Book Review: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (Virago Press)

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Last night, I finally finished du Maurier’s famous classic novel, Rebecca. The book was first published in 1938, but my particular copy had been reprinted by Virago Press in 2003. There were parts of the book that dragged for me, but in all honesty, that’s probably because I forced myself to read a classic while I was on a fantasy kick.

In Rebecca, the main character–of whom we irritatingly never learn her name–is a companion to an American woman on their travels to Monte Carlo, where she meets Maxim de Winter. There are rumors about de Winter’s amazing home called Manderley in England and how his wife had drowned the previous year. The main character subsequently falls in love with Max de Winter and they marry, leaving for Manderley, where our heroine has to compete with everyone’s expectations of her and their preference for the dead Rebecca. Especially disapproving and sinister is the main housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

Supposedly, the novel draws on Jane Eyre with the heroine’s competition of another woman–even if that woman is dead–and there are similar parallels throughout the story. However, I’m not sure I would have picked up on those allusions if I hadn’t read about them. I also have to say, though I did at points enjoy Rebecca, I much preferred Jane Eyre.

The author, Daphne du Maurier, lived from 1907-1989 in a well-to-do family in England. In 1932, she married Fredrick Browning and Menabilly, a house outside Fowley, with their three children. Often misrepresented as a romantic novelist, du Maurier was fond of writing dark and gothic stories. Cleverly, du Maurier pulls on this as the heroine of Rebecca believes she is in a romance novel at first.

Though I’m not sure any analysis mentions this, I think a unique theme of this novel is the character’s anxiety about not being all she is meant to be. The heroine is always assuming she is disappointing another–at times this can be annoying, but as someone with an equally low self-esteem, I can relate so much to her. At times, the main character finds her notions are silly but at other times her anxieties are well-founded. It makes this hard to trust her instincts.

Another, more powerful, theme of the books is that of Rebecca’s ghost. Of course, there is no literal ghost. But even without the supernatural, Rebecca is still haunting the people of Manderley. The main character continues to come across Rebecca’s slanted handwriting and it reminds her of all the poise she will never have. At one point, the main character wears a dress Rebecca once wore and it angered Maxim, as surely like he saw a phantom descending the stairs. Mrs. Danvers, once Rebecca’s nursemaid, keeps Rebecca’s bedroom the same it always was and methodically walks in and looks at everything, untouched, as if she would be right back. None of them can escape from the shadow of Rebecca.

Rebecca the novel also continues to smoothly transition from a happy tranquil Manderley, full of sunshine and flowers, to that of rain and darkness and foreboding. The weather, like in any gothic fiction, truly represents the mood of the story. And yet, there are times that made me long to walk the gardens of Manderley and reside in an English estate. There were times that, despite their misery, it did all seem lovely.

Aside from Frank Crawley, none of the characters were very likable, though I found them still intriguing. As aforementioned, the main character was always anxious and also naïve. Maxim de Winter, though marrying the heroine, continued to treat her like a child, which would be creepy enough without their massive age difference. Whenever our heroine tried to get him to love her more, she would say something like “I am your sister and your mother.” This really grossed me out, and I am not sure even that was okay in the thirties.

Don’t get me started on Mrs. Danvers. She was despicable. As a housemaid, she didn’t have an obligation to be overly-friendly, but how severe she always was really bothered me. I realize she was mourning the death of Rebecca, but some of her behavior was downright dirty even considering this. I suppose that’s what made her a great psychological antagonist.

Some tropes that are common in this novel are:

Comparing characters to animals to show their personalities. Rebecca was wild like the horses. The heroine was like their dog, Jasper, ever loyal.


Creepy housekeeper.

A costume ball.

Dark secrets.

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As I said before, though, while some parts of the book had me gripping the spine, there were also parts that were so boring it was hard not to skip ahead. I think, though, this is pretty common for classic novels.

I also disliked how the novel started in the future, letting the whole story be one big flashback. I think du Maurier should’ve just skipped straight to Monte Carlo instead of beginning with the two in exile.

Here comes the hard part–there are some difficulties and problematic matters within this novel. Because it was written in the 1930s, though, these things that we know are problematic now may have been common at the time. The heroine continued to call her husband her “brother.” There is some romanticized abuse here as Maxim treats the heroine like a child and sometimes calls her an “idiot.” Speaking of which, the heroine comes across a man called Ben who roams the beach. She refers to him as an “idiot” and in this sense, it is clear that she means he has some mental or developmental difficulties. The way he is treated can also be uncomfortable. Perhaps most uncomfortable was the talk of casually doing blackface for the costume ball. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone actually did in the book, but the casual talk of it was very disconcerting.

For those who do wish to read this book, I would just like to give a quick content warning. The novel deals with death, potential suicide, and abuse. If any of this may be triggering, I would suggest steering clear of the novel.

Based on all of this–the problematic characters, the purple prose, the creepy dialogue, the gripping plot twists, the beautiful setting, and the beautiful ending, I would have to give Rebecca three stars out of five. Despite the problems, I did kind of enjoy the read.

Watch the trailer for the 2020 film here.

By myadventure2017

Writer, Reader, Bookstagrammer, Booktoker, Blogger


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