Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.
Proceed with caution readers, there are some serious spoilers, but nothing I say should spoil your enjoyment of the book 🙂
There is so much to say about this book that I hardly know where to begin. I’m studying Rebecca on my English Lit course and I fell in love with it the moment I started reading. Like many people, I avoided reading Rebecca for years because I thought it would be one of those stodgy, overrated classic novels. I was totally wrong. du Maurier’s writing style captures you from the off, drawing you into the story. The narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter, begins by describing her dream of Manderley. Manderley is the family home of her husband, Maxim de Winter, and it forms the setting for the majority of the novel.
The opening chapter introducing Manderley is interesting. The house is ‘secretive and silent’, ‘a jewel’, ‘a sepulchre’, which is overrun, ‘choked’ by nature. This description gives the house a distinctly gothic feel, a theme that is continued throughout the novel.
The narrator can be irritating at first, particularly as she doesn’t have a name. This is important though, because it contrasts dramatically with the striking Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, but I’ll talk more on this later. The narrator’s manner and her habit of shrinking into the background can be annoying; there were many times when I wanted to yell at her to stick up for herself, particularly when she is dealing with Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper. All in all, I think that her ‘shrinking violet’ attitude and her lack of name illustrate that, at least initially, she could have been anyone. The narrator is in no way particularly special, she is plain looking, describing herself as having ‘straight, bobbed hair and youthful, unpowered face, dressed in an ill-fitting coat and skirt and a jumper of my own creation’. She is an innocent young girl, fresh from school, but it is her innocence, we later learn, that draws Maxim to her. He finds her refreshing after the bold, confident Rebecca; it is the narrator’s very plainness that makes her attractive to him.
Throughout the novel, the narrator is haunted by a sort of ghostly remembrance of Rebecca. While Rebecca never appears as a ghost, there are instances where the narrator feels the imprint that Rebecca has left behind, and even some occasions where the narrator unwittingly becomes Rebecca. Most notably of these two instances perhaps are the first night in Manderley and the night of the Manderley ball. On the first, the narrator is sat in a chair in the library with Maxim and she feels Rebecca’s presence, or rather, her absence:
Unconsciously, I shivered as though someone had opened the door behind me and let a draught into the room. I was sitting in Rebecca’s chair, I was leaning against Rebecca’s cushion, and the dog had come to me and laid his head upon my knee because that had been his custom, and he remembered, in the past, she had given sugar to him there.
Here, the narrator is completely aware that she is filling someone else’s place. There are similar instances of this throughout the novel, for example, the next morning when she is taken to the morning room to write her letters as Rebecca had done:
I took one out and looked at it, unwrapped it from its thin tissue of paper. ‘Mrs. M. de Winter’ it said, and in the corner ‘Manderley’. I put it back in the box again, and shut the drawer, feeling guilty suddenly, and deceitful, as though I were staying in somebody else’s house and my hostess had said to me, ‘Yes, of course, write letters at my desk,’ and I had unforgivably, in a stealthy manner, peeped at her correspondence. At any moment she might come back into the room and she would see me there, sitting before her open drawer, which I had no right to touch.
The night of the Manderley ball is different from these two instances in that, rather than simply filling Rebecca’s place, she almost becomes her:
I did not recognise the face that stared at me in the glass. The eyes were larger surely, the mouth narrower, the skin white and clear? The curls stood away from the head in a little cloud. I watched this self that was not me at all and then smiled; a new, slow smile.
Here, the use of ‘the’ rather than ‘my’ indicates what the narrator says explicitly; she is seeing someone else, someone who is not her. Later, when she descends the stairs in the dress Mrs. Danvers suggested she wear, we find out that this is the same dress that Rebecca wore the year before at the Manderley ball. Maxim’s face is ‘ashen white’ as if he has seen a ghost, and we are invited, I think, to believe that he has. The narrator has been touched by the remnants of Rebecca’s spirit and it is beginning to take over the narrator.
The space that Rebecca has left behind is a large one for the narrator to try and fill. The entire house is suffused with objects that Rebecca has chosen. One very prominent example of this is the morning room. It is full of rhododendrons, and the narrator imagines Rebecca choosing each object. She describes the room using adjectives which have also been used to describe Rebecca, ‘graceful, fragile’ and ‘vividly alive’. The morning room was Rebecca’s room, and it seems to still be in her grasp. The room itself is full of the first thing of Rebecca’s that the narrator noticed – her handwriting. This novel has a preoccupation with handwriting and what it says about a person. Rebecca’s handwriting, when it is first seen as an inscription on the first page of a book of poetry, is described as ‘strong’, later as ‘bold, slanting’, ‘the symbol of herself, so certain so assured. When the narrator then writes her own letter she notices that her own writing is ‘cramped and unformed… without individuality, without style, uneducated even’. The narrator compares herself to Rebecca, a woman she has never met, using this lasting element of her character.
While there are physical remembrances of Rebecca, we are told time and again by the narrator that Rebecca is dead. However, many have compared Rebecca and the narrator and suggested that they are alter egos. April Horner and Sue Zlosnik for instance in their book Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity and the Gothic Imagination, say that ‘[Rebecca] is also the narrator’s alter ego, or double. In obvious ways, she seems to embody all the narrator is not.’ (p108). They also comment on Rebecca’s handwriting,
Rebecca’s uncanny presence in the novel is due not just to other characters’ memories of her but to an indelibility, which continually surfaces through her signature and the ‘curious sloping letters’… of her handwriting. (p109)
I feel though that it is not the narrator who is Rebecca’s alter ego, but Mrs. Danvers. Our first introduction to Mrs. Danvers is incredibly eerie:
Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton’s frame… when she took my hand hers was limp and heavy, deathly cold, and it lay in mine like a lifeless thing.
We are clearly to take Mrs. Danvers as a ghostly creature in her own right, and this description foreshadows the discovery of Rebecca’s corpse in the wrecked boat. The continued instances of Mrs. Danvers intimidating the narrator, scorning her and misleading her suggests, as I said in a recent essay, that Mrs Danvers is acting, if not under the influence, in the interests of Rebecca.
The ending of the novel serves to solidify my idea, in that Rebecca is finally defeated only when Manderley, and with it Mrs. Danvers, have burnt to the ground. Once all the physical reminders of Rebecca have been destroyed, the narrator and Maxim are finally free, although it is clear from the beginning of the novel that they never truly forget.
The novel is brilliantly written and extremely thought provoking and I haven’t even begun to cover half the things that I have to say about it here. I definitely recommend reading it and if you do, share with me what you think!