manipulate that the reader finds themselves relieved when Rebecca is ousted as a malevolent presence rather than a paragon of beauty and taste and, rather incredibly, we are somehow convinced that murder is necessary, even romantic.
Alongside jealousy as a core theme sit gender and sexuality which are treated with fluidity in Rebecca, providing a glimpse into Du Maurier’s own life and struggles. In an article published in the Guardian to mark the 80th anniversary of Rebbecca, Olivia Laing wrote:
Though she [Du Maurier] was beautiful, she had never wanted to participate in the masquerade of femininity. She didn’t want to be a mother (at least not of daughters) or wear dresses, though she painted her face even to go on her beloved rain-lashed walks. What she liked was to be “jam-along”, scruffy, perpetually in trousers, messing about in boats or living at large in her own head.
As Margaret Forster’s revelatory 1993 biography made clear, Du Maurier had been like that since childhood, always dreaming up other possibilities, never certain that people, or even time, were as stable as they seemed. She certainly wasn’t. From a very young age she was what she called a “half-breed”, female on the outside “with a boy’s mind and a boy’s heart”.
As a child, this didn’t pose problems, especially in a family of actors. She dressed in shorts and ties and spent most of her time pretending to be her alter ego, Eric Avon, the splendid, shining captain of cricket at Rugby. But as she reached adulthood, this boy self “was locked in a box”. Sometimes, when she was alone, she opened it up “and let the phantom, who was neither boy or girl but disembodied spirit, dance in the evening when there was no one to see”.
Sex and sexuality manifest largely between the female characters of Rebecca: between our narrator and her imaginings of Rebecca and her body, and through the housekeeper Mrs Danvers and her fetishistic gatekeeping of Rebecca’s physical belongings. Rebecca is described as possessing a vociferous sexual appetite not bound by the confines of heterosexuality. Our narrator often paints herself as androgynous and offers herself to her husband as ‘your friend and your companion, a sort of boy’.
Initially I found the novel slow going but as our narrator settled into life at Manderley and the more melodramatic plot points began to unfold, I found myself drawn into the web of intrigue that Du Maurier has painstakingly woven. Having now read my first Du Maruier, I feel compelled to delve further into her catalogue, perhaps her other well known work My Cousin Rachel.
Rebecca is beautifully written and visually descriptive right through until it closes with a line almost as lyrical as it’s opening: ‘And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.’