Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited…
– Dame Daphne du Maurier (from the opening chapter of Rebecca)
I was fourteen years old, on that balmy August afternoon. Even my rambunctious brothers were quiet, so stifling was the Southern heat. I had a poor family growing up, so the air conditioning policy was usually to turn on the window units only at night (so everyone could sleep); during the day, an open window and a fan was the best you got. Electricity doesn’t come cheap in major cities (with their over-strained power grids), and my hometown was no exception.
There were few distractions from the summer heat in my household. We didn’t have a TV, or video games; my mother was adamant that her sons were not going to become couch potatoes. Thus we were all avid readers, and had a sizable home library compiled from thrift stores and yard sales.
But on that steamy, lethargic afternoon… Well, did you ever have the feeling that you’re already read it all? I rifled through all the books in my family’s possession, annoyed that not one of them arrested my attention.
So in my desperation, I turned to my mother. “Do we have anything new to read?” I asked, hoping she’d been to the library when I wasn’t looking.
Mom went to the basket in the corner of her room, and pulled out a ratty hardback. “Here,” she said. “You might like this one.”
I looked at the cover, raising an eyebrow as I read the title. “Rebecca?” I said. “The brilliant novel of an unforgettable wife? Who the heck is Daphne du More-whatever?”
(I was also thinking to myself, this looks like one of Mom’s romance novels…)
“Try it,” pressed Mom, as I eyed the painted image of a pretty blonde woman on the printed-canvas cover. “I dunno, there’s something… dark about it. I think you’d like it.”
Dark…? Okay, that kinda piqued my interest. Not that much, mind you, just enough to keep me from chucking the yellowing, faded book back into Mom’s basket.
So I retreated to my room, trying to ignore the humidity as I opened Rebecca to the opening line…
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.
I finished the book after midnight, still sweating but appreciating the dawning relief of air conditioning. I was truly sorry that I’d finished it; I wished fiercely that I could forget the story just so I could discover it all over again. In fact, so amazed was I that I read Rebecca again the next week.
I mentioned to a family friend how much I liked the novel, and she replied, ‘Oh yeah. I loved the Hitchcock movie when I was a little girl.’
There’s a MOVIE?! And it’s by Alfred Hitchcock?!
Well, that did it! Before my mother knew it, she’d been pestered into driving me to Blockbuster (remember them?) to get a VHS tape (remember those?) of Hitchcock’s film.
The movie was just as bewitching to me as the book had been. Sir Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders… They all gave superb performances, playing their roles in shades of gray against a backdrop of relentlessly surreal photography.
I have at least a dozen copies Daphne du Maurier’s classic today, including a first edition from the original 1938 printing. I always remember one of my favorite films, Serendipity, in which John Cusack purchases a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera whenever he finds one; that book was to him what Rebecca is to me. Whenever I stumble across an old edition, I buy it.
I’ve never read a tale quite like Rebecca, to be honest with you. The story is narrated in first person by a rich man’s young bride… who remains completely nameless through the entire narrative. Her rich husband, Max de Winter, is haunted by the memory of his late wife, the popular-yet-sinister Rebecca.
The narrative never follows Rebecca in a direct fashion; her story is told entirely second-hand through character dialogue. And yet she looms like some sort of phantasm over the story, dead but not forgotten, and strangely powerful.
The movie version of Rebecca is so old (1940) that it’s in black-and-white. I’d love to see it done today! I’m picturing Chloe Grace Moretz as the young bride (mainly because she’s a dead ringer for Joan Fontaine) and Ewan McGregor as Max de Winter. Only Anjelica Huston could ever play Rebecca’s hateful, creepy maid Mrs. Danvers. Rebecca’s cheeky, incestuous cousin Jack Favell should be played by none other than the smooth-talking, somewhat off-putting Tom Hiddleston. And I’m thinking maybe Ridley Scott for the director; his film Hannibal had a similar feel to what I’m envisioning for my fantasy Rebecca re-boot.
So lemme call Hollywood about that one. Does anyone have Ridley Scott’s number? Anyone…?
I read Rebecca once a year like clockwork, and always in the spring when the sun’s shining and the flowers are blooming. That’s how it should be read, I think; the genius of Rebecca is that it takes place in a gorgeous, sun-lit manor… and yet there’s unease in the very air despite the cheerful environment. The story is a rather odd dichotomy, but a memorable one.
Rebecca sold more than three million copies by 1965, and it has never gone out of print. It is readily available at any bookseller, and will almost certainly remain so.
So check it out!