Published: August 1938
Genre: General Fiction/Classic
Trigger warnings: References to animal cruelty
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .
The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck.
It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.
This is a captivating story which contains no small amount of atmosphere or foreboding. Wonderfully Gothic and delivering a gradual increase in drama and tension, it justifies its status as a twentieth century classic through the combination of an evocative setting, enigmatic characters, and an unassuming yet menacing narrative that exudes detail.
The writing style took a little bit of time to get used to, but soon I was hanging on almost every word as the mystery of the eponymous Rebecca and what happened at Manderley before the narrator’s arrival became totally gripping. It raised many enticing questions and their answers did not disappoint, while it was also impressive how some of the themes explored in the book are still relevant today, over eight decades on from its original publication.
It is a slow-burning plot where every word is used to good effect, creating intrigue right from the moment the narrator meets Maxim de Winter at a Monte Carlo hotel and falls in love with him, all the while hearing tale of his recently departed first wife. After they marry and arrive at Manderley, his majestic country estate, events only get more sinister and things end up turning out not quite as they seem.
Although she never physically appears in the book, Rebecca’s presence looms large within its pages and indeed the halls of Manderley. Everything we hear about her suggests she was the perfect wife, with all the positive characteristics the narrator feels she can only aspire to, and the way it is written really helps to emphasise her overwhelming feelings of inferiority and isolation.
The sheer atmosphere this brings is one of the story’s biggest strengths and also makes Rebecca arguably the most interesting character of all. Her very personality is the real mystery here along with her relationship with Maxim, and the truth is hidden very well before it is revealed about three quarters of the way in with a twist I was not really expecting.
Another highlight is the character of Mrs Danvers. Extremely calculating and vindictive, she makes for a memorable villain with her unwavering devotion towards Rebecca and blatant contempt for the narrator. The amount of suspense increased with every word she spoke, and all the time I was wondering what kind of evil she had next up her sleeve.
The narrator has a unique voice throughout as she starts off naïve and somewhat docile until becoming much more assertive and pragmatic later on. You can clearly sense the uncertainty she has with her surroundings and wish to be treated with more affection by the troubled Maxim, but I was taken aback by her reaction to finding out the truth about Rebecca – it struck me as very strange.
Manderley is a terrific setting, such a large house and estate but one that is effortlessly made to feel claustrophobic, which contrasts sharply with the early part of the book. In general I loved how the writing was so descriptive, really adding to the threatening vibe. The pace noticeably increases in the final chapters too, culminating in a very abrupt though arresting ending.
Overall, this is a book I have wanted to read for a long time and it certainly did not disappoint. The mystery, along with an ever-present sense of the unknown makes it quite gripping, and you will rarely come across anything that can match its level of atmosphere. The writing is impressive and the characters are complex, but nothing here is more of a puzzle than Rebecca herself.
Having read Rebecca, I then came up with an idea for a poem inspired by the book. It is addressed to the narrator and talks about how she feels so inferior to Rebecca, who seemed to be universally loved. It is one my favourite poems out of the ones I have written, and I would like to share it on here.
The Second Wife
Her name lurks in every corner
In the darkness and in the light
It creeps slowly through the shadows
Like a ghost hidden in plain sight
She is discussed with a wistful reverence
A beloved wife who could do no wrong
Everything you hear is enough to suggest
This is a place you’ll never truly belong
The menu is of her own design
The guests still play to her hypnotic tune
It’s a legacy you feel unable to match,
You still don’t know if he even loves you
The place is huge yet you feel so alone
As if everyone here wants to make life hard
But the secret he keeps is not what it seems,
As the woman you imagined was just a façade
An enduring story full of atmosphere, tension, and intrigue. I really enjoyed it.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐