Rebecca is, by far, Daphne du Maurier’s most famous book, and while I had read it years ago, I was inspired to read it again after reading My Cousin Rachel a few months ago. Billed as a “classic tale of romantic suspense,” I found this to be very true even though I had read the book before and vaguely remembered what the suspense was. It’s a testament to how good the book was that I still enjoyed it so much.
The story is that of a young girl who gets married to a middle-aged man, Maxim De Winter, whose first wife has died. She meets him in Monte Carlo – where she is employed as a companion to a rich American woman on holiday – falls in love with him, accepts his proposal of marriage, and returns with him to Manderlay, his stately estate in England. However, she finds herself continuously haunted by the presence of his first wife, Rebecca, at Manderlay. This is not a physical haunting – Rebecca is not a ghost story – but an emotional one. Rebecca seems to be everything she is not – beautiful, gregarious, bold, stately, decisive, stylish, with impeccable taste, the life and soul of a party. It seemed that she could do anything and was adored by everyone. The girl, now the new Mrs. De Winter – whose Christian name we are never told – is engulfed by extreme feelings of inadequacy. These are compounded by the housekeeper at Manderlay, Mrs. Danvers, who was devoted to Rebecca and makes no bones about how she feels towards the new Mrs. De Winter, despite continuing to do her housekeeping duties. She, the new Mrs. De Winter, also thinks her husband is still in love with Rebecca and can’t get over her death.
What exactly happened to Rebecca? How did she die? Why does Maxim look so haunted at times? Why is Mrs. Danvers so sinister, and so contemptuous of the new Mrs. De Winter? What does Frank Crawley, who handles the affairs of the estate for Maxim, know about Rebecca? And who is the shady Jack Favell, who comes to Manderlay to meet Mrs. Danvers and is supposedly a cousin of Rebecca, but is strongly disliked by Maxim and has therefore to keep his visit a secret?
While Rebecca is not a detective story — there is no “investigator” as such — it does have a strong element of mystery about it, with so many lingering questions that persist for most of the book. While that, in and of itself, is not unique to a novel, what sets this book apart is the masterful quality of the writing. It gradually builds up the suspense and captures the increasingly haunted feeling experienced by the protagonist — and thus, by extension, the readers — so vividly that I could almost viscerally experience a growing feeling of dread as I was reading it. And this is despite having read it before and guessing what the suspense was.
I can see why Rebecca has secured Daphne du Maurier a secure place in the annals of literary history. It is truly a timeless classic.
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Original Publisher and Date: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1938
Reprint Publisher and Date: William Morrow Paperbacks, September 2006
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.