Tag Archives: Rebecca

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?).

Justine Picardie joins ‘Discovering Daphne’ part 2…

On Wednesday I posted about the wonderful Daphne by Justine Picardie. If you’ve read my review, you’ll know that I was completely absorbed by it, so can you imagine my delight when Savidge Reads bagged us an author interview with the lady in question?

If you haven’t seen it, then make sure you pop over to Savidge Reads and read part 1 of the interview. Now, it’s time for part 2!

In the book, you suggest that the un-named young woman in Rebecca might be Daphne du Maurier herself. What gave you that feeling, and did you yourself relate to the character of the young PHD student?

I think that the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca might represent a partial aspect of Daphne du Maurier herself — in that she had experienced feelings of jealousy about her husband’s previous girlfriend, a dark-haired beauty who subsequently died (a death that appears to have been suicide, after her own marriage). Yet at the same time, it seems to me that Du Maurier also identified with Rebecca — the woman who is at the heart of the novel, and whose name supersedes that of the narrator. When I wrote ‘Daphne’, I was intrigued by Du Maurier’s references to having discovered Tommy’s love letters, written during his former engagement, before his relationship with Daphne began. But of course, the potency of ‘Rebecca’ is that it is fiction, not biography — which is why I was inspired to write ‘Daphne‘ as a novel, rather than biography, albeit one based on real events in Du Maurier’s life, and using her actual letters and diaries as my starting point. As for my own relationship to the unnamed narrator of my novel: I did identify with her, as a version of my younger self — and I share her obsession with Du Maurier and the Brontes (her quest to discover the truth about the Bronte manuscripts overlaps with my own; which itself follows Daphne’s previous researches). And like my narrator, and Du Maurier, I’m compelled by the idea of hauntings, and their different manifestations — whether as literary ghosts, or otherwise…

We’re obviously a smidgen obsessed with the writing of Daphne du Maurier, as we’ve dedicated a whole month to her on our blogs. What is it do you think about Daphne du Maurier’s writing that is so compelling?

For me, it’s her darkness; her unflinching ability to look into our deepest fears and anxieties, as well as our passions. She’s a master (or mistress) of the gothic, yet reinvents the genre into something entirely her own.

You chose to portray Daphne du Maurier in the later years of her life, although through her memories we do get a sense of her as a young woman. What made you choose to write about her at this particular point in her life?

My starting place was the crisis in her marriage in the late 50s — which she characterised as ‘The Breaking Point’ — because it was such a profoundly troubling episode in her life, and seemed to distill many of the elements of her narratives — including the idea of being haunted by her own creation, Rebecca, in the house that was itself the inspiration for Manderley. But this also allowed me to explore the disturbing memories from her childhood, that seemed to rise up again in the midst of her breakdown in 1958, and her cousin’s suicide.

Daphne starts out with the belief that Branwell Bronte has been mis-understood and hopes to find a hidden literary gem to reignite interest in him and prove that he was talented like his sisters. The character of Symington also identifies with Branwell. Do you think that Daphne felt somehow let down by Branwell, as she was by Symington?

I think she did feel let down by Branwell — as she was by her husband at the time, and by Symington. It was as if in rehabilitating Branwell, she had hoped to restore her sense of her husband as heroic, and therefore rescue their marriage. As it happened, her marriage did survive, and her own courage as a writer seems to be to be extraordinary — to go on writing, however disturbing the situation in which she found herself — which is why she is the heroine of my novel.

I find it interesting that although Daphne du Maurier was so inspired by the Bronte Sisters, she was so determined to resurrect Branwell. Despite the fact that she writes female characters that women can really relate to, your depiction of her seems to have had herself more of a closeness or understanding with men. Do you think this is a fair comment, and if so why do you think this is?

I think she has an intensely close connection with all her characters — men and women. One of her many talents as a writer is that her male characters (including the narrator of My Cousin Rachel) are as compelling as the women. If each of them is in part a manifestation of her deepest preoccupations, then she clearly understood men as well as women, and was perhaps also driven to explore her own confusions about sexual identity.

In the book you explore the way in which characters created in literature can haunt people in real life (for example J.M. Barrie’s characters in Peter Pan, inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s cousins, and Daphne herself identifying with the young Mrs de Winter and at other times Mrs Danvers). I also remember reading that the real life Christopher Robin was resentful of being the subject of the Winnie the Pooh stories. Why do you think these fictional characters had such a hold on the real life muses and do you think there is a difference if the likeness is self-imposed (i.e. in the case of Rebecca)?

Hmm, very interesting question, though I’m not sure of the answer. Certainly, Daphne’s cousins, the Lost Boys, appear to have been haunted by their fictional counterparts in Peter Pan, and the long shadow cast by J.M Barrie’s writing (though they were also traumatised by the death of their parents). It’s such a complex relationship, between fiction and reality, the living and the dead, and the playing out of archetypal narratives, where an imaginary landscape also extends into family memories.

I absolutely loved the parallels you drew between du Maurier’s own interest in her literary heroes – the Brontes, and her sort of premonition or curiosity in the idea that people might be researching her and doing their own literary detective work in the future. Do you think that Daphne du Maurier was comfortable with her own notoriety? Did she desire an illustrious literary legacy?

Difficult to know; though I hope she might have been pleased that a new generation of writers (myself included) have reminded others of her remarkable literary achievements, given that she tended to be quite wrongly dismissed by the literary establishment in the past as being the author of romantic potboilers.

Thank you so much to Justine Picardie for taking the time to discuss ‘Daphne’ and Daphne du Maurier with us.

If you haven’t already, make sure you have a peep at Part 1 over at Savidge Reads.

A Life in Books

I discovered this little quiz on Claire’s (Paperback Reader) blog the other day and thought it was an interesting challenge. I have to admit that I cheated a little by adding a couple of books I read later last year though! Some answers are better than others…

Using only books you have read this year (2009), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It’s a lot harder than you think!

Describe yourself: The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett)

How do you feel: A Case of Need (Michael Crichton)- need more time!

Describe where you currently live: Too Close To Home (Linwood Barclay)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: The Reef (Nora Roberts)

Your favorite form of transportation: The Thirty Nine Steps (John Buchan)

Your best friend is: Rebecca (Du Maurier) – from primary school!

You and your friends are: The Believers (Zoe Heller)

What’s the weather like: In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)- it’s blimmin’ cold today

You fear: The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

What is the best advice you have to give: One Good Turn (Kate Atkinson)

Thought for the day: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)-‘tis a sin…

How I would like to die: The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood)

My soul’s present condition: Possession (A.S.Byatt)

Why not try it for yourself?