Anita Burgh had never planned to be a writer but a financial crisis insured that she became one. To cheer her family up at this time she joked that she would write a bestseller - which she did: Distinctions of Class. She regarded it as a temporary measure but 23 novels later she is still writing. Anita writes historical, modern relationship and comic novels. She lives in Gloucestershire. In this post she discusses Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.
Anita Burgh on Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
There are those who read to improve their minds, to be inspired, to learn, to be changed by the power of words. Me? None of these, commendable though they might be. I want a book that helps me relax, takes me out of myself - in short, pure entertainment. I don't want to be lectured or educated, my brain overtaxed.
So which of many books is my favourite? Waugh's A Handful of Dust, Dickens's Bleak House, Maugham's The Painted Veil? I love these three especially but I chose on the basis of which one have I re-read the most times. Thus it has to be Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
This book, published in 1938, has - astonishingly - never been out of print in 70 years. Writers frequently mention it as a favourite, and I recommend it to my students of novel writing as a prime example of an excellent read. Why? Because the author does effortlessly what many writers strive to do, to entertain. Her novels are full of tension, conflict, memorable characters, great place setting, pace and thus - what everyone strives for - page-turnability.
In Rebecca du Maurier weaves a tale of mystery which is also a thriller, a ghost story, a gothic romance. She touches on class conflict, the power of jealousy and retribution - all meaty projects. She said herself that it was 'a sinister tale of a woman who marries a widower... Psychological and rather macabre'.
The book owes much to Jane Eyre - the dowdy socially inept heroine: Jane and the girl. We have an older, enigmatic man: Mr Rochester and Max de Winter. Madness: Mrs Rochester - Rebecca, Mrs Danvers. A great house: Thornfield and Manderley. There are out-of-bounds areas of the houses: the attics for Jane, the west wing for the girl. Both houses are consumed by fire.
There appears to be a strong element of autobiographical matter within this book. I like it when people write from their own personal experience for often there is a greater veracity to the work.
The girl in the book is gauche and unsure of herself. Daphne du Maurier apparently was reclusive, and social gatherings were anathema to her. Max is a sophisticated man of the world, as was Daphne's father and her husband. She knew what it was like to be in awe of a man. The book was written in Egypt; we are told she was homesick, so she writes lyrically and beautifully about the west country.
The book starts at the end of the story, with the couple leading what sounds like an arid life in the South of France. She tells us that 'boredom is a pleasing antidote to fear...' So we are aware that something has gone awry.
The book goes in a full circle since they meet in Monte Carlo, they marry, then end up back where they began. She is a companion to Mrs Van Hopper when the story begins, at the end she is a companion to Max.
Always there is a back chorus of class distinctions. In Monte Carlo the hideous Mrs Van Hopper frequently lets her know her inferior station in life. When she learns that the girl is to marry Max de Winter: 'Mistress of Manderley... I simply can't see you doing it,' she says venomously. 'You don't know that milieu. You can scarcely string two sentences together...' When the girl arrives at Manderley she feels inadequate in front of the servants. Always she is told of the classiness, the superiority, the elegance of Rebecca - the perfect chatelaine for the great house. The people she is most relaxed with are the butler, Frith, and the estate manager, Frank. Du Maurier has a keen ear, for the clipped staccato speech of the upper classes of the 1930s rings true across the years.
The book is full of mysterious teases. The girl, the narrator, has no name and yet du Maurier taunts us by telling us that the girl's father gave her a beautiful and unusual name; but we are left to guess what it is. We sense there is something amiss with Rebecca for although everyone says how beautiful and how clever she was, no one ever says she is nice or that they loved her. Then there is the strange man, Ben, at the beach cottage. Why is he always afraid?
The girl is well drawn. We sympathize with her situation, we understand her fears, we know her dreams, we are glad when she meets Max, but it does not stop us wanting to shake her. We see a woman hungry for love, certain she is unloved, and you want to shake her some more and tell her to talk to him, tell him how she feels.
Rebecca's spirit permeates the book; in many ways, though dead, she is the heroine. But there is another character - the house, which dominates Max's life. The house intimidates the girl; it is the inheritance of the house which maddens Max when Rebecca implies that she is pregnant with another man's child. 'I put Manderley first, before anything else, and it does not prosper that sort of love,' he tells his wife. It is his love for the house which causes the tragedy to unfold.
The most extraordinary thing about this book is that although Max is a murderer, he is not tried for murder, nor does the reader want him to be. He gets away with it. Or does he? For there is retribution. What could be worse for a proud man who owned the most beautiful house in England than to have to end his days a sad and broken man moving from one small hotel to another in constant exile? Though it has always mystified me why they live in this manner. Max was super rich and surely the house was insured. So why didn't he buy them a nice little villa?
Why do I keep reading it when I know the end? I think it's because I always hope that this time when I read it the end will be different - that Max and his wife live happily ever after, that the ghost of Rebecca is exorcised, that the lovely house is not burnt to the ground, and that Jasper, the faithful dog, will still be snuffling around among the rhododendron bushes.