Rebecca caused a sensation upon publication in the 1930s and has never gone out of print. It follows directly the gothic traditions begun with early novelists, such as Anne Radcliffe. It also owes a heavy debt to the Bronte sisters. In particular its plot has many similarities to Jane Eyre: a plain young woman marries a wealthy older man with the shadow of his first wife hanging over their relationship. They also share a sense of foreboding, some sinister servants, and dramatic fires. It wouldn’t be fair to label Rebecca as a mere copycat though, as its success indicates it is a novel in its own right.
There are some aspects of the novel that have dated rather badly. The second Mrs De Winter is hopelessly naïve - a classic trope of gothic fiction - yet she is in her early twenties in the twentieth century, and without an aristocratic family to shelter her from the brutalities of life. After Charlotte Bronte’s passionate, determined Jane Eyre, and written after both WWI and the suffragette movement, this heroine feels as though she harks back to an earlier time. I also suspect that her capacity to forgive (Spoiler Alert - but don’t you know already?) Mr De Winter for killing Rebecca, because, hey she was a bitch, is problematic to say the least. Lastly, there is the slightly awkward ‘idiot’ Ben, who clearly has what we would call Down’s Syndrome. His place in the novel, call it political correctness or what you like, does leave a slightly sour taste in my mouth, as our heroine views his otherness as something to fear.
You could get the impression from the above paragraph that I didn’t enjoy Rebecca, or even think it was any good. There is a lot that does work; Du Maurier creates a wonderful atmosphere as our hapless heroine gets caught up in events she has little understanding of. She knows how to write a page turner that keeps you gripped, and despite all the foreboding, and ominous events, there are plenty of elements of light relief that prevent it from being heavy handed. Manderley is vividly depicted for us, as an abandoned wilderness in the dream at the beginning, as an unfamiliar home to a new bride, and the sense of history contained in this family estate.
One of the problems with reading Rebecca is its own success. It is rather like the first time you watch Casablanca, you know every second line in the film already as pop culture references to the film are so plentiful. Long before I picked up Rebecca I could have told you not only its first line (Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again) but also its last. The relationship between our heroine the second Mrs De Winter, and the aforementioned sinister servant Mrs Danvers, is also widely parodied. I’m a big fan of comedy duo Mitchell and Webb, and I’ve been known to say they have a skit for every occasion. While technically a parody of Hitchcock’s film version, their Rebecca skit is absolutely spot-on. Every time Mrs Danvers appeared, and Du Maurier described her skull like face, I couldn’t help but picture David Mitchell in drag.
Rebecca is an enjoyable read. This is the first time I’ve read it, and it is to me a ‘curl up on a rainy day with a cup of tea’ kind of book. I’m sure I’ll pull if off the shelf again someday. It might be a gothic horror, but to this hardy twenty-first century woman, it is ultimately quite cosy.