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Rebecca, Du Maurier's Gothic Novel, Comes Again To Haunt Us

Netflix releases the film on October 21, 2020

Isolated, beautiful English estate
Photo: K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

The First, Thrilling Read

Books are so much attached to my life, connected to my memories, emotions, and behaviors, that separating myself from the reading of them is impossible. Do you remember the thrill of the first time you experienced an unexpected plot turn? For me, it was in Ms. Chaney's 7th grade English class reading The Scarlet Letter. If my epiphany had been a real light bulb over my head, our class would have been blinded by the light. The epiphany of discovering the identity of Hester Prynne's lover electrified me. It was an experience I'll never forget - similar to the buzzing intrigue that flowed through me when I read Daphne du Maurier's classic novel, Rebecca, in my early twenties, an experience that made me crave Gothic fiction as much as it made me crave a constant cup of hot tea.

The opening line of Rebecca is often cited as one of the best in English literature:

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again."

It's been four decades since I first read Rebecca, but I still remember the impact of the bold scrawled "R" of the previous wife's signature. I remember being intimidated by Mrs. Danvers, the evil housekeeper. The unseen plot turns and the constant undercurrent of jealousy and instability surrounded me, fascinated me, frightened me. Unexpected developments surprised me and pulled me in page after page. The impact remains forty years after I first read it. (How many books can you say that about?)

The Plot of Rebecca

Without giving too much away in case you haven't had the eerie pleasure of reading it, I'll tell you that the narrator of Rebecca is a young, insecure, naive woman who falls for a much older, much stronger, attractive widower named Maxim de Winter. Maxim marries her and whisks her away to his isolated manor house named Manderly where she is tortured by references to and reminders of the late Mrs. Rebecca de Winter. A scary housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, the obsession of the narrator with the first wife, unexpected developments, a strong undercurrent of sensuality keep the plot running full-speed to its ultimate end.

Rebecca has been classified as a love story, but it's not. It's a psychological thriller based on the frailties of human nature: jealousy, insecurity, misplaced loyalties, untrue perceptions, betrayals, and secrets.

du Maurier Used Her Life Experiences

Daphne du Maurier wrote the book in 1937 while she was stationed with her husband, Tommy Browning, in Alexandria, Egypt. She hated the heat of Egypt and disliked the social conventions imposed on married women. (For an interesting analysis of du Maurier's own conflicted sexuality, read this.)

Like most writers, Du Maurier's life experiences found their way into her novel.

  • She was jealous of her husband's ex-fiance, Jan Ricardo.

  • She read the love letters between her husband and his ex, being intimidated by the strong, elegant "R" that Jan Ricardo had used to sign her letters.

  • She felt insecure about her role as a wife and woman.

  • Manderly is based on an old house in Cornwall named "Menabilly" that du Maurier had fallen in love with as a child. It was an old manor house that she leased when she returned from Egypt and that she lived in until 1967.

The New, Netflix Movie

I was excited to see that Netflix is releasing a new movie version of Rebecca. In 1940, it was produced by Alfred Hitchcock - his first American project - and starred Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter and Joan Fontaine as the young wife. The film was a huge success, securing eleven Academy Award nominations and winning the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Cinematography, the only Hitchcock film ever to win Academy Awards.

The newest version by Netflix is directed by Ben Wheatley and stars Armie Hammer as Maxim (The Social Network, Call Me By Your Name, J. Edgar, and The Man From Uncle) and Lily James (Rose on Downton Abbey, Cinderella, Mama Mia, Here We Come Again, and Yesterday.) The sinister Mrs. Danvers will be played by Kristen Scott Thomas (4 Weddings and a Funeral, The Horse Whisperer, and The English Patient.) The film airs on October 21, 2020.

An Enduring Classic

I'm not the only one who enjoyed the novel Rebecca over the years. Du Maurier's classic, released more than eighty years ago, has NEVER been out of print, still sells 4000 copies each month, and has sold 2.8 million copies to date. The 1940 Hitchcock production of the film was selected in 2018 by the U.S. Film Registry of the Library of Congress as

"culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant."

The novel Rebecca turned me on to a whole genre that I hadn't explored much at that tender young age. I found Barbara Michaels, Diane Setterfield, and later, Kate Morton, and to this day, I sometimes crave a good Gothic and a hot cup of tea.


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If books -in all their glorious diversity - excite you, read other articles in Book Talk.


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