Tag Archives: Books from the 1930’s

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier – Discovering Daphne readalong #5

5 stars5/5

I’ve been pretty busy lately and left my reading of the fifth Discovering Daphne choice rather late, but I’m rather glad now that I did as my tardiness resulted in me sitting down to read it in a couple of long reading sessions. When my mind is bothered by the to and fro of everyday life there is something really wonderful about holing myself up with a book, and what better novel to consume within thirty-six hours, than the utterly mesmerising Rebecca? I get a little anxious about re-reading much-loved books in case I find them lacking the second time around, but I needn’t have worried.

Avon press, 1971 paperback edition (first published in 1938), 380 pages - personal library

For those that don’t know the plot of this famous book, I’ll try to summarise without giving too much away. Rebecca is written from the point of view of a young un-named woman who while acting as a companion to a rather tactless and sycophantic American woman – Mrs Van Hopper – is introduced to Maximilian de Winter. Our protagonist who is hampered by a crushing sort of shyness and self-consciousness about her youth which she believes makes her terribly unsophisticated and unattractive, however Maxim de Winter is drawn to her in part because of her sweet and innocent nature. It seems that he is running away from some former life, seeking escape in this fresh young personality. When Mrs Van Hopper decides to leave Monte Carlo, where they are staying and go to her daughter in New York, Maxim makes a rather straightforward proposal to our narrator – that she should come and live with him as his second wife at Manderley, his grand estate in Cornwall back in England. The second Mrs de Winter is rapt by the beauty of Manderley and it’s wonderful gardens, yet from the moment that she sets foot in the house she feels ill at ease, not helped by the fact that the housekeeper Mrs Danvers who adored the first Mrs de Winter (Rebecca) looks down on her as an unwelcome intruder and unworthy second mistress to the great house.

Rebecca is a beautiful and disturbing novel about jealousy, hatred and obsession. The narrator, in her innocence should almost be irritating, yet because as a reader I was let into every little moment of her experience, I understood her fears and her little fluttering moments of joy – I sympathised with her as a friend might do. One moment she is full of anticipation and the next minute her spirit is crushed. She adores Maxim and in seeking to understand his feelings for his dead wife her mind runs away with her into dark tunnels, not helped by the disconcerting and ever-present personality of Mrs Danvers who adds to the seeds of doubt in her mind. I had forgotten some of the specifics about how the story plays out so on re-reading the novel I actually felt for the first half of the novel almost sympathetic to Mrs Danvers. Perhaps I thought, she is just looking for the new Mrs de Winter to step up and take charge, but after the fancy-dress ball I had to concede that she was simply cruel and twisted. If I really give her the benefit of the doubt I can see how being in the thrall of Rebecca might have made her that way but it is from the young Mrs de Winter’s perspective that the story is told so it is her that I really feel for.

Antique print of Menabilly, Cornwall - the inspiration for Manderley (from antique-prints-maps.com)

Perspective… I do wonder, how Rebecca would be as a novel if it was told from the point of view of the other characters. How would Mrs Danvers tell the story? How would Rebecca herself describe her life and relationship with Maxim before her death. Normally, I can’t help but have a sneaky respect for the anti-hero in a novel but somehow this just wasn’t so for me when reading Rebecca, but it does make me wonder if had we had Rebecca’s own account (as you might in a Wilkie Collins novel), or the story of her cousin Favel, I might have felt differently. Even though I was mentally in support of the second Mrs de Winter, I have to admit that she is just as blinded by obsessive love for Maxim de Winter as Mrs Danvers is for Rebecca’s memory.

Apart from a fabulous and twisted plotline one of the things that I find so special in Rebecca it is the atmosphere that du Maurier creates. The way that she personifies Manderley, making it into a living and breathing thing. It is part of the narrator’s nightmares and her dreams. I revelled in the descriptions of the gardens and the beautiful images that du Maurier creates, yet, almost every sentence holds a counter-point, an edge of darkness:

“The daffodils were in bloom, stirring in the evening breeze, golden heads cupped upon lean stalks… Too early yet for blue bells, their heads were still hidden beneath last year’s leaves, but when they came dwarfing the more humble violent, they choked the very bracken in their woods, and with their colour made a challenge to the sky.”

The unusual blood red colour of the rhododendrons, associated so closely with Rebecca suggest passion, but also something uncomfortable and unnatural. When the narrator returns to Manderley in her dreams she sees the gardens engulfed by ‘malevolent ivy’ and a ‘half-breed plant’. Reading these sinister and voluptuous  descriptions I was completely drawn into the world of Manderley with our narrator and shared her simultaneous sense of attraction and fear of the place.

I could go on forever about this novel. It is just so beautiful and absorbing, and also utterly unsettling because du Maurier fixes on the dark human fears and emotions that concern us all. As our narrator treads the thin line between perception and reality, so do we as readers question what is reasonable, who is right, and are reminded how slight the divide between happiness and ruin can be. It was also fascinating to read this novel after sampling a wide variety of du Maurier’s works this month. I smiled to myself as I noticed common themes – stormy seas, classical references (the ominous satyr in the garden) and mad urges to drive off a cliff reminded me of The House on the Strand, however even though I notice these trademarks more and more now, I always feel as if I’m experiencing something different with du Maurier. Of all her novels, I think this is the one that really gets under my skin and even though Jamaica Inn will always be my first love, I have to admit that I think Rebecca is du Maurier’s masterpiece.

Do pop over to read Simon’s thoughts at Savidge Reads and tell us what you thought of Rebecca as once we’ve come out of our Manderley haze I’m sure that we’ll do a bit of a wash-up post with links to the Discovering Daphne posts from this month.

I’ll also be putting up my thoughts on the spooky Don’t Look Now and Other Stories tomorrow (belatedly, but rather aptly on Halloween don’t you think?).

Journey by Moonlight, Antal Szerb

4 stars4/5

Ever felt that you wanted to escape from your life? In Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, Mihaly does exactly this when he and his wife Erszi are accidentally parted on their honeymoon in Italy. The Hungarian couple seek romance in Venice but end up separated and on thier own individual journeys of discovery.

Pushkin Press, 2002 paperback edition, 240 pages - personal library

Mihaly wanders through the Italian countryside bumping into new acquaintances and indulging his nostalgic side by constantly ruminating on past friendships. In his adolesence, Mihaly becomes close to the brother and sister of the eccentric Ulpius family whose intense relationship and romantic bohemian lifestyle hold a fascinating appeal to him as a young ‘bourgeois’. Fate leads him to cross paths with more than one ghost from his past and it seems as if he can’t escape from his memories no matter how deep into the Italian countryside he strays. Erszi on the other hand who seemed to me amazingly tolerant, discovers herself in Paris to be quite capable and suprises herself by developing a new outlook that is completely averse to the decadence of her surroundings.

I loved the fact that while Mihaly is constantly philosophising about the purpose of his life, Erzsi is getting on with hers! The quality of Szerb’s writing (beautifully translated by Len Rix) is wonderful. A couple of favourite quotes for your delectation:

“In London November isn’t a month,” he said “it’s a state of mind.” (Page 81)

“Is there any man who wouldn’t respond to the dulcet tones of an unknown woman on the telephone? If women knew men they would ask us for everything over the telephone in unfamiliar voices.” (Page 81)

(On his own condition) “Some sort of sporadic catapleptic apodictitis.” “Acute nostalgia.” (Page 97)

I was impressed by how real and well-defined the characters of Erzsi and Millicent were (Millicent is a young American who Mihaly dismisses as stupid, but who seemed quite bright to me). Published in 1937, I was surprised at how modern this book feels, perhaps because of the candid way that human emotions and entanglements are described.

Mihaly is the real star of the novel though. He is simultanously pathetic and endearing, which gives the novel a tragi-comic flavour. He is full of pompous opinions that resulted in more than one out-loud chuckle from me as I read along. He’s a character you’ll be frustrated or amused by depending on your point of view! My fellow book-grouper Reading Matters found him too passive and raises an interesting question in her review about his melancholic state could actually be depression (her excellent review is here).

I discovered Journey by Moonlight when I was looking for something to read on a trip to Budapest, and am really pleased that I did. Incidentally it doesn’t feature much about Hungary at all except in exploring the background and mentality of the people in it, and Venice features even less (despite the cover) so don’t get a copy expecting a portrait of The City of Romance!

Journey by Moonlight has the qualities that I associate with a real classic as it is a book with alot of depth to it. Szerb explores many themes, amongst them the complexities of sexual versus platonic love, personal discovery, fear and obsession with death and the appeal of romance and mysticism against the pull of borgeouis comforts.  Journey by Moonlight is also a more substantial read than it looks – I felt as if in those 240 pages I’d really been on a bit of an epic journey with Mihaly and all the other characters. A rich and many-layered story.

Has anyone else come across Szerb’s writing before? In some aspects this novel reminded me a little of Sandor Marai’s Embers. I wonder if this is a theme in Hungarian literature or perhaps these books are the exception?

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, is the book equivalent of strawberries and cream. Sweet, and a bit naughty.

I’d seen it mentioned quite a bit on the book-blogsphere and being a convert to Persephone Classics felt certain that it would be an enjoyable read. It was obviously considered to have wide enough appeal to be adapted for the big-screen, in the form of a 2008 film with Amy Adams.

The story follows a day in the life of a governess, Miss Guinevere Pettigrew who turns up on the doorstep of a glamorous and somewhat wayward young lady Miss Delysia LaFosse looking for work. Her dreary existence is turned upside-down as she is swept into the whirlwind life of Miss LaFosse and her friends.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is fundamentally a tale of self-discovery – of a woman finding out who she could have, and can be. Events unfold primarily through the perspective of Guinevere, and although it is not written in the first person, the narrative is interspersed with her observations and moments of self-doubt which I found made me feel close to her.

The story is structured in chapters which represent different timeframes in the day. This worked really well for me, as it gave me the sense of each being a unique and special moment. The book also flowed well as a result and I found myself anticipating the next adventure just as much as Miss Pettigrew. I felt caught up in her newly discovered lust for life:

“Her feet nearly tripped over themselves hurrying over the floor. She stood in front of the door for one perfect, breathless second of expectancy; then she flung it open.”

I found this such an enjoyable read. Watson balances a lighthearted tone with poignant and often quite surprising moments. I certainly didn’t expect the subject of drug-use to come up in a 1930’s novel for example. Perhaps I am misinformed and need to read some more outrageous fiction from this period! I also couldn’t help but worry for Miss Pettigrew. Throughout the book she swings through a rainbow of emotions – sadness, fear and self doubt to pure joy and bravado:

“But Miss Pettigrew was on her feet. Her tears had dried like magic. She was electrified, galvanized, quivering like a hound at the scent.”

Would she get her self into trouble? Would it all end in tears? How would such an exciting day end? Well you’ll have to read it yourself to find out.

The Persephone edition also has sweet pictures throughout which enhance rather than detract from the story:

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day admittedly is probably not everyone’s cup of tea (what book is!), but for me it was a diverting and utterly charming read as well as being a little bit inspiring…

My Rating:

8 out of 10

Have you read this book or seen the film? Has anyone read anything else by Winifred Watson that they would recommend?