Support Local Journalism


Subscribe


Note to readers: Beginning now, I will be expanding my periodic column for the Daily Record to include book reviews, as well as the film and television commentary I have written about over the past years. I am renaming the column “Other Worlds,” and hope to introduce readers and viewers to books and films that they may have missed when those works were first released. All books discussed are available in Ellensburg at Pearl Street Books.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” And so begins one of the 20th century’s most enthralling and immortal novels, Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.” First published in 1938 in England, “Rebecca” amplified DuMaurier’s established reputation as a favored writer. Often characterized as a work of “romantic suspense” or “Gothic romance” (neither category doing justice to its intriguing complexities), the novel has remained an international best seller for over 80 years, and has never gone out of print. I first read “Rebecca” while in college — it electrified me then, and a re-reading this spring has produced the same effect. The author’s exquisite prose, her fascinating characters, her discerning psychological insights, and the pervasive mood of mystery and foreboding that envelop the story — all help to explain why this book has captivated readers for generations.

The tale is narrated by an unnamed protagonist, a naïve and timid young woman who is working as a “traveling companion” (translate servant) to an insufferably vain, self-centered American woman, Mrs. Van Hopper, who is spending her ample fortune gadding about Europe one summer. There, the young heroine is introduced to wealthy widower Maxim deWinter, master of a sprawling estate, Manderley, on the coast of Cornwall. DeWinter has retreated to Monte Carlo, presumably to distract himself from grief over the tragic death of his wife, the beautiful and elegant Rebecca, who drowned just a year ago in a boating accident. When Maxim meets the nameless young woman, herself struggling to endure the boorish treatment of her employer, he is won over by her sweet, unassuming nature and her air of innocence. Rather impetuously, he courts her and proposes to take her to his ancestral home as his wife.

At Manderley, she is overwhelmed by the manor’s grandeur, the demands facing its mistress (for which she is wholly unprepared), and the looming shadow of the deceased Rebecca which haunts every corner, every space, every facet of the domain. The nervous young narrator is petrified by its housekeeper and caretaker, the implacable Mrs. Danvers, who is obsessively loyal to the first wife, whom she had adored and pampered. Rebecca had been a fiercely independent spirit, a woman of conspicuous sensual magnetism. The cold, obdurate Danvers takes an immediate dislike to Rebecca’s timorous successor, finding the simple young woman a sorry substitute for her late predecessor, resenting her intrusion into Maxim’s life and into the house which has been maintained as a shrine to Rebecca. The narrator struggles with her predicament, as Maxim’s sorrow has turned him into a gloomy, distant partner, preoccupied with the past, increasingly unavailable to her emotionally. The ghost of Rebecca hovers, intensifying the heroine’s insecurity, threatening to destroy the couple. As Danforth notes about Rebecca, “A man had only to look at her once and be mad about her.”

Attempting to please her melancholy mate, the new wife decides to hold a grand costume ball at the mansion, reviving a prior tradition that symbolized the courtliness and affluence of the deWinter family. Rebecca had presided at such events, but the narrator hopes to win over Maxim by erasing her memory, dressing up as one of the family’s aristocratic forbears, an idea suggested by Mrs. Danvers (who is finally seeming to accept the second wife). She makes her entrance in the sumptuous gown, but to her utter dismay, Maxim (and the guests) are horrified by the sight and shocked into silence. Angrily he orders her to change. Unbeknownst to our miserable heroine, Rebecca had worn the identical garb the year before on what became the night of her death.

Lurking behind this story of a union poisoned by the spectre of the past and the ghostly sway of the narrator’s dead rival is, of course, a complicated secret which the novel must unravel and thwart. The narrator, with whom we identify, must somehow dispel the toxic power of Rebecca’s influence and impede Danvers’ machinations; she must come into her own as Mrs. deWinter. This process is galvanized the night of the ball by the sudden discovery in the bay of the boat in which Rebecca had sailed to her watery grave. When the vessel is raised, the lethal truths behind the novel’s several mysteries begin to emerge. Once they are revealed, in tantalizing fashion, questions endure: was — is — Rebecca herself a victim or a villain? Was her fatality a suicide, an accident, or murder? Was Maxim the perpetrator of her demise or its martyr? Can the narrator triumph over her predicament, or remain prey to it?

In 1951, du Maurier published “My Cousin Rachel,” another novel of dark love and psychological pathology, akin to “Rebecca” and equally gripping. The author again probes questions of the power of female sexuality and men’s angst over that erotic power. The story is told by 29-year -old Philip Ashley who is managing the estate of his older cousin and guardian, Ambrose, living temporarily in Italy. Philip learns that his much beloved relation has met there a beguiling woman and distant cousin, Rachel Sangalleti, and the life-long bachelor has abruptly married her. Initially Ambrose’s letters proclaim bliss in their amorous liaison, but gradually his communications have become morose, complaining of a mysterious and progressively debilitating illness. The last letter begs Philip to rescue him from his plight: “For God’s sake come quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay, it may be too late.” And soon he is dead of what the official account indicates is a brain tumor.

Apparently, it had been Ambrose’s wish to bequeath his Cornish estate to Rachel. When she declares her intent to come to England to meet Philip and see the property he has left her, Philip greets the news with dismay. He is embittered about the marriage and Ambrose’s suspicious decline and death. He blames Rachel, whom he views as a hateful harridan who drove his guardian to his end. But the woman who appears at his door is the very antithesis of the scheming vixen he expects: she is lovely, demure, and warm, visibly mourning the loss of her husband. Contrary to the wrath he has expected to feel, Philip is moved by her sweetness, and before long, is smitten with her. His affection grows to passion; Rachel awakens a yearning and sexual avidity in a man who had thought himself disinclined to romance. The changes in him cause his personal adviser and old family friend, Nick Kendall, already mistrustful of Rachel, to worry that Philip will act rashly. The estate and its wealth are technically in Philip’s name, but Nick finds it worrying that Philip, besotted with Rachel, determines to bestow on her the property and resources of the Ashley clan. To complicate these concerns, Ambrose had complained of Rachel’s profligacy during their marriage, and she now shows signs of the same monetary excesses, frequently overdrawing her allowance.

Adding to the others’ suspicions is the presence of one Rainaldi, a sinister seeming friend from Italy with whom Rachel confers and at times shares an intimacy that disturbs Philip. In spite of these warning signals, Philip begs Rachel to become his wife. He showers her with gifts, including priceless jewels from the family collection. Though she resists his urgings, Rachel’s passionate nature and her endearments convince Philip to persist, while others who witness the relationship find the signs ominous. When Philip begins to evince disturbing physical symptoms — headaches, pain, fatigue, and blackouts — the reader and Philip’s associates now surmise that Rachel is behind this mystery affliction, that she is poisoning him as she presumably had Ambrose before him.

As with Rebecca, du Maurier makes Rachel a cypher, an inscrutable womanly presence whose motives appear malicious and ultimately murderous. She embodies an allure that seems irresistible to the men who come under her influence, a will to bewitch and destroy them. But in both respects, that judgment is arguable, and in that enigma resides the novel’s power. The Ashleys, like Maxim, epitomize an aristocratic tradition sustained through masculine prowess; the women who enter their worlds in some ways threaten that stability. While the enticing appeal of Rebecca and Rachel and the lethal consequences of their behavior seem to be a condemnation of the daughters of Eve, one might view these same characters as challenging entrenched male authority and prerogative. Is their transgressive conduct — their nature — female depravity or a form of defiance against the constraints of class and partriarchal authority? Readers will have to draw their own conclusions, but the opportunity to enter into these worlds provides a ravishing reading experience.

I will review the major film adaptations of both books in a future column.

Liahna Armstrong is a retired professor of Literature and Film Studies at Central Washington University. She can be reached at cinemaniac22@yahoo.com.

Recommended for you

Comments

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.