Happy 80th birthday, “Rebecca.” Long may you haunt us.
She went on looking at me, watching my eyes. “Do you think she can see us, talking to one another now?” she said slowly. “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?”
On a recent dark weekend, I treated myself to a reread of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” in honor of its 80th anniversary in print. I’m not sure how many times I’ve read it, but it’s one of those books that feels as if it’s always been with me. The propulsive tale of a famously unnamed first-person narrator who marries a mysterious older widower and finds herself pulled into his past, “Rebecca” is often categorized as Gothic romance, but it’s really a psychological thriller — or just a cracking good novel. The strange beauty of its opening line — “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” — pulls you in, and you’re lost. There’s nothing for it but to spend the next few hours or days curled up reading, waiting for the inevitable, perfect, barely-even-stated ending.
Du Maurier, born into a theatrical family in 1907, was barely in her 30s when she wrote “Rebecca.” Already a published author of several novels, including “Jamaica Inn,” she was then a military wife stationed in Alexandria, Egypt, homesick for England’s coastal region of Cornwall, where her family had a holiday home. “All I wanted to do was write, and to write a novel set in my beloved Cornwall,” du Maurier wrote in an author’s note published on the occasion of “Rebecca’s” 40th anniversary.
The new novel, she thought, would be set in a beautiful old house near the sea “with family portraits on the walls, like the house Milton in Northamptonshire, where I stayed as a child during the First World War, and yet not like, because my Cornish house would be empty, neglected, its owner absent.” There would be a dead first wife, Rebecca, compared to whom the second wife — very young and graceless — feels pale and inadequate. There would be a tragedy, and a faintly sinister housekeeper devoted to the first wife, and a wreck, perhaps at sea. And the book would begin at its ending; with the couple living abroad in a series of anonymous hotels, trying to forget what happened back in Cornwall.
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The book’s plot had a personal inspiration as well. Kits Browning, du Maurier’s son, told The Telegraph in 2013 that his mother described the book as “a study in jealousy,” and used as emotional material her own jealousy of her husband’s first fiancée, who later died under mysterious circumstances.
Published in 1938, “Rebecca” became an instant best-seller. Adaptations quickly followed: an Orson Welles radio version; a stage play scripted by du Maurier herself; and the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film, which like the book immediately became a classic. Joan Fontaine is so painfully awkward as “the second Mrs. de Winter” it’s at times hard to even look at her, and a mustached Laurence Olivier is appropriately brooding as Max. But it’s Judith Anderson’s eerily still performance, as the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers — a woman for whom the phrase “Still waters run deep” could have been invented — which takes hold of the movie. You’ll hear her voice in your head as you read the book. (A key plot point — which I won’t reveal, in case we have any “Rebecca” newbies in the room — was changed for the film, due to the Production Code of the time.)
Even now, “Rebecca” continues to invite adaptation. It was the source of an ill-fated Broadway musical announced in 2012, which never opened due to myriad financial problems. (Perhaps Mrs. Danvers put a curse on it.) A Netflix-funded remake of the movie was announced last month, with Armie Hammer and Lily James as Mr. and Mrs. de Winter. And several books have been inspired by du Maurier’s work, the latest of which is Lisa Gabriele’s “The Winters.” Published this fall and set in the present-day Hamptons, it replaces Mrs. Danvers with a surly stepdaughter. (Out of curiosity, I picked it up; it’s a passable diversion and I was intrigued enough to finish it, but it’s no “Rebecca.”)
So what is it about “Rebecca” that’s kept us enthralled for 80 years? What inspired customers of the British bookstore chain WH Smith to vote it the UK’s favorite book of the past 225 years — ahead of one of its clear inspirations, “Jane Eyre”?
It’s partly the irresistible setting: a remote, romantic manor house, with “the terraces sloping to the gardens, and the gardens to the sea,” with rooms that smelled “like a silent church where services are seldom held.” It’s partly du Maurier’s masterful way of spinning her tale, of letting developments take their time as we become one with our nameless heroine. Du Maurier crafts her atmosphere slowly, creating strands that suddenly tighten into a rope.
And it’s partly — and this is something I notice more with every rereading — the book’s poignant depiction of youth. There’s something heartbreaking about young Mrs. de Winter, who desperately wishes to be older and who doesn’t understand the man she’s married. The character is narrating the book as her (slightly) older self; there’s both a knowingness and a quiet sadness as she remembers the dreams she had and the mistakes she made. You read wanting to stop her from making them — particularly in one key moment set on a staircase — but not as much as she wishes she could have stopped herself.
Du Maurier, who died in her beloved Cornwall in 1989, went on to write more books, including “My Cousin Rachel” and the story collection “Don’t Look Now” (which includes “The Birds,” also the inspiration for a Hitchcock movie). None of du Maurier’s other books, however, came close to having the impact “Rebecca” did. She was asked throughout her life why she never gave her young heroine a name. The answer, she said, was simple: “I could not think of one, and it became a challenge in technique, the easier because I was writing in the first person.”
But it works; the character is so unformed — by youth, not by her creator — it seems as if a name would slip right off her.
Happy 80th birthday, “Rebecca.” Long may you haunt us.