Read a Classic: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

21 October 2012 by 42 Comments

Book: Rebecca

Author: Daphne du Maurier

Published: originally published in 1938 by Victor Gollancz Ltd., 386 pages

First line: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Genre: Gothic, literary fiction, mystery, coming-of-age

Rating: 4.9/5 lesbian housekeepers that stare at you from behind curtains

Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s debut novel, successfully straddles the fence between literary and scandalous. The novel owes a lot to Jane Eyre, which gives it some street cred right away. What makes the book so fantastic is the deliciously creepy and haunting atmosphere du Maurier creates around the heroine, who eerily is never named (what a field day critics have had with that), not to mention the sexy undertones that lace through every plot twist and character description. This book is all about sex without getting past first base, and that kind of subtle skill is just hot.

The novel centers around the narrator, a shy, awkward orphan who initially describes herself as drab, mousy, and generally uninteresting (I know, uninteresting heroine? She gets better, though!). The story is framed as a memory, with the first two chapters describing her current invalid/caretaker marriage and homeless wandering through the hotels of Europe. What follows is the story of how she and her husband met, married, and transformed from lord and lady of a grand estate to that initial dismal portrait.

Traveling as a paid lady’s companion on holiday in Monte Carlo, the narrator meets Maxim de Winter, a recent widower, when she is 20 years old to Maxim’s 43 (yes, daddy issues abound). After a hurried, boring courtship, they marry and retire to his grand country estate. Once there, the pace quickens as the new Mrs. de Winter immediately finds herself pitted against the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter, a wild, beautiful woman named Rebecca who lorded over Manderley for years as the idol of her neighbors and husband before drowning in a boating accident. The ghost of Rebecca haunts the estate, which just oozes with her memory even though an apparition never appears. Plagued by the intimidating and crazy-eyed housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, the narrator stumbles down the rabbit hole and manages to truly come alive by the novel’s end.

My favorite character is Mrs. Danvers, who has to be one of the best-written villians in literary history. She manages to be both mundanely real (reminding the narrator of housekeeping duties, going on about how Rebecca was really picky about sauces for lunch) and supernaturally terrifying (stalking around the unused west wing, invoking Rebecca’s name like a priest at an exorcism).

Once the story gets going at Manderley, it’s easy to get swept up in the narrator’s doubts and growing fantasies of Rebecca. Because of all the gripping build-up, the crash when the narrator discovers what really happened at Manderley makes for some delicious Gothic thrills. And the ending, which I’m not going to describe (you will totally thank me when you read the last couple of paragraphs and yell “holy Jesus!” at whoever’s unfortunate enough to be sitting next to you) contains one of the novel’s single best lines, loaded with premonition and suspense: “‘That’s not the northern lights,’ he said, ‘that’s Manderley.’”

The only reason I didn’t rate the book with a perfect five stars is because of the slow beginning, which does redeem itself once you finish the novel because you have the benefit of seeing a glimpse into the future for the pair in the first two chapters. Also, I’m not hot on the pair always being broken. At no point are the narrator and Maxim both strong, both happy, or even both functioning. Implying a man can only be strong when his wife is wringing her hands, or vice versa, doesn’t fit with my personal ethics, so I took off a little tiny tenth of a point because it doesn’t take away the fun of reading.

Rebecca is an excellent read, one of those great books that sounds impressive on your reading resumé but is as dishy a read as US Weekly. It’s one of those books I recommend to everyone: grandmas, teenagers who hate gym, people behind me in line at Starbucks, and anyone going on any kind of vacation that allows for reading 400 pages in one sitting.

42 thoughts on “Read a Classic: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

  1. I LOVE Rebecca – and now I really need to go read it again, even though I have a ton of stuff on my to read list already.

    I’m pretty sure that I read almost straight through the first time (the first time that I finished because I think that the first couple of chapters made me put it down a few times before deciding that I was going to MAKE myself read it) – there really is a horrid sense of dread that builds throughout the whole thing and the payoff is awesome.

  2. This is one of the classics I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. This review really makes me WANT to read it sooner and not just because I feel I should! I love when a review like this breathes life into an old classic and gets people excited about literature that otherwise might collect dust on many people’s shelves. I think the creepiness factor will make this a fabulous fall/winter read for me. Thanks!

    • Definitely read the book first on this one; I love the movie, too, but for completely different reasons. They are on the surface very similar, but in actuality send a completely different message.

  3. One of the best opening lines of a book ever. Ever ever. It just bounces around in your head, doesn’t it? So evocative and spooky and perfect.

    I haven’t read this in years, but remember loving it so much when I did. It was one of my first “adult” books, when I was in junior high. I remember how excited the librarian was to introduce it to me. “You’ll love this,” she said. She was right. She always was.

    • That line is so perfect. Have you seen the 1940 Hitchcock film? Joan Fontaine’s delivery is spot on, and when I read it now her voice replays in my head. If you do read it again, let me know if you think it’s different reading as an adult versus as a teenager. There are some books I read when I was younger that, as an adult, I’m like “I can’t believe I didn’t get this part when I was a kid!”

      • I felt that way about Wuthering Heights – when I was a teen I didn’t get how circumstances and misunderstandings could lead to so much trouble or why they couldn’t just be together. When I read it in my 30s, I understood the choices that people make and the nature of obsession and it made the book so much better.

  4. Oh so this is where Mrs Danvers is from! I have actually heard of Mrs Danvers (not sure where or when) and have been meaning to find out where she’s from, but I never did. This is definitely going on my to-read list

  5. Rebecca is definitely on my To-Read list, and your review just bumped it up a few spots. I especially loved this bit:

    This book is all about sex without getting past first base, and that kind of subtle skill is just hot.

    In fact, dang, it’s almost Halloween! I may just have to grab this from my local library and get going!

  6. This is one of my all time favorite books. But I read it so long ago, and at such an impressionable age, that I’m afraid to revisit it. Your review has encouraged me to “go back in time” and check it out.

    Thanks!

  7. thanks for your review; such a great classic. I could actually read over and over again the first pages, so very beautiful.
    I read and reviewed it recently, and took part into a read along, with great questions. at the end, when I stumbled on someone mentioning the lesbian element, I asked the group: no one had caught this in the book. I would be seriously curious to know where you find that stuff in the book. i didn’t catch the sexy stuff either, actually. let me know.
    here is my review, with the Q&A, and link to the main read-along page: http://wordsandpeace.com/2012/07/15/2012-35-review-rebecca/

    • Thanks for the link! I’m glad you enjoyed the book!

      When people talk about the lesbian element to this novel, they are particularly referring to Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca (though there’s some maternal longing mixed in there, too). Take a second look at the scene in which Mrs. Danvers goes through Rebecca’s things, showing them to Mrs. de Winter. Here are some things to consider: why does she show Mrs. DW Rebecca’s lingerie instead of less intimate objects? What do you make of Rebecca’s nightgown case, handmade by Mrs. Danvers? Or about the way Mrs. Danvers talks about Rebecca’s relationships with men?

      As for the sexy stuff, I’m talking about Mrs. DW’s coming of age. This novel deals with her transition from child to woman, and a lot of it has to do with her sexually maturing, which comes more from her “relationship” with Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers than it does from Maxim. Look at how Maxim talks to/about her when they first meet versus the present (found in the first few epilogue-type chapters). Also, Mrs. DW’s thoughts about Rebecca usually center around her unspoken desire to BE Rebecca, and a lot of that relates to Rebecca’s sexuality. I also think there is some latent lesbian desire in the way Mrs. DW fantasizes about Rebecca, but critics are more split on that issue.

      I hope these questions/thoughts are helpful! Let me know what you think.

  8. I remember that I couldn’t put this book down, but that was twelve years ago. And I don’t even remember what I ate for dinner yesterday. I’m clearly going to need to do a re-read.

  9. Thank you for reviewing this book. I read this a couple of years ago for the first time and even having the twist spoiled for me didn’t stop this from being one of my all-time favourite books. Getting excited for a re-read.

  10. Just finished reading it this afternoon and totally agree with your excellent review, including the slightly slowish start, I didn’t read any reviews beforehand, so wasn’t too sure where it was going, until suddenly it became quite compelling, possibly after the first encounter with Mrs Danvers, a friend had just told me that Hitchcock made the film, so I kept seeing dark shadows with her outline in my mind’s eye, definitely influenced by the Hitchcock mention and could imagine upon reading how this could adapt so well to film, a remake would be good!

  11. This is a great review and has encouraged me to try Rebecca. But I don’t think Rebecca was DDM’s debut novel. When I wanted to try this author last year, I decided to start with her debut novel and according to Wikipedia (!) it’s The Loving Spirit. Mediocre book and I wouldn’t recommend it. Thanks for encouraging me to give her a second chance.

    Katie

    • You are totally right! I even knew that; I don’t know why I wrote that in there. I’m actually reading “The Loving Spirit” right now, and I tend to agree with you – it’s forgettable. Definitely give “Rebecca” a go, though; it’s completely different than TLS!

  12. I don’t know how I missed this review, since it was nearly two years ago, but hi! I just read Rebecca, so I just wanted to say that I love your review, and it’s so true.

    I had such mixed feelings about Mrs. de Winter. I was SO incredibly annoyed with her, but understood her at the same time. By the end, I was really proud of her, though. Overall, I liked her, but I was wondering why she couldn’t just buck up sometimes, even though in the same situation I probably would have been the same way (especially a few years ago).

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