“Happiness is not a possession to be prized, it is a quality of thought, a state of mind.”
Daphne du Maurier
I seem to be doing a lot of re-reading at the moment, for one reason or another. In this case, I was thinking about novels I could put alongside Gormenghast for my dissertation on modern Gothic. I didn’t actually think about Rebecca, a novel I’ve overlooked for some time now since I read it first, until my eye fell upon it as I was resorting my books recently, but once I did see it I thought it would be perfect.
I’m immensely glad I did re-read it, anyway, because it’s a terrific read – I’d forgotten just how much I enjoyed it the first time around. Technically, I suppose, it’s a romance: Maxim de Winter, landed gentleman and widower, brings back his young unnamed bride, who narrates the novel, to his English mansion Manderley, only to find that their lives there are haunted by the shadow of his first wife, beautiful socialite Rebecca. But don’t read this for the romance; if you do, you’ll find yourself throwing the book across the room by the end of the first chapter. Maxim is standoffish, peremptory and condescending; the unnamed narrator naive and irritatingly spineless. As she admits towards the end of the book, much of the emotional angst she goes through could easily have been solved pages and pages ago if she’d only confronted Maxim, or even talked to him like a normal human being.
No, the real strength of Rebecca is its atmosphere, its breathlessly claustrophobic prose, hypnotically surreal, its unnamed narrator flittering from dream to dream as she spins out infinitely detailed fantasies of disaster and shadow. There’s this dreamlike, charmed quality to Rebecca that reminds me quite strongly of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, if that novel were stripped of all its sensational Gothic machinery and left only with the sense of haunted powerlessness, of treading in the footsteps of the dead, of heightened, nigh-hallucinogenic anticipation. The entire novel feels like those muggy, heavy hours before a really big summer storm, full of the expectation of thunder and doom. It’s a genuinely compelling story about the hold the dead can have over the living, set in a charmed time between two world wars (Rebecca was published in 1938, a year before the outbreak of World War 2), a brief, fleeting summer full of ghosts and wrecks. It’s the kind of novel you lose yourself in utterly, not noticing the hours tick by, till you look up in surprise and realise that it’s lunchtime in the here-and-now, that there is no Rebecca haunting your footsteps, no storm about to break in reality. That’s the closest I can come to explaining what reading Rebecca is like. Like I said, I’m immensely glad I re-read it, and I won’t be forgetting it again: it’s going on my favourites list, for good this time.