Oh, DAPHNE. Daphne. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” THAT’S how you open a novel, guys! Right there. Make it count. What’s Manderley? Why aren’t you there now? Why are you telling me about it? We have so many questions, and we’ve barely used our old-timey paper knives to cut open the first few leaves. (Just kidding! This book is from the 1930s, the leaves were already cut for you. Which is good, really, because I don’t even like to have to turn my Kindle on, and instead just leave it in sleep-mode all the time, you know?) No, the first chapter of the novel is not only completely perfect in every way, it must have inspired Our Girl Shirley Jackson when she came up with “The Haunting of Hill House” twenty years later. Remember? “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” Bingo!
Sure, maybe it’s just your generic “this old house is full of seeeeeecrets and andirons you could never find at Restoration Hardware” schtick, but, let’s face it, everyone who wrote after du Maurier owes a debt to du Maurier. “The Birds”? That was her, too! So, obviously du Maurier is a genius, let’s talk about Rebecca.
THAT BITCH. Or, was she? Twist! No, see, the thing is, we’re never quite sure if she was really a monster or not, right? Du Maurier was influenced by Jane Eyre, and let’s just say that we’re still waiting for someone to Wide Sargasso Sea our friend, the first Mrs. Maxim de Winter. Maybe Maxim is the monster! Maybe they were both monsters, in that full-on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-y way of the couple that enjoys embarrassing dinner guests with their performative fighting. Which brings me to my other contention: God, what Andy Cohen would have given to get his hot little hands on these people. Are they not made for reality TV? It wouldn’t have been Mrs. Danvers putting a bug in our heroine’s ear about replicating that damned outfit for the big party, that’s for sure. “Hey… do you know what would be SO MUCH FUN?” Totally. No one would have been killed, either, it would have been three seasons of wine-throwing and shouting and make-up-sex and pointed interviews in Us Weekly, followed eventually by divorce and more interviews and a ghost-written (hee!) cookbook.
Let’s think about how we would have conducted ourselves differently, were we the unnamed heroine (let’s call her “Mallory,” just to make it easier to talk about her). Hands up if you would have immediately packed off Mrs. Danvers! “Oh,” Mallory says, wispily, “oh, Maxim would have been cross.” Whatever, Mallory. You’re the hot young thing, he’s the cranky widower. Blow him, then say “I really must insist we let Danvers go. Let’s shine some new light into the place!” Then, literally, rip out all the tapestries and curtains and let a team of closeted 1930s homosexuals go nuts with Maxim’s line of credit until you’re in a few magazines. Right? Alternatively, burn the place down, and go live in Monte Carlo. Or whatever country they play cards in in Casino Royale—Montenegro? Any place with a bunch of little cafes and a Chanel store. Cornwall is not for the young and beautiful, Mallory. And I bet Manderley is ruinously expensive to heat. You can feel the damp radiating off the walls from here. I don’t know how the humidity suits YOUR hair…
Or, well, we could guess. Mallory does spend a LOT of time negging herself, doesn’t she? “…straight, bobbed hair and youthful, unpowdered face, dressed in an ill-fitting coat and skirt and a jumper of my own creation.” “…the raw ex-schoolgirl, red-elbowed and lanky-haired.” “I was like a little scrubby schoolboy with a passion for a sixth-form prefect, and he kinder, and far more inaccessible.” “…my dull, lanky hair.” “…the sorry spectacle that I made, with troubled eyes and scarlet cheeks, lank hair flapping under broad felt hat.” “…my sticky hands…” But that’s all just window-dressing, because the big guns are saved for Mrs. Danvers. I mean, you simply cannot read du Maurier’s description without wondering why the townspeople haven’t already burned the evil hag at the stake: “Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton’s frame.” But, you know, Mallory has lank hair? (Shampoo, rinse, two squirts of Bumble and bumble’s Prep spray and an ionic dryer, you’ve got yourself a stew going.)
This is the issue, of course, with the gloriousness of Rebecca, the canker in the heart of the rose. Rebecca was fun, Mallory is a bit of a drip, and she is in no position to enjoy being mistress of Manderley. I’m sorry, but it’s true. The whole place is no good, it smells musty, the staff is either evil or has one foot in the grave, and Maxim is a bit surly; you need to sweep in there like a FREAKING QUEEN, and start ripping out drywall. Or peat, or whatever they were building dessicated mansions out of in Cornwall prior to the Conquest. But that’s just not how it’s going to go. It’s going to be a lot of fumbling and apologizing to Mrs. Danvers for moving your dressing table and saying “Maxim, are you happy?” and then throwing one terrible party. But that part isn’t even the good part, is it?
No, to the casual reader (and aren’t we all, really), the emotional pay-off of Rebecca is not “I HATED HER,” or “I KILLED HER” or “SHE WAS DYING ANYWAY,” or “THROW YOURSELF AND YOUR LANKY PEASANT HAIR OUT THE WINDOW.” No, it arrives in a blur less than a hundred pages in, when Mallory is supposed to leave Monte Carlo with the wretched Mrs. Van Hopper, like the fluffy, lanky little white-mouse-with-pink-eyes she is, and instead dashes into Maxim’s room to reveal their untimely departure, and he’s all “I, a MAN, shall set this to rights.” And then he proposes, and says he wants to “make violent love to [her] behind a palm tree,” and she’s all “I’ll take two tickets on THAT ride,” and then Maxim tells Mrs. Van Hopper the truth, but we’re not in the room to hear, and then Mrs. Van Hopper is a total buzz-killing wang about it to Mallory, but, suck it, Mrs. Van Hopper! No one cares what you think.
Whew, let’s talk it out.
• Assuming your name isn’t Daphne du Maurier, which would just be unfair, what pen name would you use to write glorious Gothic-y novels? Try pairing a virtue with a tree. Like, “Constance Birch,” or “Faith Loosestrife.” Did you know Daphne actually married a “Browning”? Like her name wasn’t good enough already. Okay, she did become “Lady Browning,” which I guess I would consider. Hm.
• There’s no way you missed “Texts From Rebecca,” right?
• Have any of you read her short story about the male sex doll?
• Have any of you read the Brazilian novel this whole thing may be a rip-off of?
• Have any of you read the authorized sequel?
• Have any of you read the authorized sort-of-sequel?
• What houses do you pretend you own? Knole? It’s all about Knole, for me.
• Seriously, do you not think you could talk Maxim into sending Danvers off with a golden parachute of some kind? The woman is clearly psychologically unstable. Try harder, Mallory.
• Du Maurier was a little gay. How does that make you feel about Rebecca’s paper-thin undies NOW? Same? Me too.
• What would the first sentence of the novel be if Jasper, the loyal spaniel, had written it?
Previously: The Mists Of Avalon
Nicole Cliffe is the books editor of The Hairpin and the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.