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?