by Daphne du Maurier
448 pages, Virago
This is a review of the audio version, narrated by Anna Massey
Review by Pat Black
Rebecca? Why bother with a review of Rebecca? This isn’t a new novel, sir. The previous reviewer wouldn’t have bothered with these kind of retrospective pieces, oh no, sir. That wouldn’t do at all. Begging your pardon, sir, I think it would be best if you didn’t review it. Will that be all?
A friend scared me recently by pointing out that there are a finite amount of books to be read before my life ends. We can only guess at this figure, but it is exact.
Going by the national average, my life is half over. I’m from Glasgow, so this assessment may be optimistic. Like the amount of days you have left, this number is unknowable and might not be as bad as you first thought - but it’s still there, and unsettling to consider.
Will it be 1,000 books? One hundred? Ten? Single figures?
I decided it might be an idea to make some of my remaining allocation count. So I read Rebecca.
I’d never read any of Daphne du Maurier’s novels before, though I have enjoyed some of her short fiction. I remember seeing Candida Doyle from Pulp at an event in Sheffield a couple of years back, clutching an ancient green-and-white spined Penguin collection of du Maurier stories. I thought this was a level of cool few humans can attain. And it planted a seed: I really should get round to Rebecca.
I’d never even seen any adaptations of Rebecca, and knew nothing of the plot – that’s almost an achievement, right up there with never having seen The Third Man, Ben-Hur or Citizen Kane. I should watch these films (there’s only a certain amount of films you have left to watch, after all). I should also read Wuthering Heights. And lots more Dickens. And King Lear. And so on.
You probably know the story back-to-front. A naïve young girl working as a companion/dogsbody for a nasty old sow in Monte Carlo meets a handsome widower, Maxim de Winter. He’s rather stern, but good-looking. If Christopher Plummer never played him, then this is a mistake by the forces that shape and guide the universe.
De Winter rescues the girl from a life of dull servitude and marries her in about 10 minutes flat before taking her back to his country pile in Cornwall – Manderley.
The narrator learns up-front that de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, drowned off the Cornish coast the year before. This is an Important Fact.
The beautifully-kept house near the sea is run by the baleful Mrs Danvers. It’s fair to say she does not take kindly to the new girl appearing on the scene.
The house holds many secrets and lies. Our narrator, who is never named, picks her way through them, diffident and unsteady as a new-born doe.
The book throbs with atmosphere, buried tensions and passions that threaten to erupt at any moment. It helps that Rebecca is an Edwardian novel set in a country house, with servants, titles, calling cards and stringently policed, entirely proper behaviour. It’s beautifully mannered – which makes the spite, jealousy, suspicion and rage even more pronounced when it detonates.
A pal of mine who adores Sherlock Holmes once explained his fascination with the world of Conan Doyle’s great hero this way: “Everyone’s so polite, especially when they’re being rude.” That’s a good approach when it comes to taking Rebecca’s weird pulse.
Rebecca features three beautifully-drawn characters. Remarkably, one of these never even appears in the book. We do not see her face. We do not hear her speak. But we know her name.
I admit to over-using comparisons with the shark in Jaws for any hidden menace, but it’s apt for the lady in the title. Rebecca is dead, but she’s is an ever-present in the book, with signposts to her life and the effect she had on people littered throughout. Rebecca bewitches everyone – even, ultimately, the narrator, whose jealousy over the wild, dark, exotic competitor she will never meet threatens to trip into obsession. The slant of the letter “R” in her signature in the flyleaf of a poetry book; the gleam in the eye of her lovers; the dreadful pindrop silences any reference to her evokes; yellow barrels; the detached pier swinging back towards the beach; E and F, E and F.
At first, I suspected that Rebecca might still be alive. Her gravitational pull is so strong that the world of Manderley becomes uncanny, warped. Even in death, her effect on people is corrosive. And yet, she is defined by her absence; she is a silhouette on the horizon, an unusual swell in the water. Objects like hairbrushes, mirrors and even dresses hanging in a wardrobe for the delectation of the moths are suffused with her essence. When the narrator intrudes upon the previous Mrs de Winter’s perfectly-preserved chambers at Manderley, it feels like Howard Carter breaking into the tomb of Tutankhamun. Small wonder Hitchcock adapted this book; I wonder if he was tempted to make Rebecca a blonde?
Our second extraordinary character is Mrs Van Hopper, the ridiculous old society dame. She’s the toxic woman in this story that people sometimes forget, hovering over the pre-Manderley section in Monte Carlo like a gleeful, bloated hornet. She chides and harasses her young charge, and takes a near-demented interest in everyone who crosses her path, claiming closeness and kinship with people she’s only known for about five minutes. She peers at strangers in restaurants and salons like a bird-watcher with a pair of field glasses. And like many gadflies who place great esteem on their place in society, Mrs Van Hopper is shockingly gauche when it comes to how other people might perceive her. When Maxim de Winter brutally scolds her at the dinner table, Mrs Van Hopper rationalises it as a compliment.
A common complaint by critics of Dickens is that he creates caricatures rather than characters. Grotesques and clowns, music hall jackanapes, dying waifs, heroes and heroines from the original soap operas. You might even agree with this - until that first moment you meet people in real life who resemble Dickens characters. I knew a Fagin; I knew a Bill Sykes; I knew a Mrs Jellyby.
The same is true of Mrs Van Hopper. I know a Mrs Van Hopper. The shock of recognition was disturbing.
I also know a Mrs Danvers.
A gaunt, poison-filled hypodermic needle, Mrs Danvers is one of the more memorable villains in all of 20th century literature. As the long-standing chief housekeeper of Manderley, who kept the estate running while Mr de Winter went travelling to get over the shock of Rebecca’s death, Mrs Danvers is one of those long-standing employees who imagines that she owns the place. She has no humour in her, no kindness, but fathomless reserves of malice.
In a deft campaign of psychological warfare, Mrs Danvers sets about undermining her lady’s confidence from the very first by placing her in opposition to the memory of Rebecca. The narrator is all at sea, and driven to jealousy by the comparison. Mrs Danvers makes it clear that the new Mrs de Winter is not a patch on the previous one. She even controls where her mistress goes in her own home; trying all the while to keep her away from Rebecca’s shrine. It was the most compelling part of du Maurier’s strange psychodrama.
I am not by nature the sort of person who gets agitated watching the television. I don’t shout at talk shows, or offer alternative suggestions to girls running the wrong way in slasher movies. But du Maurier did something to me with Rebecca. Listening to the audiobook in the car, I was in a state of some excitement during the narrator’s confrontations with Mrs Danvers. I hooted like a chimpanzee, baring my teeth, clutching the wheel, urging the poor girl to do something about that horrible witch. God knows what I must have looked like to people I drove past, or other motorists passing by.
I fantasised about what would happen if the narrator was a violent Glaswegian rather than a quivering debutante.
“Alabaster vase? Here’s yer alabaster vase, ya bastart!” (crash)
Mrs Danvers may be a puppetmaster, but she is in turn a marionette in du Maurier’s hands. There are several moments of exquisite manipulation by the author, but two in particular stand out. The first of these occurs when our lip-biting narrator is so wrapped up in the mystique of Rebecca that she makes a terrible faux pas when she answers the telephone, and the caller asks for “Mrs de Winter”.
It’s Mrs Danvers on the other end of the line, of course.
What was so extraordinary about this is that, psychologically, I made the same mistake. Du Maurier had planted the idea of Rebecca in readers’ minds so skilfully just prior to the call coming in that we have been conditioned to do the exact same thing as her narrator. Realisation came for me at the same moment as the narrator experienced her own shock and embarrassment. This was neat work.
This ramps up when, bearing that episode in mind, we are hand-led into another horrible moment for the narrator, when she agonises over what costume to choose for a grand fancy dress party at Manderley. This time, the embarrassment is very clearly signposted for the reader, from a long way off - but not to our narrator. Thanks to some barely-noticeable prodding from the satanic Mrs Danvers, she walks right into it; the tension is excruciating.
There are three extraordinary monologues by Mrs Danvers during three confrontations with the new Mrs de Winter – an escalating series of encounters which reveal the depths of the housekeeper’s unhealthy affection, even passion, for her dead mistress.
The last of these almost ends in murder. The sense of helplessness in the young narrator as she looks out of that window into the fog, with the sea mist rolling over the grounds of Manderley, and Mrs Danvers’ gentle, reasonable suggestions washing over her, had me gnashing my teeth in frustration. Even when Mrs de Winter finally grows a pair and lashes out, her nemesis’ black magic is simply too strong.
The late Anna Massey – who I discovered played Mrs Danvers in a TV adaptation – plays a part to perfection here. There isn’t so much as a pause - not one single consonant or vowel - which feels false or misplaced. It’s poetry. Her Mrs Danvers is a voice echoing from the gates of hell, a truly wicked creation. Massey’s performance here is the best I’ve ever heard in an audiobook. Even when we meet the roguish Flavell later on, the nasal whine she affects is perfectly matched to his Edwardian rake – like a dissolute, morally blighted Bertie Wooster. But her Danvers is the shining jewel. It made me wonder at what new dimensions there are to be uncovered with this character – if she was younger, perhaps, more comely. I could see Amanda Abbington doing great things with Mrs Danvers.
Then there’s Manderley itself, one of the great country estates in all literature, standing alongside Brideshead and Bleak House. The opening chapter takes us through the place in fine detail, literally leading us up the garden path. This was sumptuous writing, which had me wondering if it would have made it past many agents today, all other elements being equal.
Even after Manderley’s secrets are exposed, there’s still some delicious tension when the bounder Flavell turns up, intent on causing trouble for Maxim de Winter. During informal questioning by a magistrate featuring all the key players, we find ourselves in the queasy position of siding with the conspirators, as suspicions, claims and counter-claims are aired. Without going into too much detail, in case you’re as naïve as me when it comes to Rebecca, this too was remarkable, as villainous characters become the only people who see the truth, and misunderstandings become the engines of salvation. Du Maurier misleads us, time and time again.
Rebecca is a voluptuous novel, wholly irresistible. It’s a dark psychological study of jealousy and malice, and yet also a fine thriller and page-turner, with some crafty twists and turns. Eighty years on it still exerts a weird power over the reading public. By one recent estimate, it still sells 4,000 copies per month. That’s a whole lot of people making the same decision as me to promote it from the bucket list. You won’t regret doing so - it is a treat.