About this Recording
NA432312 - MAURIER, D.: Rebecca (Abridged)
English 

Daphne du Maurier
Rebecca

 

‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…’ (Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier)

‘Reader, I married him…’ (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë)

Though a hundred years separates these quotations, two of the most famous in English Literature, they are linked by a common theme and story; for Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ is undoubtedly a homage to ‘Jane Eyre’. Both novels depict a young, gauche and plain girl who meets a dashing but troubled older man, falls in love with him and by her devotion saves him from despair and death. The similarities go further: Maxim de Winter has a stately home called Manderley; Rochester has Thornfield. The happiness of both the heroines is threatened by the former wives of their lovers, and it is only the destruction by fire of Manderley/Thornfield that finally purges the past, and allows some prospect of future happiness for the hero and heroine. Jane Eyre, an established classic by 1938, when Rebecca was published, is well matched by du Maurier’s 20th-century tribute, though it did not on its first appearance attract critical acclaim, being dismissed by V.S. Pritchett as a novel that would be ‘here today and gone tomorrow’.

In similarly dismissive tones some critics regarded it as another addition to the growing genre of ‘women’s fiction’.

The reading public disagreed and the novel went through twenty-eight reprints in its first four years, launching du Maurier’s career as an international writer, and subsequently has never been out of print. It was turned into a classic Hitchcock film in 1940, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, and has had countless adaptations made for the stage, radio and television, as well as several sequels that attempt to answer so many of the questions posed but unanswered in the novel.

So what is the endless fascination of a story that does indeed seem on the surface to be a piece of light romantic fiction? It may well be the overall mood of ‘Rebecca’; which du Maurier herself described as ‘rather macabre’. The mood is gothic fantasy, hovering between the daydreams of the heroine and her nightmares. The novel in fact begins famously with a dream. The ‘ghost’ of Rebecca, the first Mrs de Winter, pervades the whole book, getting inside the heroine’s mind and pushing her to the brink of insanity. Du Maurier thought her story would prove to be ‘too gloomy…too grim’ to appeal, but it is this close identification the reader inevitably feels for the unnamed heroine that makes the novel so powerful; we are gripped by the relentless drive of the narrative, all seen from the perspective of this tormented young girl.

It does not take any great insight to see that the heroine of ‘Rebecca’ is the author herself. The young girl refers to the difficulty people find in pronouncing her ‘lovely and unusual’ name, although we are never told what it is; ‘du Maurier’ no doubt presented similar difficulties for the author. ‘I’m gauche and awkward, I dress badly, I’m shy with people,’ says the heroine, and though the author had many more complex sides to her personality than the narrator, she does seem to have been at times cripplingly shy, and felt herself out of place, which was her situation when she began writing the book. Her husband, Frederick Browning, a commanding officer in the Grenadier Guards, had been posted to Egypt and Daphne went with him. Desperately homesick, hating the hot country and feeling inadequate to the duties of an officer’s wife, she took refuge in writing an intensely personal novel set in her beloved Cornwall (though the word ‘Cornwall’ is never actually used). She explored the two sides of her personality: the socially inept versus the wild, rebellious, independent type she could sometimes be, as exemplified in the first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca. There is also a hint in the close relationship she had with Mrs Danvers, that Rebecca might have been bisexual; while the narrator often thinks of herself as a boy: ‘I was like a little scrubby schoolboy, with a passion for a sixth-form prefect, and he kinder, and far more inaccessible.’ Daphne du Maurier was digging deep into her subconscious self.

It is the close identification the reader has with the narrator that blunts the unavoidable truth that is at the centre of this novel: the narrator’s husband Maxim de Winter is a self-confessed murderer of his first wife and her unborn child. Yet du Maurier has so cleverly involved us in her heroine’s story that we can’t help feeling that we want him to escape hanging, so they can live happily ever after (as in Jane Eyre). Herein lies the moral centre of du Maurier’s story: is a wife justified in staying loyally devoted to her husband even when he has committed murder? We feel guilty as we willingly become accessories to perjury, though the sharp and brutal ending of the novel and the subsequent exile from their country of the two main characters compensate to some degree any latent desire for moral justice the reader may feel.

Du Maurier need not have feared that ‘Rebecca’ would be ‘too gloomy’, for on one level it is the Gothic accessories: the haunted mansion, the sinister servant, fog, mirror-images, troubled dreams and a dead first wife who for the narrator comes to have all the characteristics of a vampire, that make the book such a page-turning read. For the more cerebral it can be seen as a psychological novel exploring the evolution of a girl into a woman; or read merely as a simple romance, where a young insignificant girl wins her man by beating her sexually charged rival, and this seems to be the version the critics responded to in their reviews of 1938.

It is a clever book that can be read on many levels, but always wrapped in mystery and suspense: du Maurier’s trade marks.

In truth though, it is a brilliant and skilful novel that manipulates and disturbs far more than its role model ‘Jane Eyre’.

Notes by David Timson

 

The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS catalogue

BRIDGE Works for String Quartet
8.553718

Maggini Quartet

BRIDGE String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3
8.557133

Maggini Quartet

Music programmed by Sarah Butcher


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