Today is the last day of our literary tour of the British Isles. For now. I have read about Cornwall in several British novels, but Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is the novel that fixes it in my mind.
Rebecca is the diary of a very young woman who falls in love with a man many years her senior, Maxim de Winter. She marries him against the advice of her older companion and moves to his estate, Manderley. It is at Manderley that Rebecca encounters the housekeeper who was completely devoted to Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca. (The reader is never given the name of the young woman who is the narrator.) The young woman struggles to fill the shoes of Rebecca as she feels the ghost of the former mistress of Manderley dogging her steps. As she attempts to be as great a presence as Rebecca, the new Mrs. De Winter uncovers the secrets Manderley and its magnificence conceal.
This plot may ring a bell for some readers, although you may not have read the novel. Rebecca was turned into a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve seen a clip of the film, and I think that it is quite well cast and well done. I am, however, a Hitchcock fan.
Manderley is arguably even more important the the character’s of this novel. It is Maxim’s legacy, something he would never allow to be soiled. It is also considered to be one of the most beautiful estate’s in the country. The narrator struggles to fulfill the role of being its mistress, and the mystery of how it burns down hangs over the reader from the very first chapter.
Daphne du Maurier reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut (I’m sure you never thought you’d here that) in the sense that she does what he believes is so important: she let’s the reader know exactly what is going to happen. Now, the first chapter doesn’t spoil all of the action, but it does let you know that Manderley will be destroyed, and it may not mean much at first, but as the character of the estate develops and secrets are uncovered, the destruction of Manderley becomes something to be feared. Du Maurier’s ability to turn an inanimate object into something living, majestic, and almost malevolent at times is astounding to me.
When I began Rebecca and encountered the narrator for the first time, I was irriated. I did not want to read a novel about an insipid teenage girl who didn’t know the difference between love and infatuation, who was naive, self-centered, and foolish. I despised the book. But as I read on, I discovered that even thought I didn’t like any of the characters, I wanted to know what happened. I believe I grew attached to the estate. Manderley was a maze of mystery. Rebecca’s presence remained, even though she had died tragically, and it seemed as though everyone had something to hide. The only one willing to give up its secrets was the estate itself.
As much as I may have enjoyed it, many of my classmates did not. Mostly my male classmates. Part of me understands this because I think it can be difficult to relate to a character of a different gender, but I wouldn’t say I related to the narrator. I despised her. I wanted to know the dark secrets!
It may be that Rebecca sticks in my mind so clearly because it was the last novel we read in that particular course, but the essay I wrote concerning it helps. For our final exam, one of the essay prompts was for us to choose a focus group that we think would benefit from reading Rebecca and give our reasons for choosing that group.
I made an… interesting choice. My response (Warning: Spoilers!):
“While there may be many groups of people who would benefit from reading Rebecca, men and women alike, the group I think of first is the young women who go to MLC, or any other college, with the sole purpose of finding a husband. Now, the narrator was not in search of a husband when she met and fell in love with Maxim, but she shares some characteristics with the young women whom I will from now on refer to as “husband-hunters.”
The first idea I think husband-hunters would identify with is the narrator’s loyalty. Even after the narrator found out about Maxim’s criminal past, she did not abandon him. I am not advocating that women keep secrets about crimes, but she showed commitment to her husband by not running away from him. She stayed by his side and continued to love him. I think that husband-hunters would identify with this because it shows the Christian belief that marriage is lifelong. While the narrator may have been deluded to think that the murder of Rebecca meant she and Maxim could be happy together, her loyalty in a time of trouble is admirable in some respects.
The second idea is a piece of advice. I think husband-hunters could gather from Rebecca is to examine your motives for forming the relationship/getting married. The narrator said she was in love with Maxim, and certainly, she had strong feelings for him, whether they were love, infatuation, or admiration, but her reaction upon hearing his proposal was to dream of being mistress of Manderley. She fantasized about throwing parties and having people call on her. She was in love with the life Maxim was going to give her. It might not have mattered whether or not he was the man she married. The purpose of marriage is making a commitment to a person out of love for them, not the life they will supply for you. Husband-hunters might be more in love with the idea of being a wife rather than the person they are intending to marry.
The desire to marry is quite understandable. The narrator found a man she considered to be perfectly eligible. He was wealthy, handsome, and single. The final and most important idea I think husband-hunters would take away from reading Rebecca is that you should not rush into a relationship. The narrator barely knew anything about Maxim before she agreed to marry him and had only been acquainted with him for a couple weeks prior to his proposal. The narrator was very naïve in her acceptance, and she expected a fairytale ending. This was highly unrealistic of her under any circumstances, and I think that husband-hunters would benefit from reading about a young woman who jumped into a commitment prematurely. It is not likely that MLC is full of men who killed their first wife and covered it up, but we are all sinners and everyone has secrets. Knowing those secrets, accepting them as realities, and deciding how to deal with them are important steps in a relationship. The narrator skipped over the “getting to know you” period of the relationship and was miserable for at least the beginning of her marriage and possibly the rest of her life. Do not set yourself up for disaster the way the narrator did.”
I was unsure of how my professor would respond to such a choice, but thankfully, he found it interesting, as well as humorous, and responded well.
If I were asked to recommended a Victorian novel, this would not be my first choice, but I enjoyed it and believe that it is worth a read, especially if you want to read a romantic mystery that isn’t disgustingly sexual. Or sexual at all.