Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (re-read)

Sometimes re-reading a favourite book can be a disappointment; perhaps you’ve changed too much as a person since the last time you read it and the story and characters no longer have the appeal they used to have – or maybe it just loses some of its magic because you’ve read other books in the meantime that are similar and better. Luckily, I experienced none of that disappointment when I picked up Rebecca for a re-read recently. I fell in love with it all over again!

For those of you who have not yet read Rebecca, I’ll give a brief summary of the plot – and the first thing I should probably say is that we never actually meet Rebecca herself. She dies a year before the novel opens, although with her bright and vibrant personality she is a very strong presence throughout. Our narrator, in contrast, is a shy and awkward young woman who remains nameless from beginning to end; our only clue is that she has a ‘lovely and unusual’ name and one which is difficult to spell. It is while working as a companion to the overbearing Mrs Van Hopper in Monte Carlo that the narrator meets and falls in love with Rebecca’s widowed husband, Maxim de Winter, who is thought still to be grieving for his wife. The last thing she expects, then, is to receive a proposal of marriage from Maxim and to be whisked off back to England to his house in Cornwall.

Although the narrator is captivated by the magnificence of her new home, Manderley, and its beautiful surroundings, she also feels intimidated and out of place. She knows that Rebecca lived here with Maxim for years and that Rebecca was so much better at everything than she will ever be – something the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, won’t let her forget. It’s not long before the narrator begins to tell herself that her marriage is a mistake…she’s convinced that Maxim still loves Rebecca, but is there more to this situation than meets the eye?

I’m not sure whether this is the third or the fourth time I have read Rebecca, but I do know that it must be at least ten years since I read it last – long enough that I can remember the outline of the plot but not every little detail. Reading it again was a wonderful experience, right from the famous opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. As I’ve said before, du Maurier is one of the most atmospheric writers I’ve ever come across; she makes it so easy to picture every scene in vivid detail. All of her novels are beautifully written, but this one particularly so.

I know a lot of readers find the second Mrs de Winter frustrating, but I have never had a problem with her, probably because when I first read this book as a teenager I was also a shy, sensitive person so I found it easy to understand and sympathise with her. It’s worth remembering that she is only twenty-one, completely alone in the world (to the point where, when she sits down at her new writing desk at Manderley, she can think of no one to write to but Mrs Van Hopper) and has never been taught to manage servants, host a party or do any of the other things that are suddenly required of her. Not everyone can be as confident as Rebecca, after all, and it is the narrator’s sense of inferiority whenever Rebecca is mentioned which drives the plot forward and adds to the feeling of tension and claustrophobia.

I didn’t care for Maxim this time round, though. I know his distant, brooding nature is as important to the plot as his wife’s uncertainty and paranoia – and if they had been different people the story would not have worked – but I thought he could have been much more supportive of her, particularly after (trying not to spoil too much here) the white dress scene. It’s sad that she seems so much more comfortable and at ease with Maxim’s friend, Frank Crawley, than she does with her own husband. On the other hand, I felt slightly more sympathetic towards Mrs Danvers this time; I can see that she’s much more complex than I’d thought on my earlier reads.

Finally, I want to say that this is one of the few cases where I think the film (the 1940 one with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier) is as good as the book. What do you think?

This re-read means that I’m coming to the end of a little project I have been working on over the last few years. In 2009, having previously only read Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, I decided I wanted to read the rest of du Maurier’s novels and I have now read all of them, with the exception of Castle Dor which I’m hoping to read soon (after I’ve read that one I’ll do a round-up post and pick out some of my favourites). I do still have some of her short story collections and most of her non-fiction books to look forward to, though!

This is book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer – and also book 99/100 from my Classics Club list.

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36 thoughts on “Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (re-read)

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    You have certainly made me long to re-read Rebecca again! I think you are spot-on about the complexity of Mrs Danvers and the unreliability/selfishness of Mr de Winter. Also, the extreme youth and inexperience of the second Mrs de Winter (who doesn’t even feel she deserves to be named…). The parallels and differences between this and Jane Eyre also stood out for me more upon rereading it.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, the Brontës were a big influence on du Maurier’s work and if you’ve read both Rebecca and Jane Eyre it’s difficult not to make comparisons. I’m glad you agree with me on Maxim’s selfishness too – I think I was less critical of him on my previous reads, but he really annoyed me this time!

  2. Calmgrove says:

    I’ve a copy on my shelves waiting to be read, but it may move to the ‘imminent’ pile by my bedside after this review!

    I’ve stalled on Castle Dor, but I’m still on the part written by Q — perhaps it improves once Daphne takes over. Must finish it in time for a promised overview of updated Arthurian legends in October!

    • Helen says:

      Now that I’ve read almost all of du Maurier’s books, I think Rebecca really is her masterpiece and I would definitely recommend putting it on the imminent pile – I would love to know what you think of it! I’ve been leaving Castle Dor until last because I wasn’t sure how far it could actually be considered a du Maurier novel rather than a Q one. I’ll be trying it soon to see what I think.

  3. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock says:

    I’ve been worried about re-reading this book and not loving it as I did first time around, so I’m delighted your re-read was successful. I’ve read Castle D’Or and it is much more Q than DDM but definitely worth reading and I think you’ll enjoy it.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you think Castle Dor is worth reading. I suspected it would be more of a Q book, but it sounds interesting so I’m happy to give it a try anyway.

  4. cirtnecce says:

    I think I am one of the few people who did not like this novel! Don’t hate me but I too read it as a teenager and I was a shy one as well, but the book did not work me. I cannot like the un-named heroine; i know what you mean and I do sympathize with being put in a situation for which there was no preparation; but somehow she does not work me! Maxim I never liked. In fact I always considered him the root of all the problems! Anyhow, I am glad you enjoyed you read! This was my mum’s all time favorite as well and fights we used to have on this one! lol!

    • Helen says:

      I’m sure there must be plenty of people who didn’t enjoy this book, so don’t worry! We all connect or fail to connect with characters in different ways, so I completely understand why you wouldn’t like the unnamed heroine. At least we agree about Maxim, though!

  5. chrisharding53 says:

    I’ve read Rebecca many times over the years, and still love it as much as the first time around. But, like you, my view of Maxim has changed over the years, just as it has with Mr Rochester, Heathcliff and several other great romantic heroes of my youth.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you still love Rebecca too, after many re-reads! I re-read both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights recently too, but found that my view of Mr Rochester and Heathcliff hadn’t really changed – but that’s probably because, although I think they are both great characters, I’ve never seen either of them as romantic (particularly not Heathcliff!)

  6. piningforthewest says:

    I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve read Rebeca, I love it, it’s a bit of a comfort read for me. I so identified with the second Mrs de Winter as a very shy 13 year old when I first read it. I still like Max a lot although I know what you mean. Some people seem to despise him as a murderer, but I would have ‘done her in’ a lot sooner. I’ve read Castle Dor and was quite disappointed with it.

    • Helen says:

      Well, I don’t despise him for that – just for not being more supportive to his poor second wife! I’m sorry to hear you were disappointed with Castle Dor. I’m not expecting too much from it, to be honest, but want to read it so I can satisfy myself that I’ve read all of her novels.

  7. FictionFan says:

    Sounds like we had a very similar experience with our re-reads. I also had a lot of sympathy with Mrs de Winter because she’s so young – far too young to be married to a man of Maxim’s age. And I also wasn’t taken with Maxim this time around either, though I think I had a crush on him when I first read the book as a teenager. Althought the crush may have had more to do with the film. I do think they are equally good, although I was surprised by just how much Hitchcock changes the tone by what he does to the story (trying to avoid spoilers, so forgive vagueness). I also found I had considerably more sympathy with Mrs Danvers this time round too – I think there’s a lot more nuance in her relationship with Rebecca than I caught first time round…

    • Helen says:

      Yes, maybe the crush had more to do with Laurence Olivier. 🙂 I don’t mind the changes Hitchcock makes in the film – it does alter the tone, but it works either way, I think. As for Mrs Danvers, there’s definitely a lot more to her relationship with Rebecca than I picked up on during my first read!

  8. Yvonne says:

    I loved both – the book and the film. Definitely need to re-read Rebecca just to see if my perceptions of the characters have changed since my early teens. From memory, I didn’t totally dislike Maxim, just thought he was too wrapped up in himself to consider his new wife’s feelings and how she was adjusting to a life for which she was totally unprepared. As for Mrs Danvers … definitely scary, in both book and film, but what a memorable character.

    • Helen says:

      If it’s been a while since you read it, a re-read should be an interesting experience. I love it just as much, but my perceptions have definitely changed! I don’t completely dislike Maxim, but he really needed to give his new wife the reassurance and support she deserved.

  9. Anna says:

    I read Rebecca for the first time this year and absolutely adored it! I think it is definitely the kind of book that stands up to several re-reads. 🙂

  10. jessicabookworm says:

    You’ve made me want to re-read this right now! And I also love the Hitchcock film with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in 🙂 However I found Maxim more sympathetic in the film…although that could be because he’s being played by the lovely Olivier 😉

  11. whatmeread says:

    I felt exactly the same way about Maxim the last time I read this. He shows no understanding at all of what she must be feeling and is rough and impatient with her.

  12. Judy Krueger says:

    How interesting that your sympathies for Mrs Danvers and Maxim changed. Congratulations on nearing completion of your du Maurier novels project. I am curious to see what you think of Castle Dor.

    • Helen says:

      My expectations for Castle Dor aren’t very high, but I still think it should be an interesting read – and then I’ll have read all of du Maurier’s novels!

  13. Jo says:

    It is a while since I have read this. I probably do need to read it again as since my last reading I have seen it twice on stage and of course seen the film and the tv adaptation many times. I still have to remind myself that Max killed her, to me it never comes across as such in the book to me anyway. Time for a reread I think!

    • Helen says:

      It’s a book that stands up very well to being re-read, I think. It would be interesting for you to read it again after seeing so many different versions of it!

  14. Karen K. says:

    I first watched Rebecca about age 13 when there was a Masterpiece! Mystery adaptation — I think it starred Joanna David as Mrs. deWinter and Anna Massey as Mrs. Danvers. (Anna Massey also narrated an audio version which is wonderful). I’ve read it many times since and I always love it. None of the other du Maurier novels I’ve ever read has measured up, sadly. I look forward to your round-up so that I might find one that I like even a little bit as much as I love Rebecca.

    • Helen says:

      I think Rebecca is considered to be du Maurier’s best book for a good reason, but I’ve still really enjoyed a lot of her others. I’ll definitely put a summary post together after I read Castle Dor!

  15. Cleo @ Classical Carousel says:

    Like Cirtnecce, I didn’t care for this book at all. The inane dialogue, especially from the second Mrs. deWinter made me catatonic. And it really bothered me that she was much more concerned that Maxim did not love his first wife than (here comes a major spoiler) that he killed her. Her lack of emotional maturity and sensible thinking was far more terrifying than Mrs. Danvers. I read that duMaurier initially really struggled writing this book and I think it shows through. However, I did love her beautiful scenic descriptions …. they were quite beautiful. I do hope to read another duMaurier novel again but as yet I haven’t been able to bring myself to …. hopefully more positive reviews like yours will encourage me to! 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I love this book, but I do understand your reasons for not liking it. I never thought of the second Mrs de Winter as inane…just as shy, nervous and suffering from low self-esteem. If you didn’t connect with her at all, I can see how that would have prevented you from enjoying the book. As there were other aspects of du Maurier’s writing that you did like, it would probably be worth trying another of her novels – she wrote quite a variety of books and I think you would find some of them completely different from Rebecca!

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