By: Daphne du Maurier
Release Date: August 1938
*Beware: Spoilers ahead!*
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” With these words, the reader is ushered into an isolated gray stone manse on the windswept Cornish coast, as the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter recalls the chilling events that transpired as she began her new life as the young bride of the husband she barely knew. For in every corner of every room in the immense, foreboding estate were phantoms of a time dead but not forgotten—a past devotedly preserved by the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers: a suite immaculate and untouched, clothing laid out and ready to be worn, but not by any of the great house’s current occupants. And with an eerie presentiment of evil tightening her heart, the second Mrs. de Winter walked in the shadow of her mysterious predecessor, determined to uncover the darkest secrets and shattering truths about Maxim’s first wife—the late and hauntingly beautiful Rebecca.
Every marriage has its secrets.
Mrs. Maxim de Winter is ready to begin her married life. Returning from their honeymoon, she imagines sunny, laughter-filled days with her new husband, enjoying the beaches and the flora of their estate, Manderley. What she finds, however, is an estate trapped in the past, haunted by the memory of Maxim’s first wife. Every room is filled with tangible reminders of the woman, and although the new Mrs. de Winter tries to find her place, the phantoms of the past, both real and imagined, pull her deeper into the mysteries of Manderley. Fighting against the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers’ hostility and her husband’s secrecy, Mrs. de Winter is determined to unravel the secrets of the woman that came before, a beautiful and enigmatic woman named Rebecca.
For starters, this was not the book I planned to review this month. Since last October, the plan had been for this month’s review to be V.E. Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadows, the sequel to her fantastic A Darker Shade of Magic. However, thanks to an absolute failure on UPS’s part, my book won’t get to me until later this week. Needless to say, I am less than happy about this.
On the bright side, though, the hole in my reviewing schedule was quickly filled thanks to an off-handed suggestion at my monthly book club. Add in the discovery that the suggested book was part of the inspiration for “Crimson Peak,” and I knew I would definitely like Rebecca. And lucky for me, my local used bookstore had it in stock, so I didn’t have to deal with UPS again. Thank goodness.
While I was expecting to like this book, I was not expecting it to be blow-my-mind fantastic. I guess Alfred Hitchcock knew what he was doing when he adapted Rebecca into a film. I’ve never seen any of his work (I know, shame on me), but if all his films have stories like this, I’m going to end up binge-watching everything.
Fingers crossed they’re streaming somewhere.
So what was it that made Rebecca so good? What was it about this book that made me willing to push my reviews back a month so I could share this awesomeness with you? Maybe it was the mysteriously unnamed narrator. Maybe it was the fancy English estate run by a sinister, manipulative old housekeeper. Or maybe it was the string of twists in the last 100 or so pages that literally made me close my book and go, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, what?!”
Yeah, there was all of that. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
To start things off, we never found out the narrator’s name. No, she’s not Rebecca. Trust me, you wouldn’t like this book if it were about Rebecca. Instead, we had this girl with no name. We know that her name is something unique and hard to spell and that it was specifically chosen for her by her lovely and unusual father, but that’s all we know. Even after she’s married, she’s only called Mrs. de Winter or Mrs. Maxim, which gives us a bit of reference, but that’s all we get. As much as I would’ve liked to have known her name, I rather liked that mystery of it. Even better, I liked that she had no name because Daphne de Maurier couldn’t think of one.
Glad to know that even great authors sometimes have trouble naming their darlings.
While we might not know her name, we certainly learned a lot about our unnamed narrator (referred to as UN or Mrs. de Winter from here on out). She’s young—21 or so—and she’s training to be a companion under Mrs. Van Hopper. The scenes involving both UN and Van Hopper really served to show that although UN was physically young, she often acted old for her age. Yes, she suffered from every young person’s desire to be older, but her tact and her trustworthiness were quite apparent in contrast to the lack of both in her older employer. I was glad when Mrs. Van Hopper got sick and all but disappeared for a bit, both because she royally annoyed me, and because it allowed UN to spend some time with the mysterious Maxim de Winter.
I really liked Maxim. He was certainly an interesting character, supposedly running from the memory of his dead wife and finally finding his first real bit of happiness with UN there in sunny Monte Carlo. The daily trips between UN and Maxim were sweet, although a bit odd; odd only because UN kept pointing out the differences between the two of them—age, class, upbringing—but I could really see the companionship and hints of romance building as Maxim drove them around day after day.
All of this came to a head when UN discovered she was leaving and rushed to tell Maxim. Maxim’s reaction was priceless. His proposal was so nonchalant, and I loved that he denied ever trying to be funny as early as breakfast. The teasing was so true to what we knew of Maxim’s personality, and I couldn’t help but laugh as UN floundered for a decent response. And then the off-handed, “Am I going to break the news to Mrs. Van Hopper or are you?” Just perfect.
Of course, Van Hopper was a jerk about the whole thing (jealous witch), but UN—now Mrs. de Winter—brushed it off only to come face to face with Manderley’s frightening housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. First Van Hopper, then Danvers; the new Mrs. de Winter really did not have any luck with older women. Despite the less than warm welcome, I totally fell in love with Manderley. The house itself sounded beautiful, but the grounds, with all the flowers and trees, sounded absolutely gorgeous. And also like a nightmare for people with allergies.
As Mrs. de Winter adjusted to living at Manderley, she grew more and more convinced that she would never live up to the memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. Everyone had loved Rebecca—the servants, the people on the estate, people in neighboring towns, and especially Maxim. I was right there with Mrs. de Winter in believing that she was essentially an intruder in Rebecca’s place. Maxim’s odd behavior and remarks truly seemed to be due to his grief, and the way he often treated his new wife almost as a pet seemed to support Mrs. Van Hopper’s accusation that Maxim had only asked UN to be his wife so that he wouldn’t be so alone at Manderley and not because he loved her. Mrs. Danvers certainly didn’t help either, what with her slavish devotion to Rebecca. I understood Danvers’ devotion, since she had been with Rebecca since the latter had been a child, but keeping her room as a shrine and cruelly comparing the new and old Mrs. de Winter was quite unnerving.
After all the hostility, I don’t know why the current Mrs. de Winter ever thought it would be a good idea to take Mrs. Danvers’ advice. I mean, come on: creepy, hostile housekeeper who clearly thinks you’re not worthy of your new husband and position suddenly tries to help you find a costume for the upcoming ball?
Yeah, you’re clearly being set up for disaster. And what a disaster it was. I really appreciated the support of Maxim’s sister, brother in law, and estate agent at this point. Beatrice, Giles, and Frank had been kind to Mrs. de Winter from the start, and their support and understanding in light of Maxim’s fury over his wife’s costume showed that not everyone automatically compared Mrs. de Winter to Rebecca. The ball was fun to read about, even in spite of all the preceding drama and especially as the last bit of levity before the even greater drama that came after.
When a boat became stranded in the cove and Rebecca’s boat—the one she’d supposedly drowned in while out sailing—was found with Rebecca’s body still inside, all hell broke loose. Afraid that he had truly lost the love of his new wife, Maxim admitted to Mrs. de Winter that Rebecca had been a manipulative, lying cheater, and when she’d told him she was pregnant with another man’s child, Maxim had shot her and sank her boat with the body inside to get rid of the evidence.
This was the point where I had to close my book and give myself a moment to process. Up to that point, I had never had the sense that Maxim had even been anything but madly in love with Rebecca and subsequently distraught over her death. (Clearly Rebecca wasn’t the only one who could put on a good act.) But knowing this, it was easy to see that Maxim’s grief had really been a mix of hate and guilt. At the ball, he hadn’t been furious with his wife because she’d reminded him of Rebecca with her costume but because he’d feared it was Rebecca back from the dead. He’d never lashed out at Mrs. de Winter about Rebecca because it hurt but because he was afraid of someone discovering his secret.
In the new Mrs. de Winter’s favor, she was shocked, but after hearing the whole story, she wasn’t horrified at what Maxim had done. Honestly, I liked that she didn’t freak out and leave him or anything like that. Not that I’m condoning murder, but it was obvious that Rebecca hadn’t been a nice person. Maxim obviously felt guilty about what he’d done, but when you look at it from his point of view, he was the good guy. The good guy had to kill the bad guy—Rebecca—to stop her from hurting anyone else. Disagree with me if you’d like, but I think Rebecca had it coming.
As if that revelation wasn’t enough, things kept getting crazier from there. The boat was recovered and the body positively identified as Rebecca. There was an inquiry into her death, and everything seemed to point to a tragic accident until the man who’d built Rebecca’s boat pointed out that there were holes in the deck that showed someone had deliberately sunk the boat. Of course, then everyone was thinking murder, and I really thought Maxim was going to lose his temper and throw everything out the window. Luckily, Mrs. de Winter fainted at that point, and her presence reminded Maxim of what he had to lose if he blew his top. Mrs. de Winter went home, Maxim kept his cool, and Rebecca’s death was ruled a suicide.
That should’ve been the end of it, but this book kept throwing curveballs like the game depended on it. The evening after the inquiry, Rebecca’s first cousin, Favell, showed up at Manderley and tried to blackmail Maxim. Favell and Rebecca had been sleeping together—yeah, incest; the book went there—and Rebecca had left him a note the night she died saying she had something to tell him. That, plus Mrs. Danvers’ discovery of an appointment in Rebecca’s engagement book for earlier that fateful day, was enough to bring up the suspicion of murder once again. I really thought that the appointment, which had been with a prominent woman’s doctor, was going to reveal that Rebecca had been pregnant, as she’d told Maxim. I really thought that Favell was going to claim the child as his and say Maxim had murdered Rebecca out of anger. I really thought Maxim was going to be arrested and Mrs. de Winter would end up at Manderley all alone, heartbroken and scandalized.
I might as well have not thought at all, as wrong as I was. It never crossed my mind that Rebecca had been diagnosed with cancer. The diagnosis shocked me as much as everyone involved, and I loved that I still had a bit of surprise left in me at that point. Even more, I loved that the cancer provided the perfect motive for Rebecca’s suicide, as Mrs. Danvers had informed them that the only thing Rebecca feared was getting sick and dying in her bed. The cancer was the perfect answer: Rebecca had been afraid of the pain and the slow, inevitable end, and she had killed herself on her boat as a way to control her life even until the end. It was the perfect little twist that it was Danvers herself who gave them that missing piece and exonerated the murderer of the woman for whom she cared so much.
Some might claim that everything wrapped up too neatly, and I guess it did, but it certainly wasn’t wrapped up quickly or without enough tension to drive me crazy, so I’m definitely not complaining. And even at that point, when I thought everything was finished, that Maxim had avoided hanging and that he and his wife could return to live happily ever after at Manderley, there was still one last curveball. I was so sad that Manderley burned. The loss of their beloved home was yet another blow to the couple and their crazy relationship. Although it wasn’t said, I believed that Danvers set fire to the house before leaving, one last act in honor of her beloved Rebecca. And while the loss of the house was devastating, it was also a signal of the end, the end of all the mementos and tangible memories of Rebecca and her horrible legacy. It gave Mrs. de Winter and Maxim a chance to begin again somewhere else without the specter of Rebecca hanging over them, which was actually a rather hopeful future.
So that about sums up Rebecca, the first book in a long time that truly kept surprising me until the very last page. It’s easy to see why this book is a classic, and I truly believe that it deserves as much recognition as similar tales like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Rebecca is a first-rate mystery that will keep readers captivated until the end and leave them in awe of the intricate, twisted tale it tells. Pick it up today!
- “If you think I’m one of the people who try to be funny at breakfast you’re wrong.”
- “The woman buried in the crypt is not Rebecca,” he said. “It’s the body of some unknown woman, unclaimed, belonging nowhere. There was never an accident. Rebecca was not drowned at all. I killed her. I shot Rebecca in the cottage in the cove. I carried her body to the cabin, and took the boat out that night, and sunk it there, where they found it to-day. It’s Rebecca who’s lying dead there on the cabin floor. Will you look into my eyes and tell me that you love me now?”