“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Daphne du Maurier’s opening line of Rebecca sits among the company of “Call me Ishmael,” “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” and, most significantly, “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Published in 1938, this strategically artful and macabre novel offers a mesmerizing study in jealousy and is equal parts Victorian gothic and 1930s Agatha Christie.
The plot is a familiar one, and it comes as no surprise that Jane Eyre was one of du Maurier’s favorite books. A young girl just out of school falls in love with and marries a wealthy, brooding, older man who has recently lost his beautiful, socialite wife, Rebecca, in a boating accident. When Maxim de Winter whisks his new wife back to his estate, Manderley, she believes that her fairy tale has just begun, only to find that the deep stain of Rebecca’s memory permeates everything she touches, tainting every perfect detail of beauty and happiness and highlighting her own juvenile and clumsy insecurities. But it is a fairy tale in the traditional fashion as, like most, hers is not one of bliss and ease, but rather of fear and struggle. The ghoulish Mrs. Danvers immediately fills the role of the wicked witch and Rebecca that of the powerful, seductive queen.
Unlike Jane Eyre, the novel contains no momentary hint of the supernatural at any point, yet the titular character –– dead a year before the novel begins –– still lives, breathes, haunts, and controls every page of the plot from start to finish.
However, the first major clue indicating the narrator is not completely forthcoming could be easily overlooked. While she readily admits and even calls attention to her maladroit and uncultured immaturity, the first piece of information she withholds is her own name, suggesting a secretive element in her storytelling that marks her as an unreliable narrator. Unnamed and unidentified, she then becomes characterized only as her husband’s wife — Mrs. de Winter.
In Helen Dunmore’s introduction to the Folio Society edition, she writes, “From the opening line the reader is immersed within a consciousness which is not, perhaps either likable or admirable, but is immensely persuasive … The story told with such apparent honesty by the second Mrs. de Winter is a miracle of evasion … In fiction, as in life, we need to know who is telling the story. The narrator has control, and can shape, omit, distort, deceive. Few authors have exploited the power of the narrator with the sophistication and brilliance of Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca, and few have left their readers more dazzled in the headlights.”
Rebecca and the new Mrs. de Winter are foils in many regards, but in no way more so than in their names. Our nameless, shy, awkward heroine serves as a jarring contrast to the charismatic Rebecca, whose name dominates nearly every page. In fact, the only part of Rebecca actually present in the story is her name, with numerous descriptions of the bold, sweeping “R” in her signature and monogram, and yet the narrator’s name is absent, leaving her ever overshadowed by Rebecca. Ironically, “Mrs. de Winter” as the narrator’s only given name in the book ties her even more tightly to Rebecca since it is one that identifies them both.
Overpoweringly omnipresent yet eternally absent, Rebecca’s long, sinister shadow dwarfs our nameless heroine at every turn in Manderley. It is as if the reverberations of her ominous presence act as a vortex, spinning them more and more tightly into her power. Though Maxim expresses his desire that they had not returned and had instead remained vacationing on the continent, no motion is ever made for their departure. They are trapped in her web.
As Dunmore maintains, “Rebecca de Winter will not be wiped out. She rises from the depths to threaten everything: second marriage, reputation and social standing, and, above all, the possession of Manderley.”
On the other hand, Dunmore also points out that despite all of the power attributed to her by the narrator, Rebecca is at an obvious disadvantage to control anything. She is dead. “Rebecca never tells her own story. She is not silent, but she is always interpreted by people who are blinded by their own emotions. She is seen aslant, either idealised or vilified.”
The only one of Alfred Hitchcock’s films to win Best Picture, the 1940 adaptation of Rebecca staring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, is excellent. The ending is slightly different, interestingly, due to Hollywood plot restrictions about what could be depicted on screen.
This Folio Society edition features D.G. Smith’s haunting illustrations, which greatly enhances the reading experience.