Gollancz, 1938, 384 pages
Rebecca, a dark psychological tale of secrets and betrayal, is Daphne du Maurier's best-loved work and was named Best Novel of the 20th Century at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention.
After a whirlwind romance and a honeymoon in Italy, the innocent young heroine and the dashing Maxim de Winter return to his country estate, Manderley. But the unsettling memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, still lingers within. The timid bride must overcome her husband's oppressive silences and the sullen history of the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, to confront the emotional horrors of the past.
This gothic classic is well-written and atmospheric, more brooding than Brontë, with ample descriptive detail and a main character with a rich emotional inner life.
If I hadn't been listening to it on my iPod I would have thrown this book across the room. Holy shit I wanted to kill the whiny neurotic narrator... "Oh everyone is talking about me! Oh, everyone is thinking bad things about me! Oh no, I can't go out and let me people see me! They're all thinking I'm not as pretty as Rebecca! I think I'll make up entire conversations in my head where everyone at the party is talking about me! My husband doesn't love me, he's bored with me, my marriage is a failure, but I can't go talk to him like a grown-up even though I hate it when he treats me like a child. And Mrs. Danvers is scaaaaaary! Why don't I just hide in my fucking room and turning into fucking Miss Havisham?"
Mrs. de Winter 2.0 is the most annoying, spineless protagonist I have read since Kitty and the Midnight Hour. Rebecca would not have been improved by the addition of werewolves, but it couldn't have hurt.
Max de Winter is a wealthy, charming widower, the owner of a great house known as Manderley, renowned for its grounds and balls. On holiday in Monte Carlo, he meets a naive young woman (the first-person narrator, who is never named in the story) currently employed as the "personal companion," i.e., put-upon lackey, of a marvelously horrible old bat who rivals a Dickens character in laugh-out-loud unpleasantness. In a whirlwind romance, de Winter sweeps our young narrator off her feet, proposes marriage, and within weeks the two of them return to England, and Manderley.
Manderley is full of interestingly sinister characters and secrets. The dark crown jewel of the story, of course, is Mrs. Danvers, the ghoulish housekeeper, a formidable, icy figure who just gets creepier and creepier as she starts gaslighting her employer's replacement wife.
Beset by Mrs. Danvers on one side and her husband on the other, who begins treating his naive young bride with cold indifference almost the moment they get back to Manderley, it would be easy to feel sympathy for the protagonist. It would be a lot easier to feel sympathy for her if she weren't such a wimp who spends more time imagining ridiculous scenarios in her head than actually doing anything. It's not until late in the book that she begins to show even a hint of a personality and stops quivering every time someone looks at her cross-eyed. I'd have enjoyed this sudden burst of character development except that what prompts it is the revelation of a horrible secret to which her response is (literally) criminally self-centered. All she cares about is whether or not her husband loves her and what people think about her.
This is where Rebecca differs most markedly from the book that so obviously inspired it: Jane Eyre. The similarities between these two novels are all over the pages of Du Maurier's work. Rebecca is more flowery and modern than Jane Eyre; both books are excellent for getting a feel for the era they describe, especially if you want details about upper-class English society. Du Maurier's book doesn't draw characters in such splendid psychological detail, and there is no social critique, no moral introspection, no crucial decision points illustrating the heroine's values and choices. While Du Maurier's plot is more suspenseful and faster-paced, it's basically a Brontë plot, with a Brontë asshole creep as the love interest, but without a Brontë heroine.
Rebecca is full of gothic imagery. If you like descriptive details, you'll get tons of them -- details about everything from Manderley to dresses to flowers and vases to the scenery on the shore. All this detail packs the book with atmosphere, but also with a few too many words. Like the narrator's meandering, self-indulgent thoughts, the descriptive passages sometimes dragged on to the point of distraction.
This is one of those books I can appreciate as a worthy literary accomplishment without liking it. The mystery introduced in the beginning - what happened to Max de Winter's first wife, Rebecca? - builds and builds. The story gets creepier, more ominous, darker, all the way up to the end. Everyone is gothic and spooky and mysterious. Even after the first Big Reveal, which comes about halfway through the book, the suspense is maintained until the end, which is no mean feat.
It's a great book, but I still would have liked to see Mrs. Danvers go Norma Bates on the narrator.
Better in black and white
This was probably one of Alfred Hitchcock's best films (and it won him his only Best Picture Oscar). Starring Laurence Olivier as Max de Winter and Joan Fontaine as the nameless second wife, it is a pitch-perfect adaptation of Du Maurier's novel in gothic black and white. The casting was perfect, the cinematography was perfect, and Mrs. Danvers was perfectly terrifying.
It's not quite a perfectly faithful adaptation: apparently Hollywood needed to see the bride in peril during the climactic fire, and the wicked witch must be punished. But ending aside, Hitchcock gave Du Maurier's novel the treatment it deserved.
The Masterpiece Theater adaptation (1997)
A much longer (3 hour) made-for-TV production consisting of two 90-minute episodes, I thought Masterpiece Theater's 1997 adaptation was decent enough, but it brought nothing new to Du Maurier's novel, and given that Rebecca is a relatively short book (and the longest passages are descriptions or the narrator's thoughts), 3 hours is probably longer than necessary, which is why this adaptation, like the book, was rather slow-moving in places.
I think I was spoiled by seeing Hitchcock's superior version first: this is actually quite a good film, and more faithful than most Masterpiece Theater adaptations. Faye Dunaway gets to chew the scenery for about five minutes as Mrs. Van Hopper, and Diana Rigg, who will always be much more awesome in a leather catsuit than Siena Miller, gleefully gets her bitch on as Mrs. Danvers, but trust me, the version you want to see is the Hitchcock one.
Verdict: I've rarely seen a book mislabeled in so many different ways: "ghost story," "love story," "mystery," etc. All the editions with big swooshy cursive script that make it look like a romance novel particularly do this book an injustice. Rebecca is really the creepy but not quite as smart granddaughter of Jane Eyre and grandniece of Wuthering Heights. Moody and interesting, but full of characters I'd like to see drowned in the sea one and all, I'd recommend it to anyone who's a fan of gothic novels, but the Brontës did it better a hundred years earlier.