Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series
This book has been described as gothic, and also as romantic suspense and mystery. It has elements of literary fiction was well in its deep interiority. I read it for the first time decades ago, when I was fifteen. Reading it again, I realized I’d held it unconsciously in the back of my mind as the model for a mystery in the sense that the mystery is Rebecca herself. Who was she? What was her true nature? What was her relationship with Maxim? What were her secrets? What secrets do others know about her?
Remarkably, I remembered the big revelations. I can reread some mysteries I haven’t looked at for several years—five or ten, not the forty that have intervened since I read Rebecca—and have no idea “who done it,” but that may be because they had less emotional impact. Emotion enhances memory.
I’d forgotten most of the details, though, so this second reading was fresh in many ways, and this time I was reading with an author’s attention to craft. I admired how du Maurier builds suspense with environmental detail. Sometimes the weather is bit too sympathetic with the events, or the flowers too obviously symbolic, but overall the effect is immersive and moody.
She develops relationships and meaning through seemingly superficial interactions. And there is a great deal of suffocating superficiality in the upper class lifestyle that bewilders and intimidates the second Mrs. De Winter.
I was intrigued by du Maurier’s choice to begin with a dream and then a day in the life of the narrator and her husband after the events of the story. We already know from the outset that this is their future. This allows the end to be dramatic, an abrupt surprise without the customary denouement. The reader is left to fill in a few details, but the early chapters have let us know what happens at some distance from that night. The author chose a slow (not dull, slow) beginning over a slow end.
The end is foreshadowed early in the book, and so is the big secret. While they’re still courting, Maxim loans his future second wife (the nameless narrator) a book of poetry she finds in his car. The first poem she reads is about being pursued by a hell hound. Not exactly a romantic gift, but it’s inscribed to him from Rebecca. Before marrying him, the narrator cuts out the first wife’s inscription and burns it.
A few things about the book are dated, such as beginning with a dream. The term “idiot,” used repeatedly to describe Ben, a man with an intellectual disability, is jarring. But as a period piece, it portrays the times well, especially women’s roles and the assumptions made about class by those who are immersed in class-based society.
The protagonist’s namelessness is bit contrived, but it suits her lack of a strong identity except as a wife. Her artistic abilities are dismissed by others as a nice hobby, and she seems to lose interest in creating art as soon as she gets married except for sketching her costume for the fancy dress ball. Her life is about her marriage and her husband. If she weren’t that sort of woman, the rest wouldn’t be possible. Her devotion to him when he reveals his secret is almost as disturbing as the secret itself. How it affects her and changes her is only possible if she starts out as timid and lacking confidence as she does. And her timidity also prevents her from taking actions and asking questions a more confident person would have, and which would have prevented many of her troubles. She endures Mrs. Danvers. She fears her. She doesn’t ask simple questions, such as what Ben means about never saying anything, or why Mrs. Danvers is suddenly being helpful and suggesting a costume.
The narrator shows herself to be brave and compassionate occasionally, such as the time she defies Maxim to make sure their dog is all right, and when she feels real concern for servants. She’s more comfortable visiting her maid’s mother than people like the Bishop’s wife.
Later, once she knows the big secret, she finds it easy to be severe with servants. To picture herself as the mistress of the great house, taking on its routines and responsibilities. Nothing scares her because she has new confidence in being loved. Not in her own abilities, but in her identity as wife.
In this process, she loses her fear of Mrs. Danvers, whose identity is totally invested in her closeness to Rebecca. When Rebecca is dethroned as a memory, the power dynamic changes between the second Mrs. De Winter and the housekeeper. They’re surrogates for Maxim and Rebeca in their power struggle, one that carries on after Rebecca’s death.
Maxim’s character is shown for what it is when Rebecca’s is revealed. He’s strong but not heroic. He valued his great house and his reputation and so endured the painful bargain of his marriage. He shows himself to be incredibly adept at taking risks that end up in his favor and being cool in situations that would crack another person. The second Mrs. De Winter proves love is blind. Their relationship is powerful but not admirable. I felt empathy for the narrator at first, when she was shy, lost and confused, overwhelmed by her new circumstances, but she changed. In twenty-four hours, as Maxim notes, the young, lost look he loved is gone.