Not a review of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Warning…there are spoilers below.

I decided to read this on a whim (well re-read apparently, my mother swears I read it as a young teenager because she remembers me telling her it was a load of twaddle but I have no recollection of that) (which is worrying as of the two of us surely it is the much younger me that should have the better memory). The book is being discussed on tonight’s episode of The First Tuesday Book Club (local television-based book discussion) and I happened to find an audio version narrated by marvellous English actress Anna Massey. So I dove in.

The problem with reading a book that has achieved ‘classic’ status, one that has been copied, filmed and referenced multiple times in various ways in popular culture is that you really can’t come to it with fresh eyes; you have some expectations of some kind. In the case of Rebecca I expected an evil character called Mrs Danvers (which I got), a naïve young woman thrown into social circumstances she didn’t understand (half a tick), and loads of romance and suspense (there was some of the former and, for me, not much of the latter). All in all I found the book mildly entertaining, with moments of sheer brilliance, but I think if I’d been reading in print I’d have skipped over much of it. I found the descriptions of flowers and sandwiches and imagined conversations which might (but probably wouldn’t) happen in the future fairly tiresome after a while and the fairly passionless relationship between Max and his new wife was not terribly convincing.

In one sense though the book exceeded my expectations entirely with the characterisation of Mrs Danvers. As the housekeeper of English estate Manderley and devotee of the owner’s deceased wife Rebecca, Mrs Danvers does not take kindly to the new Mrs Maxim de Winter, the unnamed narrator of the novel. It is in the myriad of small ways she displays her displeasure where the woman’s pure evilness shines through, culminating in a scene where she urges the new bride to kill herself by jumping out of the window. This is seriously good writing and, as read by Anna Massey (who played Mrs Danvers in a 1980 BBC televised version of the story) it is also seriously but deliciously creepy. It is possibly worrying how much I enjoyed this depiction of pure evil.

Though in my favour I at least know that murdering people is not nice and therefore struggled to shrug off Maxim’s murdering of his first wife in the way that his new wife, and the friends who suspect it, so clearly did. I certainly didn’t see any romance in this aspect of the novel. I couldn’t help but ponder how unlikely it would have been for a story to become any kind of classic if the gender roles had been reversed. If a woman had killed her philandering first husband and gone on to cover up the crime with the aid of a new spouse and a handful of hangers on would it have been considered anything other than horrific? I think not. But it seems perfectly acceptable to Du Maurier, her characters and almost everyone whose review I have read that the killing of Rebecca is perfectly acceptable because, after all, she was a hussy.

I felt a tinge of sympathy for Mrs Danvers (who I think felt an unrequited love for Rebecca) and could understand (though not condone) the ultimate revenge that she took.

So, not a review, just some reactions. Have you read Rebecca? Have any thoughts? Do you read classics? How do you ensure you come to them with fresh eyes and not too many expectations?

This entry was posted in Daphne Du Maurier. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Not a review of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

  1. Bernadette – I have to say I’m not one for a lot of description, either, so I know what you mean about the sandwiches. And yes, Mrs. Danvers is a great nasty character isn’t she? You raise such an interesting question about the classics. I think we sometimes do go into them with certain expectations because so many people have read and commented about them. I’ve no doubt that influences the way we feel about them, too. I’d guess plenty of people read a classic that’s “supposed to be” a stunning book and find themselves wondering if they’ve missed something when the book turns out to be not good. Really, really interesting points you make here!

    Like

  2. Sarah says:

    I re-read Rebecca a couple of years ago and it seemed to me a completely different book to the one I read as a teenager. I found the character of Maxim’s second wife (we never find out her name) incredibly irritating and almost enjoyed Mrs Danvers winding her up.
    Your point about unrequited love is interesting. I’m sure that this is intentional, especially if you read Du Maurier’s recent biography by Margaret Forster which describes the writer’s ‘Venetian’ passions.
    I think Du Maurier’s short stories are wonderful though.

    Like

    • I will check out a short story if I can track one down Sarah as I am curious enough to read something else by Du Mauroer. As for Mrs D I guess we’ll never know, I just thougjt it towards the end but my mind was wandering a bit by then 🙂

      Like

  3. hlbanks.banks@gmail.com says:

    It was refreshing to hear that someone else did not find the book to be as wonderful as previously portrayed. I had watched the movie, found it intriguing, and got my hands on the novel. I was very disappointed. I had unrealistic expectations I guess. I started to skim read early into the novel but did stop when the author took off like a rocket, her prose captivating, descriptive, and chilling. I have usually found the ‘movies’ adpated from novels I loved to be disappointing but sadly, not so in this case.

    Like

  4. Barbara says:

    This happened to me recently when I finally read Ironweed by William Kennedy. This is a classic American work, and I knew Kennedy was famous for having written about Albany, NY politics. But for me the book was simply too depressing for words, and the main character never changed. He didn’t get better and he didn’t get worse, he didn’t learn anything from his experiences.

    I believe I tried Rebecca a couple times when I was younger and just couldn’t get into it. Now that I am a more patient reader, I should try it again to see if my reaction is any different.

    Note: I was getting only blank emails instead of your blog, but now it seems to have resolved. Today’s came through perfectly.

    Like

  5. janebbooks says:

    Bernadette, this is absolutely the best posting you have ever done! Your mother must have
    been very practical and austere…REBECCA is not twaddle. My favorite of all the wonderful
    girlhood stories regarding good and evil, inexperience and experience in love, good girl wins out, just downright wonderful stories. REBECCA was written in 1938. Well constructed and amazingly creepy yet with a lesson. And poor dear Max. You really should now view Lawrence Olivier or Charles Dance in the role.
    I recently did a piece on READ ME DEADLY morphing from REBECCA to one of S. J. Bolton’s modern gothic crime tales. Evocative mood, tone, landscape…and above all, suspense, lots of it.. Hint of romance and dark family secrets. I think it worked.
    Have you never known a manipulative woman such as Mrs. Danvers? Have you never been a slight wallflower who lost the fellow to a brazen aggressive woman? Have you never attracted the attention of a worldly and wealthy man above your station ?

    Jane, age 78.

    Like

    • Thanks Jane, even if we disadgree 🙂

      I think you might have hit the problem on the head, I have never met anyone who is above or below my station, it’s a product of being born later AND being born in Australia, we have our faults as a society but the entrenched class breakdowns are simply not present. And the idea of being so awesreuck by someone for that reason is pretty hard for me to imagine I have to say. She kept saying she was so in love with him and I kept muttering “but why” under my breath

      Like

  6. Maxine says:

    I think Rebecca is very much a product of its time and the attitudes that were common then. I have not read it for years but have seen a couple of the screen adaptations (the Laurence Olivier version which was again very much of its time, and a TV version with Joanna David as the second Mrs W. I forget who played Maxim but I do recall a very unlikely honeymoon/bed scene between them at the start in Venice or somewhere like that, which surely was not at all the point of their relationship?!?!). I also saw a dramatised version much more recently in the Keswick theatre, Lake District, which my daughter, who had just read the book at the time, said stuck very closely to it. When I first read it, I did not see the twist coming but I hadn’t read as much crime fiction then ;-). I do think the book very much reflected the attitude of its times and in particular that rather cold air that was so common then (eg if you read other books such as Dorothy Sayers they have that kind of element to them, though some would shoot me for daring to write that!). I seem to recall that the book was regarded as a cross between literature and racy fiction, and feel fairly certain that the author may have wished to write more explicitly or in-depth but was constrained by the conventions of the day.

    Like

    • Having not read a lot of books from this period I kept comparing it to all those Christie books and found this wanting really…both in the character development and plotting sense. I wasn’t expecting bedroom scenes but the relationship between Max and wife 2 just seemed so paternal I never really thought of them as a couple.

      Like

  7. Marg says:

    Damn. forgot about 1st Tuesday Bookclub last night!

    I did enjoy Rebecca when I read it a while ago, but I do agree that it is definitely a book of it’s time. I was also a bit influenced by all the Mrs Danvers running around in one of Jasper Fforde’s books as well.

    Like

  8. Rebecca is one of my favourite books of all time. I have a lot of favourites, but if I HAD to pick one, this would probably be it. I loooooove lots od description. So the pages of description of the driveway, and the sandwiches and imagined conversations etc were really wonderful to me. I do think that the relationship between Max and the protagonist was a weird weird in the way that there seemed to be so little relationship between them at all, but I don’t think the story would have worked quite as well if it had been done differently. The main character was quite irritating at times, especially when she is hiding in halls and behind doors and things like that. I get really frustrated at her every time I read it. But I keep going back for more, again and again and I think that it is thelanguage – the long descriptions and things like that that really attract me.

    Im a super early sleeper so I missed the Tuesday Book Club, but I download the podcasts so Ill get around to it soon.

    Like

    • It’s nice to see someone so passionate about the book Becky, even if I don’t quite agree ( though I didn’t hate it, just wanted them to get a move on). When I saw who had picked it for First Tuesday it all made sense…Kate Morton…I read The Forgotten Garden a couple of years ago and thought Rebecca had the exact same problem…too kuch description of nothing much at all…I think I must be too impatient, I actually wish I did enjoy that kind of thing more.

      Like

  9. Kathy D. says:

    I’ve never read this but have seen the movie versions, which were quite dramatic and at a high-pitch of tension and intense emotions.
    I don’t think I’ll read this. And in this day and age I would also question anyone being above my station or being in awe of anyone because of their class or social standing; in fact, it would engender in me a bit of distrust and disrespect.

    Like

  10. I certainly don’t think the same ‘above your station’ concept would be in evidence today Kathy but I guess England of 1938 was a different place. Though even today in England (well 8 years ago when I was last there) there was more of a class consciousness than I’ve ever been aware of here. No one here could give two hoots that my father was a railway labourer for most of his working life (very late in his working life he moved inside to office work) but in England I can recall being asked on multiple occasions what my father did for a living (and more than one person treated me differently afterwards), in the US they always seem to ask which university you went to. Here the only thing that matters is which football team you barrack for though it’s nothing to do with any notion of class

    Like

  11. Anonymous says:

    Over here, it doesn’t matter to most of us U.S. denizens, what our parents did. It might still matter where one goes to school or what one does now, although because of the economic situation, even college graduates can’t find jobs now.
    My parents had fine jobs, but the fact that there were lots of books, art and music around, and a love of reading, which began for me at an early age, was very important. My parents didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t have fancy clothes or cars or jewelry, but we had what we needed. No social climbing or status-seeking with us, nor did that matter to my family. Not at all. Values, principles, doing what was right, treating others decently — and learning, reading, investigating — were important.
    Sounds like your life was good.

    Like

  12. kathy d. says:

    That anonymous message was from Kathy D. Since my computer monitor broke, I’m using a friend’s laptop and I’m not signed in.

    Like

  13. sue says:

    I loved Rebecca. Read it when I was very young and have been re reading it ever since. It’s the atmosphere – hot house and stifling- the evocation of Cornwall: the freesias, the rhododendrens. the cove, and, above all, the house Manderley. And the characters – the evil Mrs Danvers, the hapless heroine, the strangely bloodless Maxim…

    “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Ah. You are right in so much of what you say about the book, but I don’t apply my critical thinking skills to it because I love it…

    Like

  14. Pingback: Books of the Month – October 2011 | Reactions to Reading

  15. Pingback: 2011: The New Authors | Reactions to Reading

Comments are closed.