Rebecca, Rebecca, you have been haunting my reading, and thank you for that.
Let me tell you how it all started.
One day, in my Instagram account, I made a poll asking what book should I read next: Jane Eyre or Rebecca. Most people voted for Jane Eyre, but one person sent me a private message saying how she loved Rebecca and how the 1938 classic was so special. Since words have more impact on me than numbers, I went for it.
This book is narrated by an unnamed young woman that shares with us how she met and impulsively married her husband, Maxim de Winter, and the time she spent with him at Manderley, a well-known and beautiful country estate. But in Manderley, everyone and everything lives in the shadow of de Winter's late wife, Rebecca, and the new Mrs. de Winter realizes how difficult her life is with Rebecca's omnipresence that haunts her marriage and herself.
The first interesting difficulty of this book is to distinguish who is the main character. Is it the new or the old Mrs. de Winter? Because the story is indeed told by the former's point of view, but it is Rebecca who dominates every page and every detail.
Another difficulty is to recognize who the "bad guy" is, but there are a lot of strong contenders.
The narrator is the typical damsel in distress, young and innocent, who fantasizes about romance, and whose insecurities get out of control when she goes to Manderley. There a lot of descriptions in the book about her current thoughts, which is very relevant to acknowledge her anxious and stressful personality and to realize how she relies on her thoughts to be happy in her own way. She also can get on your nerves.
Rebecca, on the other hand, is exquisite, prefers seduction to romance, and knows what she wants. For that, she is considered a ‘loose’ woman and not a perfect wife.
I find it interesting how both women, being very different, are victims of sexism and society's judgment. The new Mrs. de Winter can never make decisions about domestic chores and the Manderley employees see her as a failure since she's not a good housewife and doesn't have the feminine charm to host house parties. On the other hand, Rebecca was very attractive and she should be more demure instead and not play by ‘male rules.’ No matter what they do, they will never meet the standard of ‘proper ladies,’ so what you realize is that being a woman is a flaw in itself.
But not only do these two characters get deeply developed, but all of them are beautifully described, with their nuances and complexities. What's interesting: you get to hate them all, because no one writes imperfect personalities like du Maurier.
There are a lot of power dynamics between characters, but this dominance is very intricate, in the way they never use physical force, but they use emotional and psychological methods, like manipulation and intimidation. This is what we would call emotional abuse, but it was something considered normal in the past.
Another relevant aspect to compare to present days is the recognition of misogyny in Maxim de Winter, a characteristic that the new wife decides to ignore, but that we, as modern readers, find very distressing and inexcusable.
So reading this book, I think it is very interesting to see how things changed and didn't change simultaneously for women and toxic relationships—be it romantic or not. While it is true that we nowadays fight for gender equality and that abuse, may it be physical and/or emotional, is punishable, we still live in a patriarchal society that considers the inferiority of women and this type of dynamic between relationships to be normal, being the argument most used: "she deserved it because of X".
The analysis of du Maurier's life is also interesting for the discussion of this classic. According to Margaret Forster's biography about Daphne du Maurier, with the same name, the author represents herself as the unnamed narrator since the author was considered beautiful, but she never enjoyed femininity, and she was a dreamer and a sensible person. She preferred trousers to dresses and she never dreamed of being a mother (she had two daughters, but when she and her husband went to live in Egypt, she left their children in England and, according to the biography, she didn't miss them as you expect from a mother—but even these judgments on one’s private life are subject to patriarchal ideas of motherhood).
Apparently, from a very young age, she felt she was a boy, but stuck in the wrong body. Because of social rules and maybe some lack of courage, she was a woman committed to staying married to her husband, despite allegedly loving women.
You can see this passion for women in the book, as the unnamed narrator (symbolizing the author) offers herself to her husband as “your friend and your companion, a sort of boy,” but describes Rebecca with such love and desire, even imagining how she looked and portrayed herself. A more obvious homosexual character is Mrs. Danvers, who has an undeniable infatuation and fascination for the late Mrs. de Winter.
This novel grabbed my attention from beginning to end. The description of the new Mrs. de Winter's thoughts was delightful, in the way it occupied more of the narrative than the reality itself. She would imagine every kind of scenario, what could be, just like humans with hyperactive and anxious brains do (yes, I'm talking about me).
And of course, the underlying mystery of what exactly happened to the first Mrs. de Winter makes it nearly impossible to put the book down because you have to find out.
Do you want to read classic novels and don't know where to start? Give Rebecca a shot. From now on I will be like the person who encouraged me to read it and I'm starting now. READ REBECCA!!! It definitely is a must-read and a masterpiece.
by Daphne du Maurier
432 pages. 1938.