Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“…the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(This review contains mild spoilerish bits, so if you haven’t yet read the book, do it now and then pop back… 😉 )

We first meet our unnamed narrator when she is in Monte Carlo, working as the paid companion to an elderly American lady, Mrs Van Hopper. Still more girl than woman, the narrator is shy and unsophisticated, not bothering much about the clothes she wears or the style of her hair. Mrs Van Hopper scrapes an acquaintance with Maxim de Winter, a rich and handsome Englishman staying in the hotel alone because, as Mrs Van Hopper informs the narrator, his wife recently died in a tragic sailing accident. Our girl is rather dazzled by this man of the world who so easily deals with all the little social problems she finds so difficult, and he in turn seems to like her quietness and unadorned simplicity. Within a few weeks, Maxim proposes and finally, thank goodness, our narrator has a name – the second Mrs de Winter.

(FF’s Sixth Law: Unnamed narrators should never be used by authors who would like people to review their books.)

The book begins, of course, with one of the most famous opening lines in literature – “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” The ensuing dream sequence acts as a prologue and warning of what is to follow, and straight away du Maurier builds up an atmosphere full of unease. As Mrs de W2 in imagination moves towards the house, she describes the lush vegetation taking back the once cultivated grounds and gardens, now growing out of control. There’s an earthiness and sensuality to the descriptions, and a sense of growth and decay – a kind of raw, malignant vitality that seems to represent the first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca, while being a stark contrast to the rather sexless childlike personality of Mrs de W2. It’s a magnificent start to the book, setting the mood superbly for what is to follow.

I saw that the garden had obeyed the jungle law, even as the woods had done. The rhododendrons stood fifty feet high, twisted and entwined with bracken, and they had entered into alien marriage with a host of nameless shrubs, poor, bastard things that clung about their roots as though conscious of their spurious origin. A lilac had mated with a copper beech, and to bind them yet more closely to one another the malevolent ivy, always an enemy to grace, had thrown her tendrils about the pair and made them prisoners.

The book is famously compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic ever is. She infuses every room with the strength of her personality, as our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, or like the lowliest little maid, afraid to touch anything. Beautiful and vibrant, no-one who knew Rebecca remained untouched – it seems to Mrs de W2 that everyone adored her, some to the point of obsession. Even Mrs de W2’s beloved dog Jasper was Rebecca’s dog first. Gradually Mrs de W2 begins to think that Maxim made a mistake in marrying her – that he’s still in love with Rebecca. And then one day, a storm leads to the discovery of Rebecca’s lost boat, and suddenly everything Mrs de W2 thinks she knows about Rebecca and her husband is turned on its head…

All three of the female characters in the book are brilliantly drawn; dead Rebecca, her glittering exterior hiding a more complex personality underneath, whom we only get to know through other people’s memories of her; the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, whose grief for her first mistress makes her cold and cruel to the point of madness to the woman who has replaced her; and Mrs de W2 herself, a woman who seems to exist only to serve as an adjunct to people who need a doormat, moving from being the paid companion of a peevish and demanding elderly lady to becoming the unpaid companion of a peevish and bullying middle-aged man. I couldn’t help but wonder if life with Mrs Van Hopper wouldn’t have been more fun in the end…

Oh, I do apologise to Maxim fans! The first time I read the book many years ago, I’m sure I fell a little in love with Maxim myself. This time round, I wanted to slap him with the proverbial wet fish. He treats Mrs de W2 as just slightly lower down the social pecking order than Jasper the dog for most of the book. Granted, she kinda asks for it but she’s only young. Too young, Maxim – too, too young for a man of your age! Patting a woman on the head, physically or metaphorically, is never a good idea – if you behaved like that to Rebecca no wonder she turned out as she did! Couldn’t you have reassured Mrs de W2 – told her you loved her, maybe even called her by her name occasionally? Why were your tender little feelings so much more important than hers? Your behaviour at the party was a piece of shameful bullying and a man of your age should have shown more understanding, and a bit of kindness. And, you know what? Last time I forgave you for what you did. But not this time! You behaved abominably and you should have paid a higher price! And don’t think you can wheedle your way back into my affections just by looking like Laurence Olivier…

Clearly my attitude to men who treat women like doormats has changed somewhat over the years! More seriously, though, the book gives a great picture of the relative positions of the genders at the time, especially how Rebecca’s unconventional behaviour, which would have barely merited a raised eyebrow had she been a man, put her beyond the social pale as a woman. Du Maurier is just as incisive in her portrayal of the British class system in operation, with the squirearchy ready to build a defensive shield round one of their own regardless of his merits or otherwise.

That corner in the drive, too, where the trees encroach upon the gravel, is not a place in which to pause, not after the sun has set. When the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress, and when they shiver suddenly, and fall, and scatter away along the ground, they might be the patter, patter, of a woman’s hurrying footstep, and the mark in the gravel the imprint of a high-heeled satin shoe.

But as always with du Maurier it’s the atmosphere of growing tension that gives the book its true greatness. Even though we more or less know how it ends within the first two chapters, du Maurier holds enough secrets in reserve to ensure the reader is kept in suspense all the way through. The descriptive writing is fantastic, creating strong visual images and making both the house and grounds of Manderley become living things, playing their own role in the unfolding drama. If there’s anyone left out there who hasn’t already read this masterpiece of psychological suspense, then I highly recommend you grab it as soon as you can!

Audiobook

I part read/part listened to the book this time round. Anna Massey’s narration is very good – she has just the right kind of posh English accent for the subject matter, and every word is enunciated clearly. She does it as a straight reading; i.e., she doesn’t “act” the parts, though she does differentiate the voices to some extent. I wasn’t always totally thrilled by her “voices” – Maxim, for example, sounded a little gruffer than I would have gone for. But that’s simply a matter of personal interpretation. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed her reading, and would look out for her as a narrator again.

Book 6 of 90

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74 thoughts on “Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

  1. It’s a corker, isn’t it? Every little bit fits so perfectly together. I remember pining for a morning room with a writing desk and stationery emblazoned with my name… To my defence, I was about 13 when I first read it.

    • A fabulous book – I remembered loving it, but had forgotten just how great a writer she really is. All the nature stuff is amazing – she can make weeds sound scarier than triffids! And yes, she’s such a visual writer – I don’t always ‘see’ pictures in my mind when reading, but I feel as if I’ve actually visited Manderley and walked through the rooms…

  2. What a gothic glory it is! There are also aspects of it (well the film with LO) which do definitely enter the camp classic category. There’s a scene which stays in my mind where Mrs D strokes Rebecca’s underwear which I can never watch without hooting with laughter. I love your take on the Maxim character. You’re right, looked at as an adult he’s a complete idiot but he’s perfectly constructed for adolescents to fall in love with.

    • Hahaha, yes! I remember that scene! Actually the film Mrs Danvers is scarier than the book one, I think – I almost felt sorry for her in the book. Now I have a great excuse to rewatch it too! I know – all these fictional men I fell in love with in my teens would have been dumped in the divorce courts long ago… except my Darcy, of course! But I can’t imagine me living happily ever after with Rochester either…

    • Yeah, I tried to justify it on the grounds of the time too, but really, divorce wasn’t that unusual by then. Or he could have done a Rochester and locked her in the attic… 😉

  3. This is undoubtedly my favourite book. I know what you mean about Maxim being rather patronising but In his defence, 1)the book is set decades ago and is of its time, 2) Maxim has come out of a first marriage to a steaming bully who embarrassed him and made his life a misery , and 3) Mrs de W2 does occasionally come across as a bit feeble. But then without their character flaws there would have been no story! Therefore I can forgive them. I know various great writers have tried to write sequels to Rebecca but without much success in my opinion. It’s certainly a fantastic book to recommend.

    • It had been so long since I read it, I’d really forgotten just how brilliant it is – I can see why it would be your favourite, though Bleak House still wins for me – die-hard Dickens fan, that’s me! Ha! Good try at defending Maxim, but no – I refuse to let him off the hook! Anyone who could get rid of Mrs Van Hopper could surely have dealt with Rebecca! 😉 But I agree about the story – if characters behaved well in general, the literary world would be so dull! I can’t imagine a sequel to Rebecca – I thought it ended the way it had to end….

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 🙂

  4. This is an absolutely classic, isn’t it, FictionFan? I was always amazed by du Maurier’s ability to tell the story without ever naming the narrator. And that house!! As to Max? You’d have to wait your turn after me (or perhaps I could borrow your wet fish when you were finished)…

    • Brilliant, isn’t it? Haha – unnamed narrators never bothered me till I discovered how hard it is to write a review if the character has no name! But I’ll forgive her, because it works so well… 😉 She really brings the house and grounds to life though, especially the way she makes nature so scary. Haha! You can borrow my fish any time… 😉

  5. Ah, yes, REBECCA – Gothic extraordinaire! Our mystery group read and discussed this one a couple of years ago – plus I encouraged them to watch the Hitchcock movie as well. I was amazed at how many had never read or seen this story. Always try to have a Gothic book or event for our October meeting. Seems suitable. Anyway, many of the things you mentioned were brought up. One member was so creeped out by the beginning of the movie (black and white, of course) and the voice describing the house. She had nightmares. LOL

    I will say that I agree about Maxim and honestly don’t love him at all. Don’t even think I did when I first read this in my teens. I always wondered if the second Mrs. deW might have also been named ‘Rebecca’ and she just never told us. Great post!!

    • There are some books it just feels like everyone has read and I’m always surprised to discover how many readers actually haven’t! I can’t wait to watch the film again now and do a comparison – there are a couple of fairly major changes and I’m keen to see which work better. I suspect it might end up as a draw. That first chapter is a masterpiece of horror writing – she’s just brilliant at making nature scary and threatening. 😀

      Ooh, now that’s an interesting thought about her name! Either that or she’s called Esmeralda or something… Yeah, I really didn’t love Maxim this time round, though I think I did when I was younger. Though maybe it was Laurence Olivier I loved…

  6. I love this book and I love your review! Like you I’ve also found that my feelings towards Maxim have changed over the years. He should make better choices and think long and hard about the way his treatment affects his wives behaviour!

    • Aw, thank you! 😀 Haha – poor Maxim! I think he definitely appealed more to my teenage self – maybe I still thought it was cool to be ‘mastered’ back then! I doubt he’d get an invite to the FF Annual Feminist Get-together though… 😉

    • Haha, now I really want to know what the other one was! I find the classics grow on me – they need so much time, though, and there are different stages in life when that’s easier than at others. Du Maurier is fabulous at creating atmosphere, isn’t she? And considering Rebecca was dead and we never actually got to meet her, she’s an amazing character – it felt as if she was the real person and poor Mrs de W2 was the ghost…

      • The other one is Jane Eyre 😀 Others tend to make me sleepy 😂
        Your interpretation is so spot-on! It’s exactly as though the second de Winter is the ghost!

        • Jane Eyre is great too, but I always find it really lags in the middle with all that St John stuff. I think the secret is to define “classics” as meaning “any book I quite fancy reading” and then it works out better… 😉

  7. How I loved your review of this classic, FF!! You really tell it like you see it, and I appreciate that (I also appreciate your humor!) Slapping Maxim with a wet fish sounds like a fitting deed to me!!

    • Thank you! 🙂 Haha! I love reviewing classics actually – because nearly everyone has either read the book or seen the film, I can just express my opinion and know people will know what I’m talking about! He did feel as if he’d be vastly improved by a bit of fish-slapping… 😉

  8. I can’t read this review, FF! I haven’t read this yet! (It’s been on my TBR for ages now.) I have no good excuse. Shiny new things obviously keep distracting me. Hey, maybe this would be a perfect pick for the RIP Challenge in October! Yes, that’s the perfect solution. Will you remind me then? 😉

    • I’ve had it down for a re-read for years, so I know all about books lingering on the TBR! But this is one that I’m certain you’d enjoy, so worth shoving up that priority list! Hahaha! Look, don’t tempt me to start keeping TBR lists for other people too… you know I’m a sucker for spreadsheets… 😉

  9. Great review 😀 I adore this book as it is so beautifully written, but I can also sympathise with your dislike of Maxim on this second reading – I always thought he could be more supportive…yet if he looked like Mr Olivier I think I could manage to forgive him 😉

    • Thank you! 😀 The writing is amazing and I loved Maxim as a character though not as a person, if you know what I mean. Haha – I’m wondering if my teenage love for Maxim was more to do with Mr Olivier than the one in the book, in retrospect. Must watch him again just to check… 😉

    • I thought it was excellent too, and I’m sure only quibbled about the voices because I had pre-conceptions about them, probably because of the film. I see Anna Massey has done several of the Austen books too… I may be forced to listen to them sometime… 😀

  10. Totally agree about Maxim! Awful. I sometimes wonder about the ‘heroes’ of books I read as a young teenager – adult me doesn’t like Rochester or Heathcliff either (in fairness, teenage me thought Heathcliff was a nightmare). I think the appeal of Byronic-types has waned with age for me 😉

    • Haha! I know! Was it because times were different or are teenagers still a sucker for being ‘mastered’, I wonder? I reckon Rochester would bring out my worst sarcastic tendencies now – swooning would not be on the menu! I never took to Heathcliff either – I’ve never really understood why he’s seen as a hero, in truth. Poor old Maxim – he’d get a shock if he came to the next meeting of the Feminist Bloggers’ Convention… 😉

  11. Loved your review. I know it’s heresy, but “Rebecca” was never my favourite of Du Maurier’s books – I developed an allergy to doormats at a very early age1

    • Haha! Poor Maxim – I’m beginning to feel quite sorry for him now! I suspect my love may have been more to do with Laurence Olivier than the book in retrospect – but I loved the book even if I did think Maxim needed a swift kick in the bahooky… 😉

  12. Isn’t this the most marvelous book? I’ve read and loved all of DuMaurier’s work but this one remains my favorite. Now you have me wanting to re-read it and I really don’t re-read often. I’m sure I’d also be more annoyed at Maxim than I was in my youth. It was those romantic rose-colored glasses we sometimes wore! lol Great review.

    • Brilliant, isn’t it? I hadn’t read her since my teens until quite recently and it’s been a joy rediscovering her. I’m sure I’m appreciating the writing more now – I think it was her plots I used to love most. Haha! Poor Maxim – he really hasn’t aged well! I feel quite sorry for him now… 😉

  13. I’m glad your re-read was a success – I’ll be re-reading it myself soon for the Classics Club and am hoping I’ll still love it as much as I used to. I think du Maurier’s descriptive writing is always wonderful. I’ve read a lot of her books over the last few years and I’ve been really struck by how visual and atmospheric they all are.

    • I’m sure you’ll still love it – even though I’d changed my mind about Maxim as a romantic hero, I still loved the book. Her writing is phenomenal – I adore what she does with words, especially when she makes nature one of the characters which she so often does. And nobody builds tension better than she does. Enjoy your re-read! 😀

  14. Such good descriptions (the snippet you provided) and that … photo …. . The vague feeling of things going, or gone, out of control. Of course I have seen this movie quite some time ago. I think classics are probably good re-reads, though I have not yet visited any of mine. It is interesting to me how Maxim would have been the rogue/bad boy we all fell in love with. But now….a good slap upside the head is in order!

    • Her descriptive writing is great – you can see why Hitchcock loved adapting her stuff! They were the dream team, really, for this kind of psychological suspense. I love re-reading classics, but don’t do it often enough these days. There’s something so comforting about reading a book you already know you love. Haha! poor Maxim – I’m beginning to feel quite sorry for him now! 😉

  15. I had forgotten how handsome Laurence Olivier was. I read this when I was young and much more forgiving of heroes in romantic novels, wonder if growing older will make me feel as you did about the characters.

    • Haha! It’s so sad when our heroes turn out to be awful – but why do we find them so attractive when we’re young??? Brilliant book, though – her writing is amazing… 😀

  16. Great review! I adore this book, and read it for the first time last year. I can’t wait to read it again! I think that first line is perfection. The big scene between Mrs Danvers and the second Mrs du Winter was so well done. So suspenseful! It gives me chills just to think about it. I love how Daphne du Maurier writes scenery and atmosphere. What struck me about this book was that there really isn’t anything “scary” about it, but it’s what each person brings to the book when they read it that helps up the suspense factor. Great review! I enjoyed this little trip back to Manderley 🙂

    • Thank you! 😀 You’re right – there’s nothing supernatural and not even any real threat to the second Mrs de Winter, and yet she gets a phenomenal amount of tension into it. It’s so long since I frst read it, it was almost like reading it for the first time again, but I absolutely must make room to re-read some of her other books too – I love the way she uses words to create atmosphere!

      • I haven’t read any of her other works yet. Someday!! I especially want to read the story that Hitchcock’s The Birds is based on. I always forget she wrote that.

        • The collection that The Birds comes from is excellent – The Birds and Other Stories. It contains one of my favourites of her stories – The Apple Tree. She sure knew how to write horror…

  17. I was slightly scared of reading this review: suppose it had been negative! But all is well; the world hasn’t shifted on its axis. I can cope with the defamation of poor Maxim. 🙂

    • Hahaha! I thought I was quite kind to him really – he definitely needed a serious talking-to! It’s a brilliant book – what a writer! I love the way she creates so much tension, and her descriptions are truly unique… 😀

      • 😀 Seriously, I agree – she is a wonderful writer. On a personal note I have yet to find a writer who crafts sentences as well she did. Her writing is always such a joy to read – in part because she makes it so effortless. I’m about to start The Loving Spirit. (With plans and dreams to work through the catalogue in order of publication and with the occasional little jaunt around the neighbourhood to visit locations as they arise.) I’ve not read this before. I’m keen to see her youthful efforts 🙂

        • I must say that’s why I love Dickens so much too – that he makes it all feel so effortless. And like du Maurier he uses language so wonderfully to build up an atmosphere of tension and fear – like the spontaneous combustion scene in Bleak House, which I think is some of the finest horror writing of all time. I’ll be intrigued to hear how you get on with The Loving Spirit – I’ve not come across that one before. And oh, yes, what fun to visit the locations! Posts, please!

          • I frequently find Dickens’ sentences long and cumbersome. And rather annoying! (Whereas I don’t find that with any Bronte sentences, which surely are the longest of the lot.) Of course that’s in part due to the era he was writing in, and often due to his pertinent use of colloquialisms and dialects and speech patterns. But he seems to spin out his sentences beyond what is necessary. I can’t help thinking of the episodic nature in which his books were published and that most people’s experience of them at the time would have been hearing them read aloud – quite different. I have been ploughing through The Old Curiosity Shop for some while now – a long while in fact. And most of the time I’m saying, “Get on with it”. Perhaps his later books are easier in this respect: I’ve not read Bleak House yet but I loved Great Expectations.

            As for Daphne and locations. Yes, there will be posts; at least that’s the plan. And there will be photos and there will be words. But nothing that is likely to match the artistry of either Daphne or Dickens! 😀

            • Ah, no, I love those long, rambling, perfectly punctuated sentences! And his quirky descriptions of people that can go on forever but never repeat themselves! Haha! But I admit to that ‘get on with it’ feeling occasionally… 😉 I adore Bleak House – it’s my favourite book. It’s got everything – humour, horror, pathos, murder, shipwreck, romance, smallpox, spontaneous combustion… really, what else could you possibly want in a book???

              I shall look forward to your posts – it’ll be like having a little trip to Cornwall. 🙂

  18. My favourite DuMaurier by a long shot! I think nothing compares to the reading experience of Rebecca, and may I say I kept rooting for Rebecca all throughout the novel without sounding weird? 😀

    • Ha! I know what you mean – I couldn’t quite see her as the evil baddie this time round either. Personally, I feel it was all Maxim’s fault… 😉 Brilliant book – I had forgotten just how good. I must make sure it’s not so long till my next re-read…

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