Every now and again I go back and read something I’ve missed. Usually, this is some classic that I was supposed to have gotten in high school, like THE GREAT GATSBY. But also because I’m making the transition from space opera over to urban fantasy/paranormal romance/romance, I’m going back and looking at the works that are the roots of the genre.
Of course I’ve read Austen (Mother of Us All), and the Bronte’s (Anne was the most daring of the bunch), GONE WITH THE WIND (which is a strange, complicated piece of Americana) and Georgette Heyer, who really invented the modern romance genre.
This path is what brought be to REBECCA by Daphane du Maurier.
Wow. What a weird book.
It is also almost eighty years old so I feel weird about doing this, but because it is the custom of the internet, I will say there are Major Spoilers and Full Plot Revelation behind the cut.
So. Weird book.
First of all, the narrator has no name of her own. None. Not even her husband calls her by her name. She is ‘I,’ ‘Madame’ and ‘Mrs. de Winter,’ (her married name) throughout the entire book. Rebecca, the villian, has a name, but not the protagonist.
Second, throughout the majority of the book, the narrator is this spineless little girl who imagines whole, long scenarios that have nothing to do with reality, for each and every event she comes across. This is really annoying. Really annoying. I’ve known people like this, I’m guilty of a bit of it myeself, but it’s annoying in real life too. I’ll give du Maurier this, however, it sets up what happens. Because the narrator’s drawn so clearly as scared of her own shadow, abandoned in the house by her husband de Winter (who is not in the best of mental health) and this combined with her habit of flights of fancy makes it really believable that the crazy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is almost able to talk her into suicide.
But what I was most startled by is what makes the narrator grow up. It’s finding out her husband murdered his first wife. Now, Jane Eyre would have got the hell out of the house. Eleanore Dashwood would have got Colonel Brandon to deal with the bounder. Cathy would have pulled the trigger herself and tossed the gun to Heathcliff. Du Maurier’s heroine? Starts working like hell to help de Winter cover up the murder. Deliriously happy to find out he never loved Rebecca (who was that rare thing in literature, a female sociopath), she starts moving heaven and earth to keep him calm, co-opt the estate manager and the local magistrate into the cover up which goes through mainly because de Winter is the local squire. But all that matters to her is that he hated Rebecca and that means he must really love her, so she must protect and defend him and no one must ever find out he MURDERED HIS FIRST WIFE and GOT AWAY WITH IT.
I closed this book and stared at it. Just stared at it. And found myself in weird sympathy with the torch weilding housekeeper who was the only named character in the whole book who wasn’t willing to let de Winter get away with murder.
I thought two things. One, REBECCA gets called a gothic (because of the architecture. You’ve got to have terrific architecture to have a gothic), but it’s really closer to being a noir; unpleasant people do unpleasant things with results that are ambiguous at best. The other was that this get portrayed as a romance, but the book it’s closest to is WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which is another book about really damaged people going about damaging each other and everyone near them, which somehow in the cultural filter gets translated into Signs of True Love.
I’ll give du Maurier this; the woman writes a fantastic opening line, a killer closing paragraph, and in the middle creates moments of suspense I did not expect. And she can paint a character picture like nobody’s business. So, it’s a book worth reading, but it’s not a simple book, and not at all what I was expecting because it is not at all what it gets made out to be.