How do you review a book when you don’t want your audience to know the most important parts of the story before they read it? Because this is what Rebecca has done to me. It isn’t technically a mystery, but the spoilers would be so catastrophic it might as well be. Dammit, book, you’re so good and I can’t tell anybody why or it will ruin the whole thing.
Most of Rebecca is a flashback, with only a brief snapshot of the narrator’s present situation in the first two chapters. This snapshot doesn’t give you many clues as to what’s coming, which is exactly the way it should be. The real story begins in the past, as the narrator remembers how she met her much older husband, Maxim de Winter, in Monte Carlo while training as a lady’s companion. All she really knows about Maxim is that he lost his first wife, Rebecca, a year before, and he is the master of Manderley, a famous English estate. For his part, Maxim is reluctant to discuss his past. After only a few weeks, he proposes. Since by this point the narrator is madly in love, and her annoying employer, Mrs. Van Hopper, wants to take her away to America – meaning she will never see Maxim again – the narrator accepts. She and Maxim marry quietly abroad, then return to Manderley.
You might have noticed I haven’t named the narrator. Don’t worry, I’m not being lazy or cryptic: du Maurier never names her either. Sometimes omissions in literature can be even more meaningful than what the author chooses to include. For example, the words “adultery,” “adulteress” and “adulterer” never appear anywhere in The Scarlet Letter. Adultery drives the entire plot, but is never actually named, only implicitly understood.
The narrator’s missing name is similarly significant in Rebecca. Because from the moment the narrator moves into Manderley, Rebecca overshadows everything. The decorating is Rebecca’s. The menus are Rebecca’s. The flowers in the garden are Rebecca’s. The servants do things the way Rebecca wanted them done. The old dog by the fireplace looks for Rebecca whenever the narrator enters the room. The narrator, extremely young (21 to Maxim’s 40-something) and already unsure of herself being suddenly required to manage such a large household, becomes understandably insecure about this. Will she ever be able to get out from under Rebecca’s shadow? Does Maxim really love her, or is she just a young distraction now that the real love of his life is gone? In this situation, with Rebecca still running the show from beyond the grave, the narrator’s name is not important – because the narrator herself feels so much like an afterthought.
Props to du Maurier, by the way, for such a perfect portrait of insecurity and anxiety. In fact it probably hits a bit too close to home for many of us. The narrator frequently plays out hypothetical conversations in her head, wondering what people thought, or will think, of what she did or said. I know I can especially relate to the imaginary worst-case scenarios, projected forward ad infinitum. Take heart, anxiety sufferers. None of our afflictions are new.
The narrator’s problems are made worse by Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca’s maid who has been running the household in Maxim’s absence. She practically raised Rebecca, is still devoted to her, and obviously does not appreciate the narrator being in the house – though of course like any dutiful servant, she is never quite so explicit as that. She is also delightfully creepy, a presence that slinks around in the background, pops up when you least expect her, and apparently knows everything but isn’t telling you.
In the end, the whole novel is much like Mrs. Danvers – full of unsettling mysteries lurking in the shadows. And unfortunately, that’s all I can say. I hate to give short shrift to such a great story, but if I went any further, it would ruin the twist – and boy is it one hell of a twist. Luckily, there’s something else I can talk about: du Maurier’s real life relationship with the house that inspired Manderley.
Menabilly is a historic estate in Cornwall, inhabited by the Rashleigh family for over four hundred years, which du Maurier had a bit of an obsession with. (She wrote a lovely essay about it, The House of Secrets, which unfortunately I couldn’t find online.) When she first discovered Menabilly, it was uninhabited (the current Rashleigh lived elsewhere) and in disrepair. In 1943, however, after visiting Menabilly secretly for years, du Maurier leased the house and completely restored it. Nowadays it’s a private residence again and unfortunately inaccessible to the public.
So in lieu of the rest of Rebecca, I leave you with one journalist’s journey to Menabilly, and du Maurier’s daughter, Flavia Leng, reminiscing about her childhood in the house. Want to know more? Read the book. I refuse to give away such a great ending.