I dreamt I went to Manderley
I cannot think of any other way to start this review than the above iconic line. I inherited my well-worn copy of this classic from a woman named Natalee, who printed her name neatly in the top right-hand corner of its first page and eventually donated it to the little second-hand shop where I happened upon it. Apt, I think, since Du Maurier’s exquisite gothic novel is as much about inheriting the remnants of another person’s life as it is, in her own words, a study in jealousy.
If I had read Rebecca as a much younger me, fresh in the throes of having just encountered the likes of Heathcliff and Mr Rochester (who first played host to the definitive “woman in the attic”), I would have considered it a romance, and indeed at first it may seem the quintessential love story: a young, naïve girl meets a brooding, handsome widower who promises marriage and comfort, a stark contrast to her bleak existence as an impoverished lady’s companion. But for older me, the dark turbulence that soon after clouds our young unnamed narrator and her haunted Maximilian de Winter holds much more interest than the notion of a happily-ever-after. Once Maxim brings his timid bride home to his family estate, the imposing Manderley (as much a character as any of the flesh and blood personalities that inhabit the novel), it becomes evident that their new marriage will be ruled not by love, but by the memory of the deceased former Mrs de Winter, the titular Rebecca.
From beyond the grave, Rebecca exercises an uncanny control over the occupants of Manderley. From the intimidating, skull-faced housekeeper, Mrs Danvers – who makes no secret of her quiet animosity towards Maxim’s new wife, or her eerie obsession with his former – to a host of servants who remain loyal to the ways of their previous mistress; the very estate itself seems possessed of her. Her lingering presence feeds Maxim’s melancholy and at Manderley he is brusque and elusive – far removed from the intriguing man who wooed our narrator. She herself becomes haunted by the memory of Rebecca, and struggles not only with being made to feel like an impostor in her new home but with jealousy of Maxim’s perceived undying affections for Rebecca. Her insecurity runs deep and creates much of the delicious tension that pulses through the novel. Ultimately it is also Rebecca that finally determines the fate of these characters.
This is by far the most impressive aspect of the novel: how a woman, who never appears in anything but memories, often ambiguous, can wreck such influence and ruin on the lives of the living. And Du Maurier captures with aching precision this insidious presence on a young girl desperately in love with a man unable to let go of his past and the severe consequences for them both.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel from start to finish. It is an expertly crafted and nuanced tale of suspense, deceit and passion that left me tingling with a new appreciation for brilliantly written literature. I cannot recommend paying a visit to Manderley highly enough.