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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Books: Jane Shortall revisits Rebecca, a splendid, old fashioned, rattling good read, a tale which has all the ingredients to keep the thoughtful reader interested and fascinated, even though, in a rather daring move, the author presents us with the epilogue at the beginning of the book

Cinema: Sandra Smith admits that there are better Sci-Fi movies than The Day After Tomorrow but aside from hoping for a global warming discussion of some seriousness the effects are spectacular and to be seen on the big screen

Books

Rebecca
Written by Daphne Du Maurier, published 1938

by Jane Shortall


No excuses for choosing one of my favourite novels, written sixty-six years ago now — and I am deliberately not starting the review using the celebrated opening line of the suspense filled, dramatic, romantic and unforgettable novel, Rebecca.
Almost all reviews use it to begin, but I want people who have not read the book to experience the same magic I did on first reading Daphne Du Maurier‘s masterpiece. All the old clichés apply to this book so why not give them an outing again? Rebecca is a real page-turner. A splendid, old fashioned, rattling good read, a tale which has all the ingredients to keep the thoughtful reader interested and fascinated, even though, in a rather daring move, the author presents us with the epilogue at the beginning of the book.

From the famous opening line we are spellbound, as Daphne Du Maurier, one of the best storytellers ever, draws us into the world of the shy and timid heroine. The young, nervous, reserved and, as yet, inexperienced in life heroine that the writer, in a second daring move, never names. (She later said she simply could not think of a name, and found it interesting to develop the novel without one.)

The epilogue, a description of a dream, creates the atmosphere straight away. The dreamer’s portrayal of passing through the gates, drifting through the trees, seeing the immense, ghostly, empty house, now only a shell, the overgrown garden where the rhododendrons stand fifty feet high, where the woods have crowded in, ‘dark and uncontrolled’ on the drive, nature having taken over and encroached with ‘long, tenacious fingers‘ sets a wonderfully ethereal scene. The reference to a feeling of stress in certain parts of the grounds, of nervous poachers not wishing to linger there after the sun sets, of the rustling leaves sounding like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress; all evoke a sense of foreboding.

We learn that the dreamer and her husband are now living a very simple life some place where the sun shines all the time; where there are no shadows. There are vines growing, the light dazzles the eyes, and the colourful bougainvillea tumbles over dusty walls. We know that life as it was at Manderley is never discussed, nor is any reference ever made to the English countryside. It would bring back unhappy memories. Instead she reads to him the cricket results from the English papers. It is a picture of peace at last, and they appear to be possessed of a calm and tranquillity they had not known in their past life.

We feel that this couple has survived some momentous drama of some sort, and are now living a quiet life they had thought never to achieve. All this knowledge in the beginning does not take anything from the story that follows.

We first meet our un-named heroine in the glittering life of Monte Carlo in the South of France, and travel with her to the wilds of the English West Country, and to one of the great houses of England, where almost the entire story is set.

She is working for the wonderful snob Mrs. Van Hopper, and we observe Mrs. Van Hopper keenly observing Mr. Maxim de Winter being shown to his table in the dining room of the hotel in Monte Carlo. We learn that he owns the famous house, Manderley, in the south west of England, that he looks ill, and that his wife is dead - drowned in a boating accident near the family’s ancient estate only a year ago.

This moody, otherworldly man is obviously in some sort of deep despair and wants to be left alone. Mrs. Van Hopper has other ideas. And since he is the epitome of English civilised upbringing, he manages to be charming and gallant, even while seeming to be incredibly rude to her. A bad cold keeps that lady in bed for a few days and our heroine finds herself in the company of Maxim de Winter, who surprises her by saying ‘we needn’t talk if we don’t want to’ and she finds she does want to. Very much.

They fall in love.

Then disaster when Mrs. Van Hopper announces that they are to leave for America straight away. Passage to be booked on the liner immediately. Our heroine, panicking, summons every ounce of courage she has and runs through the hotel to his room to say goodbye.

After hearing the story, Maxim de Winter suggests she returns to Manderley with him instead of taking the boat to New York with Mrs Van Hopper, adding, ‘I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool’. Who else would get away with that for a proposal?


What starry-eyed reader would choose to go to New York and continue life in Mrs. Van Hopper‘s employ? It’s all too romantic for words, and we jump right in with her, with both feet. After a whirlwind honeymoon in Italy and France, their world appearing perfect paradise, they return to England.

Then the car turns off the road and into the long winding drive at Manderley and it starts to rain. Now Daphne Du Maurier is clearly in her element. Her feeling for the countryside, the ways of nature, both beautiful and savage, her knowledge of the behaviour of animals, and her obvious love and great respect for the sea — she was an accomplished sailor— all come together and anyone reading it with an imagination creates their own special effects department.

The description of the drive alone is almost unnerving. The writer has us turning the pages faster and faster in order to reach the house at last. Then the house, vast and magnificent, where the entire staff have been gathered to meet the new Mrs. de Winter. Who is mortified, awkwardly drops her gloves, and there and then the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers begins her subtle intimidation of the newcomer. Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, is one of the great creations of the story. We can picture her pale, skull like face, her gliding walk, aided by the fact that she wears clothing from another time. We can hear the long black skirts swishing on the floor as she moves.

She delights in revealing that when the first Mrs. de Winter was alive they used the larger rooms in the west wing, where the sound of the sea can be heard. The wing that is not used any more. The house is run just as it was when the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, was alive, and to the newcomer she seems eerily to be still about the place.

R’s materialize everywhere. All the pigeonholes in her desk are named, written in the large sloping writing. R on the front of the massive entertaining diary. R’s on the writing paper. R’s on the flyleaves of books. R’s woven into the linen handkerchief found in an old mackintosh in the gardener’s room.

And all the time we are conscious of an undercurrent, of a certain stress in Maxim’s behaviour towards his new wife. At first it seemed just his brusque way, but gradually, as we meet the other characters in the story, we begin to wonder a little about this man, who at times seems incapable to talking to his new wife as anything other than a childlike figure. The tension between them is built up superbly.

The past begins to haunt the new young Mrs. de Winter, who imagines more and more that Maxim is still in love with his beautiful, witty, accomplished, energetic, and totally in command mistress of Manderley, Rebecca. How could she possibly compete with this memory? She makes a last effort to impress her new husband on the night of the famous fancy dress party at the great house. She keeps her outfit a secret from everybody, with disastrous results.

The plot races on from this night and we are plunged into the past, with very clever twists and turns introduced so that it never, ever sags. Even though we have read the epilogue, we truly do not know how this story will end.

In a thoroughly satisfying fashion, Daphne Du Maurier takes us through a series of set pieces, a ship wreck off the coast, the discovery of the late Mrs. de Winter’s boat, with a body in the cabin, the court sitting, the wrong body in the crypt, Rebecca’s personal diary produced by Mrs. Danvers, and the attempted blackmailing of Maxim by Rebecca’s cousin, the nasty Jack Favell.

It all adds up to a really first-class yarn, and if the ending is a good old love story, Daphne Du Maurier does not give us a soppy one.

Sandra Smith's review of The Day After Tomorrow>>

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