When the title character is revealed to have died before the start of the novel you know you’re in for an interesting ride.
And this is certainly the case with Rebecca; a grieving husband meets a young woman on holiday and marries her after only a week’s acquaintance moving her into his English mansion and apparently expecting her to take the place of the late, lamented Rebecca.
Unusually the story begins at the end with an English couple living a dull life in exile abroad, constantly moving and never talking about the past. We are then spun back in time to the days of their whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo and onwards through the trials of our narrator’s life at Manderley, her husband’s grand English house.
From the very first chapter the suspense is gripping, who are these people and how did they come to be living this mundane life so far from the country they clearly hold so dear?
When we first meet Maxim de Winter he is suave and charming and wins the heart of our unnamed narrator, innocent young girl who is somewhat awed that a man such as Maxim would take any interest in her. He clearly has a darker side however and a short temper which scares her at times and despite barely knowing him she automatically falls into the position she occupies for the rest of the novel, that of protector, keeping things which will upset him from being mentioned whenever possible.
Despite his slightly unstable character our narrator agrees to his marriage proposal almost immediately and is whisked back to England and Manderley (after an apparently blissful honeymoon in Italy which we hear little of). Once back on home soil however, things are very different. The house is run as if Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, is still alive and any alteration our timid second wife tries to suggest is shot down immediately. Particularly where the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, is concerned Rebecca’s word is law.
Our narrator has an especially active imagination and is constantly daydreaming, imagining Rebecca’s life and the ways in which she is failing to live up to the reputation of Maxim’s first wife. Maxim himself is distant, cold and even more unstable now that they have returned to Manderley and it seems our young girl may have made a terrible mistake.
Then just over half way through the novel her whole world is rocked by a sudden revelation which comes out of nowhere and changes her whole view of Manderley. Obviously I’m not going to say anything more about that revelation but I will say that although I had picked up hints that all was not quite what it seemed, I had no idea about what was coming and how it would change the whole course of the story. The plot moves on from here much faster and everything changes in just a few days.
The story is gripping and I flew through the novel because the intrigue built up in layers around Maxim and Rebecca kept me glued to the page. The cast of characters ranged from the creepy Mrs Danvers (there is no other word to do her justice) to the brilliantly forthright Beatrice and the loyal Frank and they were all individual and had their own levels of curiosity. However the style of narration and the narrator’s own unease gave the whole story an odd feeling of detachment, much like peering in through a window as opposed to actually being part of events. Which, although slightly odd as a reader, reflects the way the narrator feels about her life at Manderley and gives us great empathy for her plight and leaves us rooting for her and the life she envisions for herself and Maxim.
When I began reading Rebecca I was expecting a more pedestrian love story typical of certain turn of the century writers but what I got was echoes of Jane Eyre, a chilling tale with deception at every turn and a ghostly figure stalking our heroine’s every thought, feeling and action. A gripping read.