Next in our installment of book club recommendations from Camilla Morton's A Year in High Heels: The Girl's Guide to Everything from Jane Austen to the A-List is this month's review of Daphne du Maurier's classic Rebecca. I read Rebecca for the first time for a book group as well, and remember staying up most of the night to finish it, it is soooo good. Read on.
This Month's Book Club Page Turner
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Speaking of great openings, this book has one. While wannabe Hepburns and Hitchcocks are showcasing their ideas and podcasts at the Cannes Film Festival why not choose a title that has been adapted for the screen?
Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca was already an international bestseller when, in 1940, Alfred Hitchcock transformed it into an unforgettable Oscar-winning film, starring Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter and Joan Fontaine as his new bride. Hitchcock managed to remain faithful to the novel yet brought the thriller to life and added style and celluloid chic.
Dame Daphne du Maurier (May 13, 1907–April 19, 1989) combined mystery and romance in her novels, sort of Brontë meets Agatha Christie, if you like. The daughter of a successful actor-manager she had an affluent, carefree childhood where her abundant imagination could blossom. The success of her first novel, The Loving Spirit (1931); brought not only fame but the attentions of the dashing Major Frederick Browning, whom she fell in love with and married (so often reality can be better than fiction).
Du Maurier wrote Rebecca in 1937, when her husband was posted to Egypt. Unlike other wives she didn’t wave him off; she simply packed up and went determinedly with him, leaving their children with the nanny in Cornwall.
Her rich descriptions and strong narratives made her novels instantly appealing for Hollywood. True, Rebecca sealed her eternal fame, but her other novels, which include Jamaica Inn (1936) and Frenchman’s Creek (1941), are equally intriguing. The latter pair were also turned into films, as were two of her short stories, The Birds (1963) and Don’t Look Now (1973).
From a combination of du Maurier’s own Cornwall mansion, Menabilly, and the great mansion Milton in Peterborough, where she had stayed as a child, she created Manderley, and the unforgettable opening lines:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.
Rebecca is a reworking of the Cinderella/Jane Eyre tale, only this time it is stylishly set in forties England.
The story begins in Monte Carlo with Mrs. Van Hopper and her companion—a shy young girl, whose silent situation and stoic character we instantly empathize with—and she becomes our unnamed heroine. Van Hopper is a ghastly, gaudy American lady (Sorry!) who is delighted to discover the eligible English gentleman Maxim de Winter is staying at their hotel. De Winter is there to get over the loss of Rebecca, his first wife, but ever the committed social climber, Mrs. Van Hopper refuses to leave him in peace until fate steps in. She catches fl u and is confined to her room, leaving her employed travel companion and de Winter to explore Monte Carlo together. Showing her a consideration she is not used to, the rich widower inadvertently sweeps the poor, plain(ish), and innocent girl off her feet. He in turn is captivated by this quiet, devoted child, and when it is time for their holiday friendship to end he can’t bear to be parted from her and wants to save her, so he proposes marriage.
But the happiness of the innocent honeymoon comes to an abrupt end when they return to his family home, Manderley, in Cornwall, and here the twists of the plot really begin.
The omnipresent shadow of de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, threatens to eclipse any hope of happiness for his second wife. To make matters just a little bit worse the terrifying house keeper Mrs. Danvers makes it perfectly clear that she is not even in the same league as the former mistress of Manderley. From beyond the grave Rebecca seems to bully and belittle her nameless new rival, and the more she does so, the more helplessly the young bride flounders as she tries to impress Maxim. Du
Maurier said originally the heroine was nameless simply because she couldn’t think of a name. Then as she was writing she realized it could be used as a device to illustrate how much Rebecca dominated the house, and how insignificant the new wife felt. Well, don’t you just hate it when you can’t remember someone’s name, or worse, when they can’t remember yours?
But here’s the thing—will the new Mrs. de Winter be able to save Maxim from the ghost of his first wife? Can love conquer all? Or is Rebecca the only mistress of Manderley and of his heart? It’s certainly a page-turner.
A forties dress code should be issued with the invitation and the table should be set for tea. Think about what Rebecca would have served. Which tea, which jam with the crumpets or scones? Would Mrs. Danvers approve? For the finale, you could watch Hitchcock’s stylish classic, or discuss the continuations of the tale, Mrs. de Winter by Susan Hill, or Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman.
Other films that began life as books:
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser
Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by J.K. Rowling