End Date: March 28th
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Genre: Suspense / Mystery
Pages: 441 (paperback)
Selected By: Elle Tea
” ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ With these words, the reader is ushered into an isolated gray stone mansion 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 a husband she barely knew. For in every corner of every room 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. 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.” – from the Amazon summary.
I actually picked this having zero knowledge of what it was about. I was on the hunt for Classics that I’d missed out on in the past, and this novel was listed among the top to feature an underrated female character.
“The house was a sepulcher, our fear and suffering lay buried in the ruins.”
I’m really glad I found it, though. I loved everything about this novel: the meandering writing style with its stream-of-consciousness voice, the naive young protagonist, the vicious and malicious villain, the questionable motives and character of our quasi-hero, and even the ubiquitous Rebecca.
While I am aware that the narrator irritated more than one of our Ladies, I never saw her as stupid, lazy, or ridiculous. This book was written not long after the suffrage movement in Britain gained a real win – the vote – in 1928, and it was still very much a Man’s World. Not to mention that du Maurier intentionally created a protagonist who is both passive and submissive – without these traits, we would have had no book whatsoever.
I thought the naivete and innocence with which our narrator, the Second Mrs. de Winter, began and her tendency to lapse into daydreams fit not only with her inexperience and immaturity but also with the tone of the book; her naivete is most pronounced when she allows her own lack of education and experience to be influenced by her inferiority complex, resulting in those failings working together to assign assumptions about the ideals and motivations of others – ideas and assumptions which she then reacts to (rather than determining for herself the actual realities of a situation prior to leaping into action). The Second Mrs. de Winter spends the first half of the book looking forward, playing out fairy-tale scenes with herself cast in the starring role, basking in the notion that her new husband and his family will embrace and adore her. She matures abruptly, however, after which point she ceases to look forward with anything other than dread and instead begins looking back – in fact, the novel begins with an older and more mature Second Mrs. de Winter telling us that she still dreams of Manderley. There is no happy ending here, and du Maurier put it best herself when she said, “There is no resurrection” – our protagonist ends as she began: a caretaker, with only the recipient of her efforts changing.
The novel itself is based on drama entirely founded not on what people have done but on what people perceive; the ideas of how our narrator imagines her life will be clash with the other characters’ ideas of how life has been (and our narrator’s ideas of what those characters’ ideals might be), which all slam against the stark, firm wall of reality. The fact that our narrator was a non-entity for the duration of the book was touching to me, rather than irritating as it was for a couple of our Ladies; not only does she believe other characters are keeping her in the shadow of her predecessor, but she does so to herself, allowing herself to be entirely dwarfed by the expectations of the older and more mature, established characters around her, be it Maxim, Mrs. Van Hopper, Beatrice Lacy, or Mrs. Danvers. She bemoans the unfavorable comparisons she believes they are making about her in relation to Rebecca and agonizes over living in what is essentially a shrine to the memory of a dead woman, while all the while making no moves to rectify her situation: she never even thinks of her own name, leaving her always “The Second,” and the few qualities we do learn about her are provided only in comparison to how they measure up to her predecessor (i.e., younger, shorter, smaller, etc.). Manderley remains as Rebecca left it, the gardens are tended as Rebecca wished, Rebecca’s flowers are grown and arranged throughout the home, Rebecca’s clothes and furniture remain in the best rooms in the manor (while our narrator and the owner of said manor reside in secondary quarters), and our protagonist repeatedly defers to Rebecca’s confidante, Mrs. Danvers, when it comes to scheduling, designing, parties, the rooms in which she now resides, and even the food she eats, citing that she doesn’t mind things remaining “as they always were” – in other words, as Rebecca would have had them done.
As pitiful as I found her struggle with the idea of Rebecca to be, the more I read the more I was actually able to empathize with her: I’m a daydreamer myself, and I play out what-if-this-happened scenarios in my head all the time, and I have always judged myself harshly when compared to those around me. The ball scene with the announcement of “Caroline de Winter” was written with such touchingly exquisite distress that it dredged up from the recesses of my own memory those moments when I felt that very same throat-clogging, breath-smothering, stomach-dropping humiliation of public disappointment and failure. Not only that, but I think most people have known at least a few Rebeccas in their time: people who play the roles of kind, thoughtful, sensitive, compassionate human beings to a tee but, upon closer inspection, seem to have allowed none of those qualities to penetrate their exteriors. I believe du Maurier did a wonderful job of voicing the helpless confusion and internal conflict that rises when one is stifled by the secret knowledge of a seemingly respected person’s rotten core. Our protagonist, I believe, feels these emotions more acutely based on her youth, which lends her a desperate desire to be liked and a pitiful hunger to be the Favorite Mrs. de Winter – but she lacks the confidence, maturity, and will to believe that she already might be.
I wasn’t certain how to feel about Maxim de Winter for a majority of the book; I initially pitied him for his luckless and nightmarish first marriage, but by the end I found myself completely conflicted regarding his persona. While he later professed his love for our narrator, that sentiment was only voiced when it seemed he was on the precipice of losing – not only her – but everything. Not only that, but his dismay at her loss of innocence as the story progresses is the most consistent and genuine emotion he displays, leading me to truly believe that her inexperience was her greatest attraction for him. Perhaps he later truly learned to love her, as he professed, but I just could not get over how often he seemed to bemoan the fact that she would eventually, as he puts it, “grow up.” (And the whole thing with wanting her to dress up as Alice in Wonderland? Yeah, creeeeeeeeeeeeeeepy.)
I saw Maxim as a man who had tried life with a grown woman of equal status – one who, despite her overall wicked and self-indulgent nature, would not submit to his control, who knew her own mind, took care of her own business (and his), and lived (and died) exactly as she saw fit – and it had been a complete disaster. The only way he could avoid repeating that failure would be to ensure that his next wife – if there ever was one – was immature enough to allow herself to be molded into the sort of woman he wanted, a young girl with no experience of men with which to compare him, no experience of life, no family to clash with his needs and the needs of his household, and no place in society or money to render her important enough to threaten his own standing. I do believe Mrs. Van Hopper was entirely correct when she said Maxim rushed into his second marriage solely because he couldn’t stand to be alone in Manderley any longer. He is presented as the romantic lead for a majority of the book, but by the end I considered him ruthless – he uses our narrator not so very differently than he does his dog, Jasper: in exchange for her love, loyalty, comfort, and companionship, he gives her the occasional pat on the head but otherwise neglects her entirely.
“I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say.”
And how can I even begin to write about Mrs. Danvers? She is the quintessential Evil Housekeeper (and the mold from which every Evil Housekeeper character has been cut since her creation). Her brand of wickedness isn’t blatant, there’s no explosion of viciousness to initially mark her out as The Villain (though it does come later!); Mrs. Danvers’ evil is slow and subtle as poison. She sets her malice against our narrator from the beginning, and she works methodically against the Second Mrs. de Winter’s sanity, both forcing and allowing her employer and his new wife to slowly ruin themselves – though this had nothing to do with the Second Mrs. de Winter at all and everything to do with a vendetta against Maxim himself. She is a maniacal viper, dripping poison as she watches every sordid tale unfold beneath Manderley’s expansive roof.
Mrs. Danvers’ destructive and obsessive love for Rebecca stood out to me most when compared to that professed by yet another member of the Rebecca de Winter Fan Club: Cousin Jack. Jack Favell was my least favorite character – I found his bratty behavior almost ridiculous when put side-by-side to Mrs. Danvers’ mad villainy. But even he couldn’t bring down my overall love for this book; rather, his snotty, petty, trifling behavior served to make Mrs. Danvers more real for me. I firmly believe that Favell, who professed to have loved so ardently, lacked the ability to ever do any such thing – he could never love anything in this world more than himself. Mrs. Danvers, however, loved Rebecca with an obsession, and when that object of her obsession was no more, she allowed that love to become something evil and ravenous, something corrupt that unhinged her very soul and embittered her towards the changes taking place in the household, leading, eventually, to her madness.
We find throughout the course of the novel that Rebecca was an undeniably cruel woman, not to mention spoiled, conceited, vindictive, malicious, adulterous, controlling, and, as I said earlier, rotten to the core. She is a stark contrast to the Second Mrs. de Winter, as (from the exterior) Rebecca is beautiful, poised, well-versed in society and all of its particulars, well-spoken, confident, fashionable, and fearless. Everyone who knew her in passing, whose relationship with her never broke her surface, had nothing but praise for her and often stood in complete awe of her. And again we are back to perception – the society of du Maurier’s novel is prepared to turn a blind eye to the actions of a sadist, because that sadist fits with their ideals, while they are unwilling to accept into their fold the plain and remarkable Nobody that is our narrator. As fantastical as that seems when read in a novel, there is realism here; even our modern society is prepared to overlook a certain level of atrocious behavior if the one who has committed them fits the cultural ideals (Debra LaFave was considered “too pretty for prison,” Jodi Arias is even now being considered possibly “too pretty for the death penalty,” and one of the factors when discussing whether Casey Anthony might have had anything to do with the disappearance of her own child was that it was difficult for people to believe that “a pretty young woman” might do such a thing). As humans, we have it fixed in our minds that good and evil should be discernible by appearances, but, as Tolkien said, sometimes, “… if he was one of the enemy, he would look fairer and, well, feel fouler, if you see what I mean.”
“They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word. Today, wrapped in the complacent armor of approaching middle age, the infinitesimal pricks of day-by-day brush one lightly and are soon forgotten…”
I read the novel fairly early in the month, so I spread the love over March and also watched the two film adaptations: Hitchcock’s 1940 release starring Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers, and Joan Fontaine as the Second Mrs. de Winter & the 1997 Masterpiece Theater version starring Charles Dance as Maxim, Diana Rigg as Mrs. Danvers, and Emilia Fox as the Second Missus. Neither film is entirely faithful to the book, but I will say that, though both were quite good, I personally preferred the 1940 classic – Olivier is the perfect Maxim, though I did prefer Emilia Fox’s Missus to Joan Fontaine’s (who, through no fault of her own, was simply too beautiful for the role of a plain Jane). Unlike the novel, however, neither adaptation was bold enough to say, in the end, “Love does not, in fact, conquer all. Sometimes, it can ruin you. Sometimes, it can drive you mad. And sometimes it’s a pit which you simply fill with your own need to be needed.”
So. To conclude, I highly recommend this novel. It’s not my favorite of all time – those are some pretty huge shoes to fill – but it’s certainly shoved its way towards the top of the list.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify: Beatrice Lacy. To be honest, her busy-bodiness and round-about way of dealing with our protagonist irritated me a bit, but, in the end, her loyalty to her brother and the fact that she was the only person to truly even try and help the new bride settle in and fill her new role won me over. Plus, she was what she was and made no apologies for it – and she was self-aware enough to know her own failings and call herself out on them almost immediately.
Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.
I very much liked this book, for quite a bit of it was very comforting with the descriptions that Du Maurier would use to describe the property of Manderley or the day dreams that the current Mrs. De Winter had. Some were also quite humorous such as:
“There was something rather blowzy about roses in full bloom, something shallow and raucous, like women with untidy hair. In the house they became mysterious and subtle.”
“No, my underclothes were more serious than that. More like a divorce case heard in camera…”.
I think I understood our narrator the most; I’m not sure how much I am like her, but I understand her for most of the book. There were some instances that I did think she needed to have her knuckles thwacked with a ruler and told, “Chin up, shoulders back. You are the woman of this house now.” But you do have to keep in mind she lost her parents very young and had no friends that could help her become a proper lady and instructed on what was right and wrong. As I was reading I thought Elizabeth Bennett would probably had made a perfect match for Maxim in somebody being able to run the house and dazzle everyone in her wake, but he did not want Elizabeth Bennett he wanted someone who was childlike and innocent.
I didn’t like that Maxim looked to his new bride as more of a pet and distraction from life than a companion and friend. I thought him very selfish indeed! At one point Mrs. De Winter thought, “The smile was my reward. Like a pat on the head to Jasper. Good dog then, lie down, don’t worry me anymore.” It does not make a person especially a new bride feel very important. You do come round to understanding him better later in the story but it takes some time.
One of the things I had a bad reaction to in regards to the new Mrs. De Winter was her thought that was quite mean and hurtful that was directed at Beatrice. “There was something rather sincere and pathetic about her going off to a shop in London and buying me these books because she knew I was fond of painting.” I don’t know if it the time period but if someone gave me a present because they knew I would like it I wouldn’t think it pathetic. I also thought of all people she should not be the one throwing such stones. I’m sure it would distress her greatly to give someone a present and them think “What a pathetic attempt!”. I thought this showed she did have an ally even if the ally may be about as soft and cuddly as a brillo pad! They are still an ally non the less and should be cherished. I wish she could have confided in Beatrice more or even Frank Crawley to help her with her faux pas that she had but she was too timid. I think it would have made life easier, but in the end it may not have helped her as much as what actually occurred to make her grow up.
Mrs. Danvers was my least favorite character of all and made a capital villain. I could picture Angelica Houston making a fine Mrs. Danvers. I think she was sneaky and deceitful and you always had a bad feeling when she was around. My favorite character was probably Frank Crawley. I thought that the new Mrs. De Winter would probably had been much happier had she married someone like him. She would have enjoyed living a simple life in a small house doting on her husband and not having to put on a show that people expected of her. I found it sad that she couldn’t wait to grow old because being the way she was didn’t seem to be good enough for anyone.
There is a scene in this book that I think was imperative for our dear Mrs. De Winter to grow. I believe this to be her turning point that would forever change her for the better even if it made Mr. De Winter sad to have his bride turn into a woman. I won’t tell you what it is but I think she ended up handling it rather well even if for the wrong reasons.
There were moments that our young bride would have some deep thoughts of her own and was not completely simple such as, “for this moment, it is mine, it belongs to me”. I like this and it seems very warm like a blanket in front of a fire. Something that you can wrap in or even bathe in its warmth. No matter what anyone else was doing or saying even though to them it would mean nothing and left forgotten she would remember it always such as a drive she was taking with Maxim or a moment under the chestnut tree with her in-laws.
I thought this was a good book that showed a girl that grew to be a woman. It also shows us that there is evil in the world that can be dressed in the prettiest of wrappings but in the end when you open and look at the inside it is nothing but darkness and ash.
I would like to end this review on another line that I thought was good:
“Time and Tide wait for no man”.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify: The second Mrs. de Winter.
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle version of this book.
The Divine Ms. Em:
While I did like reading some of the prose, I thought this novel was completely predictable and way too descriptive. The characters were weak or unlikeable and, again, very predictable. The author would spend several pages describing how the breakfast was laid out, what time it was, everything on the menu and how it was prepared and how it was cleaned up and put away until the next time you got to read it all over again. All this, and you never once learned the first name of the main character. I also could understand that the main character was young, inexperienced, and impressionable, but seriously? I didn’t buy so much of that. The fact the main character (whoever she was) realized she was being treated just like the dogs in the house and never said a word or stood up to anyone drove me crazy.
She was sad and miserable, believing that her husband was still in love with and missing his previous wife, until, of course, she discovered that the source of his discontent was his own guilt. Then she was, at long last, happy – her whole world was better now that she knew he hadn’t loved his first wife at all, and that knowledge somehow excused him for ignoring her and treating her badly.
As for Maxim the Murderer, once he’d dumped his burden on his new wife, he could at least treat her like he loved her. I find that part of the plot very weak.
I didn’t like any of the characters in this book, except for the butler and footmen at Manderlay, Maxim’s beautiful country estate. I also don’t know how Maxim managed to get out of everything so seemingly easily. Seriously?! It reminded me of an old, badly-acted, and overly-melodramatic movie from the 40s the whole way through. Not my cup of tea at all!
With Which Character Did You Most Identify: No one.
Kudos to Elle Tea for bringing us back to the Classics, this is a much better read than Emma. Well, I can honestly say I hate Rebecca, the character, with a passion. However, I think this is what the author intended. I will not spend very much time on this but I do want to give a brief comparison between the Rebecca and our younger Mrs. de Winter, because I was more compelled to focus my review on Maxim de Winter.
It is telling, striking and sometimes annoying that we do not have a Christian name for the new Mrs. De Winter. It is pretty apparent from the word go that she is a very inexperienced young woman. It gave me the feeling that you could insert any young woman with the same lack of experience in the situation and have not lost very much. Whether it is a testament to her youth and inexperience, the day dream sequences were a bit arduous for me. I found myself getting annoyed wanting to know how it would actually happen versus her fanciful musings (odd, considering I’m a Pisces and allegedly we are day dreamers). Elle Tea was amused by my annoyance with the initial sequence describing all the flora upon approach to Manderley, mainly because I was the person who was thinking “I’m going to have an allergy attack reading this” not necessarily thinking of how “beautiful” it may be upon approach. While it was not my cup of tea, and I do not feel it moves the story along, I do feel that it gives you a good idea of the mindset of the narrator.
Despite her proclivity to meander down fanciful paths, I enjoyed the young Mrs. De Winter. I felt sorry for her at times due to her ill treatment, whether intentional or through inconsideration. While the narrator does a bang up job on belittling herself, which I abhor, I found the sister-in-law’s selfish rantings and busybody antics does nothing to further the new Mrs. De Winter’s comfort and only compounds the situation. However, the treatment by Mrs. Danvers, the diabolical housekeeper is enough to drive even a confident person insane. Mrs. Danvers’ tries her best to cause discomfort and even bodily harm to the new Mrs. De Winter. Despite Mrs. Danver’s attempt to get the new Mrs. De Winter to commit suicide, I do not believe that the act is about the dislike of the new Mrs. De Winter, but Mrs. Danvers’ disdain for Maximilian de Winter. I found one moment of absolute exultation for the narrator when it dawned on her that Mrs. Danvers means her more harm than help after the fiasco of the ball. I was proud that she became truly angry and sought Mrs. Danvers out to give her what for. However, my elation was short-lived when she allowed herself to be manipulated into almost committing suicide. My reaction was “What? How the hell did it go that sideways that fast?” Thank God for the saving bell. However, the narrator is fully awake at this point and I was thrilled with her spunk, when it did show itself and willingness to stand up and beside her guy.
As for Rebecca, I feel our narrator embodies everything Rebecca is not. However, we are not privy to this until after Maxim finally reveals Rebecca’s true nature. Rebecca, Rebecca, Rebecca. How I wanted to raise her from the dead to kill her all over again. Rebecca is the worst sort of woman. She’s conniving, manipulative, selfish, unfaithful and probably a bit more that was never described. In short she is a sociopath. Everything is for her amusement, and if it torments and causes you pain in the process, all the more fun for her. She has not the modicum of respect or reverence for any human being, including her closest confidants and coconspirators of Mrs. Danvers and Mr. Favell. Even before the big reveal of her subpar character, I had no love for Rebecca. Her assumed benevolence, good humor, well breeding reeked of falsehood to me before we even got into her debauchery. However, this leads me to Maxim.
I feel Maxim de Winter is completely culpable in not giving the narrator a good perspective of what she was walking into prior to throwing her to the wolves. I feel at worst, he is guilty of shielding her from too much of the truth in the beginning. His motivation for marrying her is not one of romance and love, but I do believe that it evolved into love and respect of her companionship. What he enjoys and what I appreciate is her honesty, her modesty and fidelity, and I feel that he seeks youth because she is not tainted with horrible habits of manipulation and cruelty. You can only live with a cruel person for so long before becoming fed up and seeking solace in the complete opposite type of person. Whether he could find someone with the same qualities of the new Mrs. De Winter in his age group doesn’t appear to be an option when we meet people nearby and their manipulations of the situations (for instance the bullying into having a ball by a nearby neighbor).
Now whether Maxim is able to find a suitable life partner amongst women in his own age group was not explored in the book. However, I do suppose that after dealing with Rebecca would put anyone off of someone of the same social stature and economic acumen. Maxim does not lord his wealth over the narrator. Nor does he make it a point to pamper his new bride either. It is clear that her wardrobe is lacking upon arrival at Manderley. However, he makes mention of it once and nothing is done to rectify the situation. I think this is more to do with liking the plain Jane aspect of the new Mrs. De Winter than having to deal with another vain and superficial person. Keeping her innocence can be a form of manipulation, but I feel it’s more like Maxim trying to preserve the peace of his home. However, Maxim could have done a much better job in preserving the peace at Manderley.
Upon arrival in Manderley, Maxim doesn’t do a thing to enforce her feeling of belonging or empower her with the staff. Not that it would have been well received, but Maxim should have established a clear expectation of the narrator’s role in the household and how the staff should have behaved. Frith and Robert may not have approved of the narrator, but they showed her due respect. Maxim should have laid down the law with Mrs. Danvers. Would it have helped? Probably not, but maybe better care would have been taken, or give the narrator the chance to properly defend herself. Furthermore, bringing her into this environment knowing she is not familiar with such an environment, I would expect him to at least provide her with a mentor versus just leaving her to her own devices. I think he took for granted that her enjoyment of nature and ability to just lolly gag about the property would trump boredom. This could have turned out poorly for Maxim. He could have easily created the monster that was Rebecca to a minor degree, if the narrator did not dote on him so much.
While I could find a great deal of fault with Maxim for his lack of proactive management of the new Mrs. De Winter’s integration into his life at Manderley, I could not find a point of annoyance with him in his disposal of the human stain of Rebecca. Unfortunately, his reaction to her goading achieved her goal, which was to end her suffering and thereby increase Maxim’s. I do not believe Maxim to be a clever man. He’s simple enough and needed a simple wife to go with what he wanted to be a simple life. He managed the business of the estate with Frank Crawley, but beyond that, he did not have a desire to be in the midst of society. I think in this, he and the narrator are well matched. Even after all their trials, we find them being happily companionable. While he did not start of being in love with the narrator, he did grow to love, respect and rely on her and she definitely did not disappoint him in her steadfast manner once things began to fall apart.
Overall, I was more struck by Maxim and his behavior or lack of action when it came to dealing with the day to day adjustments of his new bride to his life at Manderley. Rebecca is a malevolent spirit that lingers over the halls and grounds of Manderley that Maxim would never be able to overcome but with the help of the new Mrs. De Winter. I think, like with most characters in this book, Maxim is selfish. He wanted to move on in his life but didn’t do enough to make sure that the person he chose to take on his life’s journey was well equipped to deal with his life. The story was compelling, the characters believable and unfortunately a bit on the scary and annoying side. I found myself trying to keep my eyes open in the hopes that Maxim would finally best Rebecca. I was disappointed that the harpy could cause so much dissention and pain even in her death, but I do feel like there are people who are such forces that even in their death, they can cast a shadow on what could have been good in the world.
Thanks, Elle Tea for the selection. Excellent choice and definitely not something I would have picked myself. The only reason this didn’t merit 5 cups from me is the incessant day dreaming.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify: Frank Crawley.
Lady Esbe read the William Morrow paperback version of this book.