I’m just about to finish reading Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca for the sixth or seventh time. I don’t have an exact count, but my daughter tells me that we have at least three copies of the novel in the house.
At first, I didn’t notice that this particular edition had extra goodies packed into it: an essay about “Menabilly,” the house on which Manderley (the great estate in the novel) is based, a Rebecca journal of sorts, and, amazingly, the novel’s original epilogue.
For the uninitiated (is it possible that you’re out there?), Rebecca is Du Maurier’s best-known novel, the tale of a rather plain, unnamed young woman who marries a dashing, tragic older man. When he takes her back to Manderley, his magnificent family home, she finds herself, the house and their marriage overshadowed by the memory and presence of his dead wife, Rebecca. Hitchcock made a brilliant film of the novel.
But if you’re at all familiar with the novel, you know that its first two chapters are, essentially, an epilogue. Everything that follows is flashback. In the first chapter, the unnamed heroine describes her dream of a haunted, silent Manderly. In the second, she talks of her post-story wanderings with Maxim, her once-dashing husband who is now halting and faded, unable to bear even the slightest mention of the familiarities of home–not even the woodpigeons in Manderley’s woods. By the end of the chapter, she begins the story of how she met Maxim and the mystery begins.
The back cover of this edition of Rebecca proclaims that it was the “Winner of the Anthony Award for Best Novel of the Century.” Did you know this? I had no idea, but I think the prize is decidedly well-deserved. There’s something for every reader here: mystery, romance, crime, the paranormal, psychological and real suspense.
But I wonder if Rebecca would have garnered such acclaim if it had been published with its original epilogue in tact.
It’s a brief chapter, written in the second person–the imagined pov of an observer of the DeWinters in their dotage. All throughout the novel, the heroine indulges in too-frequent internal dialogues about what the people around her are saying, thinking, feeling. It gets to be a tad annoying, and I’ve read it so many times now that she’s begun to sound incredibly neurotic. Sometimes I just want to shake her and tell her that she needs to connect a bit more with reality and she’ll instantly become less anxious. How wonderful life would be if she would just pitch Mrs. Danvers out that boudoir window. Really, no one would care.
But I digress. Sorry. I get caught up in stories sometimes.
Scenes from the erstwhile epilogue:
“You see then that he [Maxim] is crippled, he walks slowly and awkwardly with the aid of sticks, and it is some little time before I have settled him for the afternoon. There is the long chair to adjust, the pillows to arrange, and the rug over his knees; and when this is done to his satisfaction, and he has rewarded me with a smile, I sit down beside him and open my bag of knitting.”
Maxim is shattered, emotionally and physically. Our heroine is less a wife than a nurse and competent companion.
She describes herself…”I with faded hair and colouring, dark glasses concealing eyes that have lost their brightness, and upon my rather dumpy body one of an unending series of cotton frocks, too long for me and sagging at the hem.”
They live for extended periods in inexpensive hotels around the Med. (Not such a bad thing, in theory.) They dress for dinner. “You gather that changing for dinner at half past seven is rather a business for us, but nevertheless we appear in the nick of time, he faultless as usual and reminding you once again of some familiar face.”
“You come upon us unawares, and for the first time you notice that there is an indefinable air of sadness about us, a sort of aftermath of tragedy, and you feel a little uncomfortable, as though you had clumsily stumbled against a barrier.”
And, worst of all, the ruined Manderley is about to be turned into a country club with a golf course and tables for tea set up in the garden. Our heroine has hidden the prospectus for it in a trunk.
Oh, these words drip of the most grisly kind of pathos, don’t they? They’re firmly in the voice of our heroine–a woman who has, somehow, convinced herself that she and Maxim have triumphed over evil. But, after a close reading of the novel, one could almost believe that she was the–excuse me for this–batshit crazy person all along. The least reliable narrator on the planet. This epilogue leaves me angry with her. Finally, she has dragged Maxim down to her dull, anti-intellectual level. She, with her droopy, lace-less drawers and sensible sweaters. Now she is his keeper and is “lacking a certain quality of tenderness.”
The actual opening chapters of the novel have only a faint pathos about them, a gauze of mystery. Maxim might still be handsome, though aged by sadness. We’re not sure if our heroine has improved her taste in lingerie, but we are left with hope. (Why it’s important to me that she have nice underwear, I’m not sure. It would have been my very first purchase, had I married Maxim.) Manderley exists in the past for them–It may, in reality, look as it did in her dream, but at least we aren’t forced to visualize it covered in Dorothy Draper chintz, white-jacketed waiters, and squash courts.
The actual opening chapters are mysterious, a true invitation and introduction. They make me curious about how these two damaged but content wanderers came to be living so. They tempt me–no, compel me to read on. The editing that turned the original epilogue into the novel’s opening certainly helped to make the novel the masterpiece that it is. One wonders what other magic was worked in various rewrites of the story. Revising. That’s the thing. A new, stronger vision every time.
One last curiosity: our heroine’s name. Here is the only clue:
Maxim: “You have a lovely and unusual name.”
Our Heroine: “My father was a lovely and unusual person.”
If you were to give our heroine a name, what would it be?