I don’t want to say how long ago I read this, but it was before I was twenty and way too young to appreciate the writing or the undertow of the story. A slightly faulty image stayed with me – probably the only thing that did. I saw Mrs Danvers standing on the broad front steps of the large house, Manderley, watching the narrator’s car drive up that long, overgrown, drive. So much so that the first time I drove down the driveway of Varuna Writers House, where the trees arched into a tunnel, I expected to see Mrs Danvers waiting for me.
It’s a false image, of course – memory is entirely slippery. She was there, but waiting in the elegant entrance hall with the other staff.
Du Maurier’s landscape is still one of the most memorable things about Rebecca. Who could forget that long bank of huge, blood-red flowered, camellias that the writer used as a forecast of doom, or the enclosed cove with the boathouse where Rebecca conducted herself very badly; so much so that it was the place where she died.
This time, I was still pulled along by the narrative, wanting to know what was really going on under the so-very-English stiff upper lip-ness of both the narrator (who we never really meet except through her own eyes – a brilliant example of focalising the story) and Maxim de Winter, the owner of Manderley and around who the story revolves. I wanted to know why this book, this writer, has been in print for eighty years. Yep – eat your hearts out, writers. Eighty years of continuous publication; the 2003 Virago edition I bought (my original disappeared years ago) has been reprinted twenty-six times to date.
This is a book whose titular character is never seen or heard. She is dead, and we know that from the start. So it’s a mystery, then. A story about who killed her.
That said, it wasn’t that that pulled me along but the superb people who inhabited that closed world of Manderley and the pull of the place itself on them. Manderley is the main character, not the uptight un-named narrator nor Rebecca herself – each of whom are amoral in their own ways.
Then again, it could be the indefinite deferment of knowing who Rebecca was and how and why she died. The story is beautifully paced, and is a masterpiece in its own right.
If you have never read this book, maybe thinking it outdated, or, as I had, read it way back when, put it in your to-read pile. You won’t be disappointed.