Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review: "Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier

Now we're cooking with gas.

"Rebecca" was published in 1938 to great critical and popular acclaim and it's considered a modern classic according to the tattered cover of the copy I found on someone's door stoop here in Brooklyn. That's right, this is a stoop find, and wow is it a good one! I didn't realize that it was written so recently. I only know it from clips of the Alfred Hitchcock movie (1940), and that footage led me to believe that "Rebecca" was a Gothic romance from the time of "Wuthering Heights."

The book is definitely a Gothic romance in plot and tone, but it's set in England in the 1930s, so while much of the setting is relatively modern--car travel and telephones are heavily featured--the characters themselves and their attitudes toward each other are holdovers from the Victorian era. There's a lot of interesting juxtaposition between the modern and the ancient in "Rebecca," embodied most strongly in the two mistresses of Manderley.

Rebecca de Winter was the first wife of Maxim de Winter, master of the famous estate and mansion Manderley. I think Maxim must be titled in some way because of the paternalistic way he talks about the people of the nearby town and countryside, and the way those peripheral characters talk about him, but you never learn what his exact title is. Rebecca herself probably has a title, too, because much is made of her good breeding and upbringing. Suffice to say that both Maxim and Rebecca are of the same landed gentry class.

The second Mrs. de Winter (and the narrator), whose first name we never learn, isn't landed gentry. At the beginning of the book, she's actually more of a maid, running errands for an obnoxious American in Monte Carlo. She meets and falls in love with Maxim there. Even though she's only known him for two weeks, and she's twenty years younger than him, AND they're at opposite ends of the social spectrum, she says yes to his marriage proposal and they bum around Italy for a while. Like ya do.

At this point, Rebecca has been dead for almost a year from a well-publicized boating accident, and the narrator is more than a little nervous about stepping into her role as mistress of the fabulous Manderley. Mrs. de Winter doesn't know how to command a staff of servants and she has no experience in socializing with people in the upper class, so she's already at a disadvantage. To make matters worse, Rebecca was apparently a joy and a pleasure to all who came across her, and everywhere she turns, the shy and diffident Mrs. de Winter finds herself compared to the glamorous Rebecca and coming up short. There are even some individuals lurking in the sidelines who miss Rebecca so terribly that they're actively plotting against Mrs. de Winter and her fledgling marriage to Maxim.

"Rebecca" isn't a ghost story in the traditional sense because there are no specters or ghouls, no doors blowing shut mysteriously or cold drafts from unexplained sources. Rebecca herself is most assuredly dead throughout the entire book. But she was such a mighty presence in life that Mrs. de Winter and Maxim feel haunted by her, by the memories that their servants and friends have of her, and by the house and grounds she decorated and designed. In a way, "Rebecca" is a more effective ghost story than one with an actual ghost in it because it is so realistic. It illustrates on how people live on after they die, in their physical possessions and in  hearts and minds of their social circle, and how difficult it is to bury the past when evidence of it is all around you.

But "Rebecca" is also a bit of a murder mystery, right down to the scene at the end where the detective gathers the players together in the library to go over the evidence and decide whodunit. But du Maurier turns this convention on its head as well, because we already know whodunit and why, and all of the characters do, too. It's a suspenseful scene where everyone is just waiting to see if the evidence will add up to the horrid truth or reinforce the comfortable lie.

"Rebecca" is a murder mystery without any mystery, and a ghost story without any ghost. It's a meditation on the encroachment of the modern world into the traditional one, and also questions just how wonderful "tradition" actually is. Does good breeding and a sparkling wit mean that one is a good person? Can someone still be good if they perform terrible deeds? What is the price of good appearances and a stiff upper lip?

"Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier: A.

Recommended for anyone who likes a good ghost story, a Gothic romance, or the movie "Gosford Park." The movie isn't considered one of Hitchcock's best, though, so I'd avoid it unless you're really into Hitchcock.

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