By Daphne du Maurier

Rating: 3 stars

While working as a paid companion to a wealthy American woman in Monte Carlo, the never named protagonist of this novel meets the somewhat mysterious widower Maxim de Winter, is swept up and very shortly married and taken back to his ancestral mansion, Manderley, in England. There she finds echoes of his first wife, Rebecca, all around and must struggle with herself and the ghost of Rebecca.

I came to this after having enjoyed other gothic novels, particularly those of Wilkie Collins and Charlotte Bronte. But I found the protagonist of this book very frustrating; she’s certainly no Jane Eyre! It’s not just that she’s incredibly shy and awkward, unable to stand up to the servants at Manderley and hating the ritual of visiting and receiving, but that she’s self-aware enough to be ashamed of her failings, but seemingly unable to correct them. When she relates how she hides her underwear from her maid and mends it itself or how she runs away from the formidable housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, and hides in the servants’ corridor, I found myself torn between intense sympathy and just wanting to shake her and tell her to pull herself together.

She’s desperately in love with Maxim but feels the aura of Rebecca all around and can’t help feeling that he is still in love with his first wife. In fact, she’s got a bad habit (which we all have to some degree, but Mrs de Winter takes it to extremes) of starting with one bad thought and spinning an entire future from it, which then makes her feel worse and worse. It’s an awful thing to witness, but top marks to de Maurier for writing and creating such a protagonist.

It’s over half way in, after the Big Revelation, before I started being drawn into the novel properly and it became compelling. The end was signposted from the first chapter, as Mrs de Winter dreams of being back at Manderley only to find it in ruins (not a spoiler, as I say, this is in the first chapter) but is still compelling despite this.

So an interesting novel with well-drawn characters – Mrs Danvers, in particular, is excellent – but probably not one that I’d read again.

Book details

ISBN: 9781844080380
Publisher: Virago Press (UK)
Year of publication: 1938

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