A naïve young woman whose name is supposed to be ‘rare’ and ‘original’ (Daphne?) but is never revealed in the book, stays in a Monte Carlo hotel along with a rich woman, Mrs. Van Hopper, who has employed her as a paid companion. Mrs. Van Hopper loves nothing better than rubbing her elbows with rich and famous in glitzy places; when she spots the aristocratic but brooding widower Maximilian “Maxim” de Winter she goes and introduces herself in a very crass manner. Maxim seems to be much more captivated by her docile, quiet employee, the narrator of the novel (first person limited btw). They fall in…something (see my impressions below for an explanation) and within two weeks they are married.
The narrator is now the second “Mrs. de Winter” – and I’ll call her 2deW for the clarity’s sake; Maxim takes her back to Manderley, his splendid country house in Cornwall. 2deW must face the unfriendly housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, a domineering and cold woman, obsessed with the beauty, intelligence and sophistication of the first Mrs. de Winter, the eponymous Rebecca. Instead of showing the woman her proper place and extracting some info in the process, 2deW goes for long walks on the beach with a dog, Jasper. You see, Jasper is far friendlier and he never talks back.
Overall 2deW is intimidated by her responsibilities and begins to doubt her relationship with her husband. The continuous reminders of Rebecca overwhelm her; she believes that Maxim is still deeply in love with his late wife. She also discovers that her husband sometimes becomes very angry at her for apparently insignificant actions and he never explains anything. 2deW decides to look for the truth on her own – and the results are tragic and comic too. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Rebecca was not as angelic as people had believed her to be and her death was not as tragically accidental as it would seem…
My impressions (with spoilers galore but hey, it’s a classic):
Rebecca was often praised and compared to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It was also called the first major gothic romance in the 20th century. It certainly contains all the elements of the gothic novel: a big manor strongly influenced by the previous, now dead occupant, the mysteriously brooding hero, the mad, sinister woman, the growing tension, and finally the hellish destruction by fire. Gothic or not, in my view it is just a sad story about a weak fool of a man and a poor, naïve, stupid girl half his age who married him because she’d thought she had no better option available. They had just one thing in common: pure luck.
Let’s tackle Maxim de Winter first. In many movie adaptations of Rebecca he was portrayed as a man with a strong character and superior morals who’d been almost broken by a bad woman and then healed to some degree by the good one. In the 1940 version, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Max was played by nobody else but Lawrence Olivier. In my view it is a very deceptive image of that particular character.
First of all Maximilian de Winter was a fool who married a very pretty, vivacious girl solely because of her great looks, without taking the necessary trouble to get to know anything about her. It is obvious he was thinking with the wrong head and soon he had to face the consequences. His first wife, the titular Rebecca, surprised him nastily five days after their nuptials. Five days people, not five months or years – she was really eager to show her darling hubby what a fool he really was. His reaction? A classic coward choice: burying his head in the sand. He agreed to follow the scenario orchestrated by Rebecca without as much as a murmur. Now I ask you why? Why a rich, educated and cultured man let that happen to him?
The author made us believe that he had no choice, the reputation of his precious family house, Manderley, being at stake, but I didn’t buy that simplistic explanation, not one single moment. Let’s face it: if all the truth about the life and morals of Rebecca had been revealed the lady would have lost far more than her fool of a spouse. She would be shamed, disgraced and shunned in a polite society, most probably left without a penny. All it took was a bit of initiative, money and a good detective. Why Maxim didn’t act is beyond me. Oh, wait. He was stupid and cowardly. That explains a lot, doesn’t it?
Then, after the death of Rebecca (not spoiling this time how and why she died), he repeated the same mistake and married without knowing anything about his future wife apart from the most basic facts. Such a decision put him firmly in the ‘too-stupid-to-live” category. He chose a young, naïve, inexperienced girl without a penny – and you know why? Because he himself was immature, stupid and cowardly and that girl was as dissimilar to his first missus as it was possible. Oh, and she landed on his platter without any serious effort from his side. His ‘flirting’ consisted of driving her around in a car and eating lunches together, hardly ever speaking to her – a peak of refinement and charm in winning the favours of a girl or woman you fancy, don’t you think?
Enough of torturing poor Maxim, time for 2deW who might or might not be actually named Daphne.
She fell in love with an older guy just because he paid her fractionally more attention than he usually paid his shoes. He kissed her once – on the forehead- and while she was biting her nails he treated her as if she was a younger, slightly retarded sister he simply had to take care of because their parents were being busy. What a lovely beginning, right?
She married him not knowing anything at all about his past, his character or his family. She never dared ask even those basic, natural questions that simply begged to be asked and Maxim never felt inclined to speak honestly with his beloved even though he should have done it before offering her a marriage. Then they went to Manderley and…nothing changed. 2deW danced around some issues like a dervish on hot coals and her husband was too busy or too angry or both to address them properly. At least until a ship was stranded in the cove nearby and all the hell broke loose 2deW wasn’t graced with one meaningful discussion with her husband. Can any woman enjoy such a marriage? I really doubt it.
Finally the ending. 2deW had her first glorious moments, acting instead of Maxim who was inclined to follow his traditional behaviour, the root of all his problems: do nothing. I completely lost my patience with him when it was clear that Manderley was destroyed by an arson attack. WHAT? You didn’t insure your big, great, lovely, historical and beloved manor against fire? Dear sir, you deserve to live in a hovel. I just wonder why 2deW stayed with him – I sure as hell wouldn’t.
Rebecca is a sad tale about a coward and an ingénue who were very lucky to stumble upon each other against all odds. If you find it romantic then my commiseration. Its saving grace were nice descriptions of nature, imagine that. I do prefer Elizabeth von Arnim’s bitter-sweet Vera which was a scathing answer to Rebecca and a far better novel to boot.