Originally published in 1938 by Victor Gollancz
My edition: the beautiful YA paperback reissue from Virago Modern Classics
What's it about?
On a trip to the South of France, the shy heroine of Rebecca falls in love with Maxim de Winter, a handsome widower. Although his proposal comes as a surprise, she happily agrees to marry him. But as they arrive at her husband’s home, Manderley, a change comes over Maxim, and the young bride is filled with dread. Friendless in the isolated mansion, she realises that she barely knows him. In every corner of every room is the phantom of his beautiful first wife, Rebecca, and the new Mrs de Winter walks in her shadow.
I loved the first of du Maurier’s novels I’ve read, Frenchman’s Creek, and I was eager to read more. Rebecca seemed like the perfect, atmospheric read for this time of year.
*SPOILER ALERT: I really want to talk about this properly so there’ll probably be a few spoilers here and there in the review.*
After reading Frenchman’s Creek in the summer, I knew I wanted to read more from Du Maurier and I figured where better to start than with her most famous novel? And boy is it famous for a reason!
Even though I’ve heard the famous opening line many, many times, it still never occurred to me that Rebecca would be a story told in retrospect (I know, duh) and I was thoroughly surprised to find Mr and Mrs De Winter moving from hotel to hotel, hiding from the repercussions of a traumatic event. And then we go back to the protagonist meeting her future husband.
Other than the opening line, the only other thing I knew about Rebecca is that the protagonist has no name. She is nameless until she marries Maxim and becomes Mrs De Winter. She is a shy, nervous and exists purely to serve her husband. Every word, every action, every thought operates in relation to Maxim and making him happy and making him love her. And she’s haunted (metaphorically) by the memory of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca, constantly comparing herself to her and she fades in her remaining light. This novel is almost the death of two women instead of just Rebecca as Mrs De Winter becomes embroiled in the life and death of Rebecca and her marriage to Maxim. It’s a really interesting dynamic and I already want to reread it and see what else I pick up on the second time around, knowing how everything plays out.
Maxim is a strange character, and even as the protagonist’s husband, I can't see him as the hero. He's twice Mrs De Winter’s age and treats her as such for at least ¾ of the novel. He's patronising and sexist and so dismissive of our heroine who’s so desperate for his love and affection; it's all she wants. It’s not until after Maxim makes his confession – a confession that blew my mind so thoroughly I started rambling my shock and disbelief to the cat; she wasn’t interested – that he changed his demeanour. He was suddenly confessing his love for Mrs De Winter, giving her affection and depending on her, just as he changed their lives forever. I couldn’t help but wonder which was the real him. Is he sexist and patronising or had he been holding himself back in fear of losing Mrs De Winter when he confessed? I wasn’t sure, and yet I was still championing him to get away with murder, even though I never felt he was good enough for Mrs De Winter. I think she should have married Frank!
Rebecca lingers in every aspect of Manderley, but most prominently in the memory of Mrs Danvers, the head housekeeper of Mandereley and confidante of Rebecca. She's a vile, vile woman and the main antagonist of the novel; I hated her so much. Mrs Danvers refuses to let Rebecca’s memory die out, manipulating Mrs De Winter into upsetting Maxim and making her life at Manderley as difficult as possible. I ended up wondering if Mrs Danvers had feelings for Rebecca; the strength of her grief and determination to destroy the De Winter’s marriage. I think Rebecca was the type of woman to pick up that and not be afraid to use it…
Clearly, I have a lot of thoughts about Rebecca and I could go on, but I’m going to stop here with a final declaration of love. Rebecca completely and utterly blew me away. I loved every word of it and I was already ready to re-read it. This is one of my very favourite novels of this year and I can't believe it took me so long to get around to it.
Still not convinced?
- It’s a genre mash-up: Gothic, mystery, ghost story, love story.
- It’s one of my favourite books of the year.
- You’re seriously missing out if you don’t pick this up.