I was so excited when Let’s Get Classical book club voted to pick Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier for their first read of 2021! I read Rebecca for the first time a few years ago, and it’s one I’ve wanted to reread for a while, but my TBR pile always makes me feel so guilty when I pick up a book to reread. Thanks to the book club, I could pick this up guilt-free!
Let’s cut to the chase: Rebecca was as good as I remembered. For anyone unfamiliar, the young unnamed protagonist meets wealthy widow Maxim de Winter while working for an elderly American lady as a companion. Our narrator and de Winter begin a clandestine relationship, which culminates in a sudden offer of marriage when our narrator is faced with the prospect of being torn away from him. When the happy couple return to de Winter’s estate, Manderley, the pressure starts to pile on. The memory of de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, is incredibly strong among the servants of the estate and de Winter’s friends and family. Our narrator: shy, plain, uncultured, young, is no match for the powerhouse everyone remembers Rebecca as. Tension rises between characters, as the mystery surrounding Rebecca thickens…
So, the atmosphere. Daphne du Maurier is excellent at creating atmosphere throughout the book. When the narrator is in Italy, everything feels expansive, and free. In contrast, Manderley feels oppressive, and enclosed. Somehow, Manderly manages to feel constantly overcast, as if it’s always on the edge of tipping it down with rain. Even with the beautiful gardens and huge house, it feels so small. The tone shifts as soon as the couple arrive at Manderley, the very first time Mrs. Danvers steps onto the page. It feels like the air is suddenly sucked out of the room, and the narrator pulled into a nightmare.
As the ruler of the nightmare, Mrs. Danvers is incredible. At first, she is outwardly polite, if dismissive towards Mrs. De Winter. As the book progresses, she seems to grow more and more powerful, manipulating the goings-on at Manderley. As a character, she’s one of the most intriguing and gripping characters I’ve come across. As a person, she’s absolutely dreadful. Compared to the narrator, I found her a lot more compelling. While I did love the narrator as a character, she comes across a lot smaller than Mrs. Danvers. Her growth throughout the novel is great, and she does evolve from the shy young girl we first meet. The weakest character, for me, was Maxim. I actually felt like making Maxim the least developed character was probably the most interesting thing du Maurier could have done. Mrs. De Winter is so in love with him, but why? As a reader, I couldn’t tell you. He’s rich, and older, and he’s kind to her, but that’s about where it ends. For much of their time at Manderley, their relationship is fraught, with Maxim refusing to open up.
At the centre of the novel, then, we have a tense relationship, with Mrs. De Winter the intruder upon Manderley. The plot focuses mostly around her development and her feelings, but also, of course, the plot revolves around Rebecca. It’s difficult to go into this too much without giving it all away, but Rebecca certainly is not a restful spirit, and while this isn’t a ghost story, she certainly finds ways to continue to taunt the living. It’s extremely clever writing, because although Rebecca is dead, she still seems at least as alive as the other characters.
The writing, generally, is amazing. I’ve already talked about how well created the atmosphere is, but then added to that is the characterisation, and a gripping plot, and just overall great prose. The language and writing style is, of course, somewhat reminiscent of the time, but it is entirely accessible to a modern audience, regardless of if you’ve read many classics. It’s easy to follow, and it’s also got enough action in it to maintain your attention. A common criticism of classics is that they can be really slow paced (I admit I do like a slow paced book, so for me it’s not a criticism at all!), and while Rebecca is more slow-paced than your typical contemporary, there’s still plenty of plot to carry you through, and the characters are so good that I barely noticed when there wasn’t anything major going on plot-wise.
There’s currently a bit of a ‘dark academia’ craze going around, and while this isn’t academia, it is gothic, and the gothic genre shares a lot with dark academia in terms of themes and atmosphere. I’d obviously recommend this to everyone, because it’s incredible, but also if you’re a fan of the gothic genre, or if you’re into dark academia and looking for more adult works that might be your cup of tea, Rebecca is for you. Even if you’ve never read classics before I really do think this is a book you can fall in love with.
Have you read Rebecca? What did you think?