June 2014: Rebecca
Back to Manderley
Daphne Du Maurier’s enduring novel of mystery, doubt, and obsession begins with one of the most famous lines in literature: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The No-Obligation Book Club revisited Du Maurier’s moody house of secrets and its haunted occupants in June 2014, with Real Simple copy editor Terri Schlenger as our tour guide.
Rebecca: Chapters 1 Through 9
Daphne du Maurier immediately stirs our curiosity with her opening words, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," and her opening chapter doesn’t disappoint. It’s rather like entering a haunted forest in a fairy tale: Menacing tree limbs and towering, twisted shrubs snatch at the narrator as she dreams of approaching the ominously darkened house. Light suddenly floods through the mullioned windows, then mysteriously vanishes. It’s an appropriately nightmarish introduction to a daylight reality that’s hardly placid, despite the surface calm. Our narrator is vacationing in an unnamed country with her husband, far from England and Manderley. She says that Manderley is “ours no longer,” but she doesn’t elaborate. Our narrator doesn’t stray beyond certain safe, dull topics when talking with her husband, Maxim de Winter, but we’re at a loss to know why. Everything will be explained in time, but du Maurier is in no hurry to enlighten us.
The narrator brings us back in time to her employment as a ladies’ companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, a singularly unpleasant woman who is taking her annual vacation at the hotel Cote D’Azur in Monte Carlo. Our poor narrator endures one humiliation after another as her tactless employer, a relentless social climber, seeks to find new “notables” to ingratiate herself with. Her latest target is the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter, whom she manages to engage in conversation one day in the hotel lounge (as our narrator cringes at her side). But then Mrs. Van Hopper takes (not very) ill soon afterward and is confined to bed for several weeks’ rest. To her astonishment, Mr. de Winter asks our narrator to share lunch with him in the hotel restaurant the next afternoon and then invites her for a drive. This unexpected turn of events ventures into Cinderella territory as Maxim begins to woo her with daily drives and, most surprising of all, an out-of-the-blue proposal of marriage. This rescues our narrator, an impoverished orphan, from a miserable future with Mrs. Van Hopper, but it doesn’t prevent her from feeling insecure, ineffectual, hopelessly young, and inexperienced. Being 21 to his 42 is just the start of it. Why didn’t Maxim say that he loved her? He asked her to be his wife, but she isn’t at all sure why. For her part, she’s desperately in love.
The scene where Mrs. Van Hopper reacts to the narrator’s news of her impending marriage (which she, true to form, was too frightened to tell her employer herself) is chilling. Mrs. Van Hopper first insinuates that the narrator has been sleeping with Maxim and then twists the knife by saying that she’ll never fit in at Manderley. She’s marrying far above her station, after all. She should have been satisfied with the boys she would have met in New York (“all in your own class,” as Mrs. Van Hopper tactlessly described them). Mrs. Van Hopper may actually be concerned about her charge’s welfare, but the malice in her tone is all too clear. But, to her credit, our narrator doesn’t lash back. She endures a parting shot from her employer: Maxim de Winter is only marrying her because he can’t stand to be alone. He’s told her so.
Things brighten considerably in the next chapter, with the hopeful news that the honeymoon has gone very well. Maxim has been attentive and cheerful, and our narrator has grown more confident in her new role as the second Mrs. de Winter. But as they drive closer to Manderley on their return home, the old fear returns: She can’t possibly measure up to the beautiful, glamorous Rebecca, his sorely missed first wife. Any warning she may have received about the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers—that she’s “stiff,” an “extraordinary character”—is no preparation for the severe, hollow-eyed, gaunt woman who icily greets her. Our narrator is thoroughly intimidated by this sinister figure, whose scorn is never far from the surface despite her outwardly polite demeanor. Mrs. Danvers, for her part, seems well aware of the effect she is having on the nervous new bride.
The visit from Maxim’s sister, Beatrice, and brother-in-law, Giles, lightens the narrator’s mood. Beatrice speaks her mind almost to a fault, but she seems kindhearted and down-to-earth, much to the narrator's relief. Beatrice and Giles both remark on how much healthier Maxim is looking since his new marriage, another hopeful sign. Beatrice’s parting words to the narrator are brief but ambiguous: “You see, you are so very different from Rebecca.”
Now that we’ve come to the end of Chapter 9, I hope that you are enjoying this novel as much as I am. What do you think? I am rooting for our narrator to shed her painful shyness and come into her own. But until she overcomes her terror of the daunting Mrs. Danvers, I am afraid that’s a distant goal.
One last thought for you: What the heck is a stockinette dress? Sounds frumpy. Discuss.
Rebecca: Chapters 10 Through 18
Chapter 10 opens cheerily enough: Our narrator takes a stroll with her handsome husband through the flower-strewn Happy Valley. Now, that’s more like it. But the mood doesn’t lighten for long, unfortunately, and our narrator’s determination to explore a broken-down beachside cottage results in an angry, out-of-character outburst from Maxim. It’s the first argument of their young marriage, but it’s soon over, and our narrator is determined to put it behind her. Her fragile confidence is shaken, however, and she worries that a wedge has come between them. What has happened to the “normal happy self” she knows herself to be? Self-doubt overtakes her again, and her natural shyness deepens. Ordinary social calls become an anxious ordeal. On one of those calls, an awkward visit with the bishop’s wife, the narrator is urged to renew the annual tradition of Manderley’s costume ball, last hosted by Rebecca.
Our narrator is understandably nervous about hosting such an event. She has convinced herself that Rebecca was superior to her in every way, and throwing elegant parties is just another area in which she’s certain to fall short. She imagines that everyone she meets is gossiping about her and her sudden marriage, as she confides to Frank Crawley: “I know people are looking me up and down, wondering what sort of success I’m going to make of it. I can imagine them saying,‘What on earth does Maxim see in her?’ ” Frank very kindly reassures her that she has valuable qualities of her own, like kindliness, sincerity, and modesty, that would make any husband happy.
I was fuming at Maxim’s behavior during their next conversation, then, when he criticized her for not making an effort to conquer her shyness—and then, to make things much worse, wouldn’t say whether he felt that their marriage was happy. Why can’t he tell her how he feels? And why, when he travels to London for a dinner, doesn’t he ask to speak to her on the phone when he’s arrived? No wonder she is feeling insecure.
In Maxim’s absence, our narrator comes upon an extraordinary scene in the west wing: Rebecca’s former bedroom, furnished with fresh flowers and spotlessly clean. Mrs. Danvers suddenly appears, like a malevolent ghost, and gives our narrator an unwanted tour of Rebecca’s possessions. She urges her to feel the softness of Rebecca’s nightdress. She forces her hands into Rebecca’s slippers so she can see how small and delicate they are. She opens Rebecca’s armoires to reveal row upon row of glittering gowns. Mrs. Danvers grips her arm fiercely and won’t let go. And, as our narrator says, “I shall never forget the expression on her face. Triumphant, gloating, excited in a strange unhealthy way.” Mrs. Danvers abandons any pretense to sanity by asking, “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?” Then, to our narrator’s horror, she adds, “Sometimes I wonder if she comes back here to Manderley and watches you and Mr. de Winter together.”
When your employee is creepily obsessed with your husband’s first wife, to the point that she caresses the dead woman’s nightdress and swoons over her tiny footwear, watch out. Unfortunately, our narrator doesn’t seem to recognize this once plans are underway for the Manderley dress ball. Why would Mrs. Danvers, whose contempt for her has never been in doubt, suddenly turn helpful when she’s stumped on selecting a costume for the ball? Our naïve narrator, unfortunately, doesn’t suspect Mrs. Danvers’ treacherous intent. She’s relieved and grateful for her advice; she hopes that she has turned a corner with her forbidding housekeeper. Maybe they’ll even be friends. As our narrator’s eagerly planned entrance, costumed as Catherine de Winter, goes horribly wrong, it seems that Mrs. Danvers' triumph is complete.
In the final chapter of this week’s reading, I was left wondering whether our narrator would have leapt from the window of Rebecca’s bedroom if the rockets hadn’t sounded in the bay. It certainly seemed that she was about to do so. Or would the instinct for self-preservation have stopped her at the last minute? After all, she found the courage to go down to the ball in her blue evening dress, even though all she wanted was to hide from everyone. She claimed that it was because she didn’t want people gossiping that she and Maxim had quarreled, but I think that she found a core of strength she didn’t know was there. And she went upstairs the next afternoon to confront Mrs. Danvers, after all, only to be told, “Why did you ever come here? Nobody wanted you at Manderley.” She defends herself with surprising vigor, but Mrs. Danvers won’t be deterred: She doesn’t deserve to be the second Mrs. de Winter, doesn’t deserve to be happy—and neither does her husband. No one can replace Rebecca.
The revelations about Rebecca’s true nature—her casual cruelty, her contempt for any man who admired her, her infidelities—are as shocking as they are unexpected. When Mrs. Danvers breaks down in tears, our narrator says that she’s no longer afraid of her. But then Mrs. Danvers resumes her verbal assault, and our narrator finds herself gripping the window ledge. The rockets jolt her back to reality, and not a moment too soon. I don’t think that Mrs. Danvers will get a chance like this again, and I can’t wait to read how this plays out.
Please let me know what you think of this week’s developments. See you next Friday!
Rebecca: Chapters 19 Through 27
As Chapter 19 opens, our narrator is still shaking herself awake from a nightmarish encounter that very nearly ended her life. But even though she pulls away from the window ledge, she is numb inside. Mrs. Danvers has told her that Rebecca pursued other men throughout her marriage, yet our narrator believes that Maxim is still deeply in love with his first wife. Maxim’s fury at the costume ball was proof of that, wasn’t it? She only wants to explain that she hadn’t meant to copy Rebecca’s dress, that she had been tricked. She hopes that she and Maxim can live amicably, but she has no expectation that their marriage will be the true partnership she once imagined.
Maxim’s confession shatters the spell. He not only admits to killing Rebecca, he reveals the truth about his life with her: Their perfect marriage, their great love, was nothing but a sham. For our narrator, this cancels everything else. She knows that he murdered his wife, but she doesn’t care, because everything has changed. He is telling her, for the very first time, that he loves her, and that is all that matters. She will stand by him, whatever the future brings. She is finally free of Rebecca.
Our narrator has finally learned why Maxim has been so distant, so moody, so seemingly heedless of her struggles as the new mistress of Manderley. In fact, Maxim has cared for her all along. He had noticed her unhappiness, her easy conversation with Frank—a man closer to her own age. He thought that his new bride was bored and aloof, never imagining the torment she was feeling in Rebecca’s shadow. But there’s no mistaking his feelings now: “She was vicious, damnable, rotten through and through. We never loved each other, never had one moment of happiness together. Rebecca was incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency.”
Our narrator had so thoroughly convinced herself otherwise that she can think of nothing else: He never loved Rebecca. And she realizes that her own timidity has helped to keep Maxim from telling her the truth about his first marriage. He couldn’t know how she would react, whether she would despise him as Rebecca once did. As our narrator says, “I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth. This was what I had done. I had built up false pictures in my mind and sat before them. I had never had the courage to demand the truth. Had I made one step forward out of my own shyness Maxim would have told me these things four months, five months ago.”
And now she’s facing the battle of her life. Rebecca can’t win now, can’t exact her revenge. Our narrator knows that she must watch her words with the magistrate, Colonel Julyan. She must appear cool and guileless. She rises to the challenge; the shy and fearful woman she used to be has completely disappeared. Together she and Maxim survive the inquest, fend off the threat of blackmail, and track down the doctor who reveals, in a final twist, that Rebecca was already close to death when she provoked her fatal confrontation with Maxim. She had deliberately pushed Maxim to violence by pretending to be pregnant with another man’s child. But Rebecca hasn’t succeeded in sending Maxim to certain death himself: The verdict of suicide won’t be questioned. And our narrator has found a steely core of strength she never knew she possessed. She has come into her own, and Maxim will never leave her side.
I have loved reading this novel, and I found myself absolutely racing through the final chapters. Daphne du Maurier throws one roadblock after another in front of our narrator, but she triumphs in the end. What more could you ask for? Please let me know what you thought about Rebecca.