Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
No, really, I did. This book will get into your head. For that reason, this is going to be a difficult review to write without spoilers, but I’ll do my best…
For anybody who, like me, has somehow managed to avoid this particular piece of British culture until now:
Our unnamed narrator seems doomed to a harried and unfulfilling life as a paid companion to a brash American (the frankly hilarious Mrs van Hopper), until she meets and falls in love with the tragic, brooding Maxim de Winter. After a whirlwind courtship (including, it must be said, one of the worst marriage proposals in literature), the newly-married de Winters return to his familial home, the incredibly atmospheric Manderley. And this is where the trouble starts. Manderley, in the great British Gothic tradition, is haunted. Not literally – although once or twice we may have our doubts – but emotionally, the whole estate is still saturated by the memories of the first Mrs de Winter, the eponymous Rebecca.
This had been on my TBR pile for years. I don’t know why it never made it to the top until now (I’m sure me buying a beautiful Little, Brown hardback edition had nothing to do with it…). Maybe I was slightly put off by a vague association of Daphne du Maurier with ‘romance’, by which I mean ‘romance’ in the awful, sniffy, prejudiced sense that associates the genre (falsely, in so many cases) with bad writing and unbelievable characters and events.
Well. I could not have been more wrong. I mean, there is romance, yes, and melodrama (in spades), and the characters are occasionally annoying. There’s a stretch in the middle, in particular, where I could quite cheerfully have slapped our narrator in the face for being such a bloody wet blanket. But something happens, and she gets over it, and besides, there’s so much else about the novel that’s good. I’m a fan of anything Gothic, and this novel has the Gothic in spades (remote country estate, characters communing with nature, unexplained phenomena – you name it, it’s there). There is also one of the strongest senses of place I’ve ever felt in a novel – Cornwall is never actually mentioned, but it’s everywhere, woven through the fabric of the story; apparently du Maurier wrote most of the novel while she was in Egypt and homesick for Cornwall, and it really shows.
The structure of the novel is intriguing, too. After a few pages at the beginning which make it clear that something terrible has happened, the rest is split broadly into thirds – the courtship in Monte Carlo, the tension-building introduction to Manderley and its residents, and then the breathless denouement, which has so many plot twists it’s like a cross between Downton Abbey and Eastenders.
But what really struck me were the parallels with another Gothic ‘romance’ with a troublesome first wife. I am, of course, talking about Jane Eyre. The character of Rebecca, unlike Bertha Rochester, is never seen, but she is everywhere, driving the narrative throughout – and in increasingly malevolent ways, through her own sinister presence or through the – frankly terrifying – agency of her own Grace Poole figure, Mrs Danvers. Maxim de Winter is, at once, both better and worse than Rochester; suffice it to say that they both play on our sympathies in comparable ways. Our narrator is like Jane Eyre mainly in the things that happen to her, rather than in who she is and how she reacts to them. She is younger than Jane, and less emotionally independent, and her own internal journey is all the more fascinating for that; her imagination gets her into a decent amount of trouble, and we’re never quite sure how much of what she tells us is really true. This adds a fascinating psychological dimension to the story, and kept me gripped, right to the end.