The Re-Reading Project: Rebecca

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.

No smoke came from the chimney, and the little lattice windows gaped forlorn. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me. The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done, but as I advanced I was aware that a change had come upon it; it was narrow and unkept, not the drive that we had known. At first I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realised what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long, tenacious fingers. The woods, always a menace in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church. And there were other trees as well, trees that I did not recognise, squat oaks and tortured elms that straggled cheek by jowl with the beeches, and had thrust themselves out of the quiet earth, along with monster shrubs and plants, none of which I remembered.

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, was published in 1938. I read it in 1995, when I was thirteen years old. For some reason, I thought I read a copy from the library originally, but I might’ve read the same edition that I’ve just re-read, an International Collectors Library edition with a bookplate in the front where my mother wrote that the book belonged to the two of us. So I know that this book was in our house while I was growing up. I’m not sure when I stole it for my own library, but I’ve never re-read Rebecca, until now.

Rebecca bookplate Rebecca spine


I don’t remember much about reading Rebecca for the first time. Except I know that I was so enamored of the story that I insisted on watching the Hitchcock film during my sleepover party, the first weekend of the summer, after I read the book. This was also the slumber party where I gave everyone their own spiral-bound notebook and suggested that we keep a diary for each other to read when we all got together at the end of the summer. Unsurprisingly, I was the only one who did it, but this was when I first started journaling regularly.

It was an eerie experience, re-reading this book almost two decades after my first time, especially as I became aware of how deeply the story had filtered into my personality. I’d forgotten much of the actual plot – had confused it a bit with Jane Eyre when I was trying to relate it (I remembered there was a new wife, and the old wife was both present but not). So, in many ways I got to read the book anew, all over again. Yet, there were dozens of times when I got goosebumps because the unnamed narrator thought or said something that I’ve thought or said, or would think or say. Which was uncomfortable because the narrator is shy and passive to the point of character flaw. She is childish and naive, with a rich interior life that she rarely makes visible to those around her. How much was I influenced by the narrator’s character at thirteen, or did I recognize my self in her, instead?

Elements that I obsessed about as I re-read: the narrator is unnamed, yet the book is named for a woman we never see, except through the memories of others. I would end up teaching a fiction class in grad school that focused on two more books that do this: My Antonia by Willa Cather and The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, only realizing later the common uniting thread that fascinated me about both books. I didn’t think of including Rebecca in that category, but now that I think of it, there are many, many books that could fit this description. Interestingly, all three of these are written about women and by women. I really want to teach that course again now, as a better teacher with more insights.

Until I did some research for this post, I don’t think I realized that Hitchcock’s The Birds (still the scariest movie I’ve ever seen) was based on a short story by du Maurier. In fact, Hitchcock made three movies based on du Maurier’s writing (the third was based on her novel Jamaica Inn). There are some persistent allegations that both Rebecca and “The Birds” (as well as another short story, “Ganymede”) were plagiarized from other works, and some fairly convincing arguments that du Maurier had access to the works before she wrote her own. Between the zeitgeist and writers’ tendencies to be influenced by each other, it’s a hard one to call, especially since many modern writers often face similar claims when their work is successful (i.e. made into a movie).

I re-read the first 100 or so pages of Rebecca on a 25-hour train trip to Washington, D.C., a lot of it in the middle of the night with people sleeping all around me. It was a great atmosphere for Rebecca, between the quaintness of trains and the creepiness of the story late at night. When I tried to describe the book (or the narrator’s situation in the beginning, at least) to another passenger, he said, “Oh, like Downton Abbey!” which I hadn’t really thought of. Rebecca is like the Gothic stories, the penny dreadfuls, that the characters in Downton Abbey might read, perhaps, and it takes place in a similar world, one that Du Maurier knew very well and one that fans of the show might also enjoy.

Daphne du Maurier died in 1989 (just a few years before I would later read her book) and though she was prolific, Rebecca remains the one thing she is most well-known for. The Gothic mood of the book, as well as the character of Mrs. Danvers, have influenced innumerable writers and artists and have spawned at least three sequels and modern versions.

I think two decades is too long between re-reads for a book like Rebecca, one that has such a clear role in my formation. I might have to re-read it again in the next decade. Or, who knows, the next five years? This experience has definitely made me glad that I’ve decided to undertake The Re-Reading Project.


Filed under books, literature, musing, The Re-Reading Project, travel, what I'm reading

2 responses to “The Re-Reading Project: Rebecca

  1. I love the premise of this blog. I adore re-reading books I haven’t touched in years and I think you find something new every time you re-read a book, even if you have read it often. I loved Rebecca and I think it’s time to re-read it.

    • emofalltrades

      Thanks, Lisa! I hope you do re-read Rebecca and that you’ll stop back and let us know what you thought. That would be very cool. 🙂

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