Daphne du Maurier was born May 13, 1907, in London, England. Her grandfather, George du Maurier, wrote the popular novel Trilby (1894). Her parents, Gerald and Muriel du Maurier, were British actors. Du Maurier combined both her grandfather’s writing skill and her parents’ flair for drama in her own highly dramatic fiction. The author of sixteen novels and many short stories, as well as plays, nonfiction, and poetry, du Maurier’s popular acclaim began with her first novel, The Loving Spirit, published in 1931. Sir Frederick Browning liked The Loving Spirit so much that he sought out the young author, and they married shortly after meeting. Du Maurier lived in Menabilly, which she discovered while walking in Cornwall and which became the prototype for Manderley, the setting for Rebecca. Reprinted more than forty times, Rebecca is du Maurier’s most famous novel. Du Maurier died April 19, 1989, in Par, Cornwall, England.
Rebecca chronicles the nameless narrator’s marriage to Maxim de Winter, a marriage which is overshadowed by the memory of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, who was killed in a mysterious sailing accident. As Maxim’s second wife learns more about Rebecca, she becomes more intimidated and jealous, until Maxim reveals the intriguing details of the marriage. The reader, along with the narrator, slowly unravels the events that had previously taken place at Manderley, the de Winter residence.
With the exception of the opening chapters in Monte Carlo, Rebecca takes place at the country estate of Manderley. The now famous first sentence, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” prepares the reader for the importance of the manor house. Du Maurier adheres to the Gothic tradition by giving psychological importance to the house, which becomes almost a character in its own right. The mansion’s rooms provide clues to Rebecca’s character. There is a stigma attached to the sea, the site of Rebecca’s drowning. Maxim orders Mrs. Danvers to redecorate the east wing, which looks out on the rose garden, rather than taking up residence in the west wing with its view of the sea.
In Rebecca, du Maurier explores the relationship between past and present. For Maxim and his second wife, the past and the present are inextricably linked. The wife’s insecure past leads her to feel insecure in her new marriage, and Maxim’s past relationship with Rebecca damages his relationship with his new wife. Manderley, Maxim’s family home, most clearly symbolizes the relationship between the past and present. Because Rebecca made Manderley beautiful, Maxim endured a marriage he hated. Ironically, his obsession with glorifying his heritage leads to Manderley’s destruction. The novel suggests that either clinging to the past or trying to escape it is equally dangerous. As Maxim’s wife learns, one achieves an uneasy truce with time only by remembering the past while living firmly in the present.
Du Maurier excels at first-person narration. Rebecca is written from the point of view of Maxim’s second wife, whose name is never revealed. This deliberate omission serves to emphasize her colorless personality and, by contrast, to accentuate the powerful personality of her predecessor, Rebecca.
Rebecca gradually presents the facts and the conflicts that are central to the plot. By basing the story in the Gothic tradition, the novel is more of a suspenseful mystery than a cause for any real apprehension. Both the reader and the narrator discover Rebecca’s story at the same time, thus dissolving some of the more frightening aspects of the book. The sexual and psychological innuendos are subtle and present little threat to young adult readers. In addition, the tone and vocabulary of Rebecca are sophisticated; any reader mature enough to fully handle all aspects of the novel is probably mentally prepared for its subtleties.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Mrs. Van Hopper has briefed the young narrator on the history of Manderley and its owner, Maxim de Winter. With her previous knowledge, do you suppose that the narrator has fallen in love with Maxim or with Manderley?
While Rebecca describes the struggle between good and evil, My Cousin Rachel explores the nature of good and evil. The narrator, Philip Ashley, shifts from one opinion to another as he desperately tries to discover whether Rachel is a murderer and greedy conniver or a hapless victim of circumstance. Since Philip ultimately resolves the problem of Rachel by killing her, readers must also judge whether Philip has killed an innocent woman or struck a necessary blow against evil. As the novel vividly shows, the presence of evil is not easily recognizable, and the true worth of a person is highly subjective.