Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

What makes a great opening line? It’s one of those things that’s hard to put into words. In this case, you could point to the rhythm or ‘meter’ of the line (iambic hexameter in this case), which seems to give it an appropriately steady, dreamy sound that reflects its meaning. On top of that, it is immediately intriguing, making us ask: who is this ‘I’? What or where is ‘Manderley’? And why ‘again’? What part has this place played in the person’s life? And why are they not there now? Truly a memorable opener.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Before now, I had not read anything by Daphne du Maurier, but have had her works recommended to me on several occasions. Rebecca is one of those novels that most people have probably heard of, and yet I did not really know too much about it. I mean, I knew it was about a young bride who marries an older, wealthy gentleman and how the influence of his former late wife overshadows everything, but that was the extent of all that I knew.

So what is the novel like? Well, if I were to try and summarise it in one sentence, I’d say that it is a fairly dark and brooding psychological romance. The following quotes may give a flavour:

I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say.

I suppose sooner or later in the life of everyone comes a moment of trial. We all of us have our particular devil who rides us and torments us, and we must give battle in the end.

We’re not meant for happiness, you and I.

There is a classic cast of characters in the novel, form the eponymous dead first wife, Rebecca, who manages to have such a presence throughout the text, to the un-named protagonist, that is, the new Mrs de Winter. Then there is the husband, the aristocratic Maximilian de Winter, who is presented as a rather troubled, strong, silent type. There is also the extremely scary and memorable Mrs Danvers, who is still demonically devoted to the first Mrs de Winter.

I had heard some say that they found the protagonist a little too naive and pathetic much of the time, but I did not particularly find these attributes incongruous to her character’s background. I mean, she certainly is young (in her early twenties, as opposed to Mr de Winter who is in his forties) and she is thrown into a situation and way of life totally alien to her, so I found her naivety quite believable, even realistic.

Whilst critics have not always recognised Rebecca as a classic, I thought it very written on the whole. There is quite a lot of symmetry throughout the novel, which adds to the fatalistic tone. For example, at one point Mrs Danvers very nearly gets the protagonist to commit suicide, mirroring the reported death of the first Mrs de Winter. Then there is the horrific moment when the protagonist (on the suggestion of Mrs Danvers) appears at the ball in the costume of the exact de Winter ancestor that Rebecca had worn the previous yest. There is also a scene between the protagonist and Max de Winter on a cliff-top road in the South of France, which mirrors another he shared with his first wife. Finally there is the fact that Mr & Mrs de Winter end up living abroad, away from their once beloved home country, in a vein of life similar to the one they shared when they first met.

Whilst the novel was (and still is) hugely popular and was made into a successful Hollywood film, etc. it actually has a surprisingly harrowing and oppressive atmosphere throughout. And the ending is also quite unsettling – being neither downright tragic, where the lovers both die or separate or what-have-you (which I was expecting), nor exactly happy.

One last little bit of trivia from the novel: How does a 1930s English county ball formally end?  Why, with the entire assembled party singing God Save the King, of course!

If you liked this, you might also enjoy Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, with which Rebecca shares several key similarities.

It wouldn’t make for sanity would it, living with the devil.