Rebecca has haunted me since I was 16, which is the first time I saw the title. It was on the list of “100 books you must read before you finish sixth-form”. For some reason I never managed to get round to reading it. I think it was because I committed the cardinal sin of judging the book by its title and deciding that it was early 20th century chick-lit and, as such, something I could get around to reading later. (Later being when I had grey hair and needed a walking stick).
Years passed and friends mentioned it more and more frequently at dinner parties or in passing. I smiled, nodded and moved the conversation on to another topic as politely as possible. Then today I saw it in the English book section of the local library and thought that I’d ease myself into my (still un-named) forthcoming reading challenge with an English classic.
A shy, self-conscious and socially awkward young woman of 21 marries a recently widowed Mr. de Winter, whom she has known for under a month. Upon their arrival at his family home, Manderley, she is still treated as the impoverished lower-class citizen that she was before she met her husband.
It quickly becomes apparent that she can never truly become mistress of the house for as long as Rebecca, her husband’s first wife is remembered. But can the ghost of her predecessor ever be exorcised when Rebecca’s name seems intertwined with Manderley? And why is her husband so keen to avoid every mention of the first Mrs. De Winter?
This book really is ‘a classic’: it embraces elements from different genres without being sucked into any one in particular. It is the story of a young woman having to fit into a new world and struggling to become the mistress of a great house. It is a gothic-tinged tale of secrets and ghosts of whispers that echo around Manderley and the first Mrs. de Winter. Each of these threads weave together to makes the story a richer experience.
The character of Rebecca was introduced beautifully and gradually took over the tale even though she never appeared in it. We only ever see her through hastily snatched conversations with people who were in awe of her. I didn’t just recognise the second Mrs. de Winter’s desperation to discover what sort of person Rebecca was; I too became equally desperate to understand what made her such a notable woman in others’ eyes.
The other character I really who never got to speak for themselves but influenced the story was Manderley. It may sound clichéd, but that estate spoke volumes about its past mistress. It is portrayed as a husk now that Rebecca, the heart that made it so full of life, is gone. Du Maurier leads the reader straight into what feels like a shrine to Rebecca and awes them with its stillness and secrets.
The one point that really got my goat and stops the book from being an all-out win (in my eyes) is Mr. de Winter’s treatment of his second wife. He calls her an ‘ignorant… little fool’ on numerous occasions and treats her as a child for the majority of the story. I’m pretty certain (slight spoiler) that his suggestion that she dress as Alice in Wonderland for the costume ball (/end slight spoiler) emphasises the ‘young girl who’s fallen down the metaphorical rabbit hole and is wondering where she is’ aspect that lingers unpleasantly in the middle third of the book.
Rebecca is the sort of book that keeps you on your toes throughout and rewards you with stunning revelations at the end. It also reminds me of To the Lighthouse and Jane Eyre at times, so if you liked either (or both) of these books then you may like this one too.
WNI’s Verdict? Wavering towards… WIN!