Towards the end of 2018 I finally eased open the covers of Daphne Du Maurier’s famous Rebecca. The effects were, quite frankly, breathtaking. I mean – I was holding my breath for whole pages at a time, reading into unholy hours and continuing chapters in my dreams (always, for me, the sign of a favourite book). Before 2019 came along, I wrote a review. It was intended for an application but never used – though I enjoyed writing it immensely.
And so, dear reader, here it is:
Rebecca surprised me. I opened its pages – rather late for an English student – and with a vague collection of pre-conceptions. And yet, even as someone well-practiced in guessing ‘how it all turns out’, Rebecca wouldn’t let me make predictions. Certainly not accurate ones. I devoured it with an anticipation, accumulating in the second half, which had me struggling to keep my eyes from skipping into unchartered paragraphs.
I should first mention the significance of naming in this novel. Before we even lift the cover, Rebecca’s name is already plastered onto our consciousness. And yet the name of our narrator remains unknown – in a way that some readers may not even have noticed. From the firmly scrawled letters in the book of poetry, to the narrator’s first uttering of ‘Rebecca’, and then to a house filled with the lingering sound of some faceless name; Rebecca is both entirely absent and crushingly present as the novel goes on, whilst the identity of our narrator remains quietly shrouded. This I found completely beguiling. As soon as I clocked Max’s early comment: “You have a very lovely and unusual name”, I sat up. I flicked through the previous pages trying to find it mentioned somewhere. Suddenly, this story promised something far from the average period drama.
I did not warm to our living protagonist for a long time. The looming, if fictional, figure of a much-loved Mrs de Winter made the present Mrs de Winter less likeable. Cowering under that mysterious shadow, I found her frustrating and at many times pathetic. Redeeming her, however, is the entirely open access to her mind. Our narrator is always conjuring conclusions in her head; her restless imagination is constantly trying to project what will be, what might have been, and what she wishes things to be. It whirrs away to the stimulus of her otherwise ordinary surroundings, and as a result the plot is significantly enriched. As another result, all of our predictions, as reader, surrounding the late Rebecca become intertwined with hers: this makes the novel’s climactic moment of realisation pyrotechnic.
This intertwining brought me closer to the speaker in a number of ways. Following that big reveal, I was having to retrace my steps alongside hers, and unravel all of my previous assumptions. I also realised, fully, just how human she was. This constant working of her imagination was childish – but it’s what we all do. It made me realise what was missing within the commentary of so many literary characters’ thoughts. The honesty with which she confesses her reactions make her real – my favourite offering being her admittance that the truth Max finally imparts about Rebecca’s death brings her nothing but relief, and even joy.
Though there were, as with every piece of even the finest literature, minor weaknesses to its fabric, those moments of incredible reality make Rebecca a story to be devoured into the early hours. Daphne du Maurier did not need supernatural cliché or ghostly activity to grasp, violently, her readers’ imagination. Rebecca is not about Rebecca: it is about the sound of her name on the lips and in the minds of the people she left behind.