Saturday, 5 November 2011

Dreams of Manderley

Daphne Du Maurier’s classic gothic novel Rebecca (1938) begins with the famous line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Each time I read this sentence I am instantly swept away into the tension, drama, suspense and gloom that Du Maurier has created. 

In many ways Rebecca is a modern Jane Eyre. The story involves a young woman who meets a wealthy English widower, Maximilian de Winter, (known as Maxim) in the south of France. After a whirlwind courtship they marry and move to Manderley, Maxim’s mansion on the Cornwall coast where the young bride learns she is not the first Mrs De Winter. Her predecessor, Rebecca, looms large over Manderley and the whole home is infused with her spirit. The housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, uses the new wife’s insecurities against her by openly comparing her to the beloved Rebecca. 

Desperate and lacking self-confidence, she feels she will never live up to Rebecca and is concerned that Maxim married her hastily. She makes several errors of judgement in a misguided effort to please her husband. Eventually the truth about Rebecca and her marriage to Maxim is revealed in a series of intriguing plot twists.

Narrated in the first person by the young wife, who is never named, Rebecca is told a flash back to the events that took place at Manderley. Not naming the narrator was a clever way to lessen the importance of the bride while elevating the dominant Rebecca. The young girl is naïve, sensitive and vulnerable - a complete contrast to Maxim’s first wife.

Rebecca is a delight that I return to every few years, only to become enraptured over and over again. It is beautifully written and the characters are brilliantly portrayed. Mrs Danvers is creepily evil, Maxim channels Mr Rochester, and Manderley is a character itself. Du Maurier is so descriptive that she allows the reader to be transported to this world.

The story has been filmed many times including a BBC television adaptation in 1980 and again for PBS in 1997. But my favourite remains Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller from 1940. His Rebecca, the Best Picture oscar winner, starred Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Joan Fontaine as his new wife, and Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers.