[yasr_overall_rating]

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

This is probably one one of the most famous opening lines in literature, and a very powerful one, for its capacity to draw the reader in immediately, into the disquieting dream of the narrator, a young woman recently married to a wealthy widower of 42 years old. The first time I read Rebecca I was almost certainly younger than the young heroine, and now, a more seasoned reader, I could more fully appreciate the many layers of this masterpiece.

The narrator, whose name we never know, but we know is “a very lovely and unusual name” is a young woman, companion for a living to an older woman who makes a fool of herself in society in front of the rich and powerful. Incredibly, this discrete and shy young narrator attracts the attention of Maxim de Winter, a widower, a moody man full of secrets and gloom, who drives her in his automobile on the roads above Monte Carlo while her boss is sick in bed. As the narrator is about to say goodbye to follow her boss to the United States, Maxim de Winter proposes, in a manner strangely devoid of passion. As the narrator soon discovers, he is a man haunted, haunted by his first wife Rebecca, who died in a boating accident one year before…

As soon as the narrator enters Manderley she is torn between two feelings: she falls in love with Manderley, the magnificence of a mansion with its luscious gardens and beautiful sea view, but she is also aware of the presence of Rebecca everywhere. Rebecca indeed haunts the place. Her room is kept as if she was coming back in a minute by the terrible Mrs Danvers, who hates the narrator for taking the place of her beloved first Mrs de Winters, her pens and writing paper are still on her desk, as if she was going to sit down and write a letter. Rebecca represents threatening sexuality both in the narrator’s mind (and it is the only aspect of Rebecca’s personality that she gets right), and in reality, as will be confirmed by Maxim, her cousin/lover Jack Favell and Mrs Danvers, whose feelings for her far oversteps devotion of an employee for her mistress. The inspiration for Rebecca is of course Bertha Masson from Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester’s first wife and mad woman in the attic. The first time I read Rebecca I remember expecting her to be hidden somewhere in the house, like her literary model, but this time I knew better…

The narrator, on the other hand, is a young innocent woman incapable of asserting herself, who lets herself being intimated by people with a stronger will than herself: Mrs Danvers, Jack Favell, and even her husband Maxim. If Bronte’s mad woman is an inspiration for Rebecca, the narrator takes after Jane Austen’s Fanny Price (Mansfield Park), a shy, introvert and self-deprecating heroine. What I found really interesting in Rebecca is that most conversations and situations happen only in the narrator’s imagination. The things said about her by people, Rebecca’s way of life in Manderley, Maxim’s feeling for his dead wife, everything is made up by the narrator’s overactive imagination, and, as we learn three quarters into the novel, a narrator relying solely on imagination and assumptions is a very unreliable narrator. Thus, along with her, we learn the truth about Rebecca,which the astute reader would have intuited already from other clues, lying in descriptions of Manderley or by what is actually unsaid but hinted at by characters such as Maxim’s sister Beatrice or Frank.

Maxim, the third main character of the book, is a complex character. Very much like its literary model Mr Rochester but guilty of deeds that would have been unacceptable in a hero a reader could root for in Charlotte Bronte’s time. Maxim is a very paternalistic husband : “A husband is not so very different from a father after all. There is a certain type of knowledge I prefer you not to have. It’s better.” He is finally responsible for the loss of innocence he later reproaches his second wife. From the beginning it is obvious that their relationship is sexless, all the capacity for sexuality and sensuality being absorbed by the overbearing Rebecca. Once Rebecca falls from her pedestal in the narrator’s mind, there is a brief period of time when the narrator asserts herself : “I’m afraid it doesn’t concern very much what Mrs de Winter used to do, I said, I am Mrs de Winter now, you know“, and where scenes of passion occur between husband and wife. The narrator even becomes dangerously like Rebecca, not so innocent finally, in the moral compromises she is ready to accept in the name of love. But after Rebecca has the last laugh, and Manderley is no more, the narrator loses whatever assertiveness she gained, and the beginning (which is the end, in fact) shows us an old sexless couple occupied with the quiet habits of the elderly. And the narrator becomes what she was before meeting Max: a young, meek companion to somebody older. Who is ultimately responsible for killing in the bud the narrator’s coming into womanhood, sensuality and assertiveness? Rebecca or Max? This is an interesting question indeed…

The main character of the novel is of course Manderley, Manderley as a representation of the unconsciousness of the characters maybe, as a mirror of their psyche. The novel begins with Manderley and ends with it. Rebecca is present in some parts of the garden, in the luscious, red rhododendrons, in the tortuous and dark drive that seems never to end, in the elegant and intimidating West Wing of the house with its sea view and relentless sound of breaking waves (is Emile Zola’s Abbe Mouret’s transgression a model for the garden?). On the contrary, the East Wing, and the new couple’s room with its view on the delightful rose garden, the Happy Valley garden with the domesticated pink rhododendrons (contrasting with the blood-red ones at the end of the drive) with its sweet and quiet stream, evoke the narrator’s sweet and innocent nature. The tame agains the wild: the second Mrs de Winters against Rebecca. Two faces of the same woman maybe…

Rebecca is one of the XXth century’s great novels, not a gothic novel for women, as the critics of the times read it. It is much more complex and rich, multi-layered, and it deserves to be discovered or rediscovered…