Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

RebeccaRebecca by Daphne du Maurier

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Who hasn’t read that evocative first line in Daphne Du Maurier’s classic Rebecca, and been instantly captured by her gorgeous, gothic, prose?
An inspiration for so very many writers since, Rebecca is an icon of gothic romance. The imposing castle-like Manderley, the ever-present, menacing sound of the waves crashing on rocks nearby, the secluded and mysterious “west wing,” the malevolent Mrs. Danvers, and “always, always, Rebecca.”
Having read this novel for the first time when I was a teenager, and been suitably impressed by it, I decided to give it a second read, and see if the book held the same magic 20 years later.
Although I can see that Rebecca, which became a bestseller almost immediately, has the makings of a classic, I gave it one less star on my second reading of it.
There are two main reasons for my lower rating.
The biggest issue for me was the male/female relationships in this 1938 novel. (I also felt this way upon recently reading du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn). I was unable to put aside the feeling that the narrator perceived herself to be inferior to her husband, because she was female, and even after she had gained some sense of adulthood by the end of the novel.
I was troubled by the expectation that she serve him (for example, pouring his tea), as well as the way in which he told her what to do. Some of this, in part, was probably due to the specific relationship between Maxim and the narrator; he was old enough to be her father, and she had very little experience of the world. Both the particular relationship between the two, as well as the way male/female roles were enacted, made me uncomfortable.
Having recently read some novels written in the 1950’s, this is not the first time I have encountered such an issue. For example, I adore Mary Stewart’s novels, especially her Nine Coaches Waiting, published in 1958. Some of Stewart’s books contain more blatant inequality than others, but in general, I have been able to put isolated statements made by her characters aside, and enjoy the rest of the story.
For whatever reason (maybe even the fact that it was written in an earlier time period) I felt that sexism permeated Rebecca to such an extent that I was unable to separate it from my experience of the novel as a whole.
The other thing that impressed me on my second reading of Rebecca was the deep sense of sadness, perhaps even desolation, that I felt underlying everything else. Apart from the events that occur in the story, I got the sense that Daphne du Maurier was not a happy person. I felt sad while reading most of the novel, rather than excited by the mystery, or engrossed in the romantic setting.
This is another way in which Mary Stewart’s novels of gothic romance differ from those of Daphne du Maurier. To me, there is an inherent happiness, or sense of the world ultimately being good, in Stewart’s stories, even as tragic events do occur. I often think that the way events are presented in a book impacts the tone more than the events themselves.
I am aware that the books I read strongly affect my mood. And to me, this time around, Rebecca left me feeling sad.
Clearly, du Maurier was a gifted, exceptional storyteller. I also greatly admire her loving portrayal of Cornwall, where she lived for many years.
However, unfortunately, for me, Rebecca was most magical when I was younger, before I was conscious of the gender roles of the characters, and of a seeming sadness in the author. Rebecca was, for me, a well-written novel, but a novel of its time, and I found I was unable to go back to Manderley again.

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