Rebecca is my favourite book. I return to it every couple of years, and manage to get caught up again and again in its gothic beauty and suspense.
When I was reading this book recently, my partner asked me ‘What sort of a read is it?’ and I struggled to answer. At first I wanted to say it was a romance, but then I thought....wait a minute, there is very little romance in this book. Then I thought ‘drama’, but that does not seem adequate. It is not necessarily a character-driven book either. It is, however, most definitely suspenseful, but more than that too. Put simply, Rebecca (and all the other du Maurier novels I’ve read) is impossible to classify. It is dark and suspenseful, with characters in it who are not particularly admirable. It is also beautiful. I don’t often think of novels as ‘beautiful’, but Rebecca is very beautiful.
Rebecca de Winter has been dead a year, but her ghost haunts the new Mrs de Winter—the narrator, whose name is never revealed. Rebecca is everything that the narrator is not—beautiful, sophisticated, intelligent, charming and self-assured. Rebecca hunted, sailed, held parties and was a brilliant conversationalist. Our narrator, on the other hand, cuts a poor figure in her poorly cut clothing, unfashionable hairstyle and school-girl language. All she can do is sketch—referred to at times by characters as her ‘little hobby’. Filling Rebecca’s shoes as Maxim’s new wife and the lady of Manderley is extremely arduous for our artless and self-conscious narrator. Her self-consciousness is, at times, excruciating, particularly when dealing with the imposing housekeeper Mrs Danvers.
If the new Mrs de Winter isn’t already sensitive of her status as a woman replacing someone's deceased wife, Mrs Danvers sees to it that she is fully aware of her inadequacies compared to Rebecca. It is clear that Mrs Danvers loved Rebecca deeply. In fact, some have suggested she and Rebecca were lovers.
Mrs Danvers is unable to grieve and the extent of her obsession with keeping the memory of Rebecca alive becomes horribly clear as time passes. She cannot accept the narrator as the new lady of Manderley and sets out to destroy her. This should not be difficult, given the weak and passive (but somehow, lovable) character of the new Mrs de Winter. Events, however, transpire to guide the story in an unexpected direction.
Du Maurier uses flowers, gardens and the weather to set the tone throughout the novel. I didn’t even know what a rhododendron was, but somehow I managed to realise that their wild, uncontrollable and almost painful beauty, as depicted in the novel, meant some sort of horror was on its way. The suspense is built beautifully with bad weather and untamed gardens all of which is overseen by the ghost of Rebecca who seems to haunt every page.