“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, a brilliant opening line for a fantastic book. I have seen the film but the dramatisation with Emilia Fox and Charles Dance is the one that has really stayed with me. I loved this so much that I never really felt the need to read the book, which I now realise was a major mistake, it is absolutely amazing. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much for a while, in fact it has now meant my most recent reading experiences have been disappointments after this.
The famous plot recounts the unnamed narrator meeting the older and sophisticated Maxim De Winter in Monte Carlo in the 1930s . It is said that he cannot get over the death of his wife Rebecca, however he pretty swiftly ends up marrying unnamed girl and taking her back to his estate Manderley. It is here that she encounters constant memories and reminders of Rebecca, who seems to have been beautiful and intelligent and loved by everyone especially the scary housekeeper Mrs Danvers who keeps her room as a shrine to her memory. As the novel develops the heroine begins to believe that she will never be able to win the love of Maxim or to be able to escape from the shadow of Rebecca. Maxim seems reluctant to discuss Rebecca, is this because he was so in love with her or because he is hiding a secret?
The book opens at the end of the story with the heroine and Maxim living in foreign exile with the beautiful description of her dream of the ruins of Manderley and the beautiful azaleas, rhododendrons and lilies in the grounds, it immediately hooks you in. The descriptions of the house seem to really bring it to life. Despite already knowing part of the ending this is still a real page turner and suspenseful novel.
There have been comparisons to Jane Eyre indeed there are similarities as both are works of gothic fiction, dominant but withdrawn older men, the shadow of brilliant, immoral previous wives and the fate of the country houses. Of course in both novels the heroine is a young, shy plain, innocent girl, and it is interesting that in this novel the heroine has no name which reflects the shows domination and importance of Rebecca over her life and the plot. However there are major differences, one first wife in is alive and hidden whilst the other is dead but seemingly constantly present. There are also the dramatically different characters and role of the housekeepers, the sinister Mrs Danvers, who is obsessed with revealing Rebecca to the heroine compared to the amiable Mrs Fairfax who is trying to keep secrets hidden.
I read an interesting article by Bernadette Bertrandias has been written on a comparison of these novels;
“The reader can thereby realize that, like Jane Eyre, and beyond appearances, Rebecca is not so much a story of romantic love as one of initiation; its deeper issue also concerns the unveiling of a mystery, the mystery of the house and the mystery of the Master. The same tropes referring to the dynamic of exploration are used again, as the heroine rambles along corridors and comes up against locked doors; similarly, and more powerfully, locked is the access to Rochester’s or Max De Winter’s minds. In a striking parallel, considering the time gap between the two novels, both men construct their beloved into a figure of innocence and purity in which they are determined to keep her enclosed. So at bottom, the situations are identical, as far as both heroines are barred access to the knowledge of human experience to which the Masters only possess the key. “
“Rebecca is not dead and vanished, but lives on now as a secret disruptive force in the narrator’s soul”. Bertrandias goes on to argue that in fact the dream at the end of the novel shows how part of Rebecca has become assimilated in the heroine, and that part of her will live on with her and Maxim forever. “This will prove able to extend them into a recognition that the self has to live on with its inner otherness, the otherness that contains manifold other possibilities, such recognition —as is offered in the opening dream— being presented as the prerequisite to the mastery of both life and language. So therefore the book is a more psychological study of female identity than Jane Eyre and concludes that is multifarious and it requires the acknowledgement and voice of the other within the self.”
Du Maurier never explicitly said Rebecca was influenced by Jane Eyre however it seems as if there are strong links although Rebecca goes further in analysing identity. The similarities are so striking that Angela Carter was able to declare in Expletives Deleted that Rebecca “shamelessly reduplicates the plot of Charlotte Brontë’s novel”. For me however I am of the opinion that both are brilliant books and complement the other, so read both!