I love Rebecca. It is one of those books that are pretty much perfect and the way it updates the Gothic for the twenty-first century is nothing less than masterful. A triumph from beginning to end.
The beginning: the opening of Rebecca is justly famous as one of the greatest first lines/paragraphs/chapters in literature. ‘Last night I dreamed I was at Manderley again’… we’re introduced to a night-time world of faded grandeur (Gothic), the power of dream and suggestion (Gothic!) and a heroine making her way through physical and metaphorical twists and turns to find her heart’s desire (more Gothic!) It is a sublime passage of descriptive writing.
The beginning 2: once the dream is over, we get a foretaste of the passions that will run through this book:
We can never go back again, that much is certain.The past is still too close to us. The things we have tried to forget and put behind us would stir again, and that sense of fear, of furtive unrest, struggling at length to blind unreasoning panic – now mercifully stilled, thank God – might in some manner unforeseen become a living companion, as it had been before. He is wonderfully patient and never complains,
It’s so good. We realise that we’ve started the story at the end and we’re going to learn about the past, but we’ve got some important clues. There is an unnamed ‘he’ in the novel who ‘is wonderfully patient and never complains’. He sounds like a miserable person to live with already, (I’m never much of a fan of Gothic heroes) and then their life together is described: seeking boredom and reading cricket scores. The dull bland foreign setting is in deliberate contrast with the passions of Manderley. Like I said, reinventing the genre and doing it oh so well.
The beginning 3: The story goes back to the chronological start with the heroine’s life before she met Max de Winter and Du Maurier introduces probably my favourite character in 1930s literature: ‘I wonder what my life would be like to-day, if Mrs. Van Hopper had not been a snob.’ We are jolted out of the dream-like apathy of the other openings and into a world of sharp emotions and character assessment. The shy narrator pulls characters apart, herself included, as she traipses, bored, around a sumptuous Monte Carlo hotel. No more timeless dream sequences, this is the late 1930s with a vengeance and now it makes for a wonderful retro read.
The end: just kidding. Of course I’m not going to give away the ending. I’ll just remind you that, like ‘Turn of the Screw’, you can’t always trust your narrator, like ‘Jane Eyre’ you can’t always trust rich husbands and, like ‘Dracula’, you really can’t trust beautiful seductive women. This is a true re-invention of the Gothic for the 20th century and it was worth waiting for.
Other Du Maurier books you might like
Final point: Daphne Du Maurier did not write ‘Trilbey’, that was her grandfather, George De Maurier. I find it anti-Semitic and purile, but it was an 1890s best-seller and it’s where to go if you want to meet the original Svengali.