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.

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

lost-horizon I’m very happy with the way my reading is going so far this year. I’ve read some great books already and this is another one. Published in 1933, Lost Horizon is the novel which introduced into popular culture the idea of Shangri-La as a sort of earthly paradise. It’s a fascinating story and very absorbing – I started it on a Saturday and was finished by Sunday; at just over 200 pages it’s a quick read but also the sort of book that leaves the reader with a lot to think about after the final page is turned.

We begin with a prologue in which the narrator is having dinner with a novelist friend, Rutherford. The two find themselves discussing a mutual acquaintance, Hugh Conway, who had disappeared under unusual circumstances only to be discovered by Rutherford several months later in a hospital in China. Conway has been suffering from amnesia but as his memories start to return, he tells Rutherford a long and remarkable story.

During a revolution in Baskul, Conway, who was the British consul at the time, was evacuated by plane along with three other people. The plane was supposedly heading for Peshawar, but it never arrived and its four passengers were believed to be dead. What Conway tells Rutherfurd, however, is that the plane was hijacked and flown in a different direction, stopping once to refuel and finally crashing to the ground in a mountain valley somewhere in Tibet. The pilot was killed but the passengers survived. Seeking shelter at the nearby lamasery (a monastery for lamas) known as Shangri-La, the group asked for help to continue their journey to Peshawar, but as the days and weeks went by and no help arrived, Conway began to wonder whether their presence at the lamasery was really an accident – and whether they would ever be able to leave.

Shangri-La is a mysterious place; beautiful, but slightly eerie too, I thought. How was such a beautiful building constructed in such a remote location? Who installed the modern western plumbing and who brought the grand piano, the harpsichord and the books for the library, considering that the only way to reach the lamasery (unless you happen to make a crash-landing there) is on foot through the dangerous mountain passes? What is the secret of the lamas, who look so much more youthful than they really are? And where is Shangri-La, exactly? All Conway can deduce is that they have flown “far beyond the western range of the Himalayas towards the less known heights of the Kuen-Lun” and into the shadow of the mountain Karakal, or ‘Blue Moon’.

I found it interesting that Conway’s three companions have such different reactions to their enforced imprisonment in Shangri-La. Mallinson, Conway’s young vice-consul, reacts with anger and frustration, and with every day that passes he becomes more and more desperate to escape; the American businessman, Barnard, is hiding secrets of his own and is content to enjoy the hospitality of the lamasery while looking for money-making opportunities in the valley; and Miss Brinklow, the British missionary, wonders if this is a challenge sent by God and if she has been brought here to carry out His work. The characters (apart from Conway) are thinly drawn, but they serve their purpose in the story – and it could be said that Shangri-La is actually the most important character in the novel anyway.

Conway himself is in no hurry to go anywhere; he is intrigued by the lifestyle of the lamas and the atmosphere of serenity and peace. With his curious, contemplative nature, the philosophy behind the lamasery appeals to him and he becomes captivated by this mystical place where time seems almost to stand still and the pressures of everyday life can be left behind. It is obvious from the framing story set up in the prologue that Conway does, for one reason or another, leave Shangri-La, but it is not at all clear how or why that will happen and this kept me in suspense and kept me turning the pages.

Lost Horizon was another read from my Classics Club list. I am coming to the end of my list now and will soon be putting another one together; I’ll have to think about including one or two more books by James Hilton – probably Random Harvest or Goodbye, Mr Chips. Has anyone read them?

Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham

mystery-mile I often seem to be in the mood for reading mysteries at this time of year and as this one had been on my TBR for months, I found myself reaching for it the week before Christmas. I had read Margery Allingham before – one of her standalones, The White Cottage Mystery, which I enjoyed – and was curious to make the acquaintance of her most famous character, Albert Campion. Mystery Mile is the second in the Campion series, but I had been assured that it wouldn’t matter too much if I didn’t read the books in order.

Mystery Mile opens with an American judge, Crowdy Lobbett, sailing across the Atlantic with his son and daughter, having narrowly escaped several recent attempts on his life. When a further attempt takes place aboard the ship – and is thwarted thanks to a young man with a pet mouse – it is obvious that the gang who want Judge Lobbett dead are still on his trail. On arriving in England, the judge accepts the help of Albert Campion, who brings him to stay with his friends, Biddy and Giles Paget, at their home in Mystery Mile, a small, remote village on the Suffolk coast.

Campion hopes that Judge Lobbett and his children – Marlowe and Isopel – will be safe in the Paget’s house, but when a fortune teller pays a visit and shortly afterwards the village rector is found dead, it becomes clear that they are still not out of danger. Campion and his friends must try to interpret a range of intriguing clues including a red knight from a chess set and a suitcase full of children’s books if they are to solve the mystery and deal with the threat to the judge.

I had mixed feelings about my first Albert Campion novel. I loved the beginning, with the opening scenes on the ship – I thought the way in which Allingham introduced Campion into the story was excellent – and I enjoyed watching the story develop as the group arrived in Mystery Mile and one strange occurrence followed another. The setting is perfect: a mist-shrouded village surrounded by dangerous soft mud which acts like quicksand and a lonely manor house with a garden maze in which it appears that people can disappear without trace. Later, though, when the action moves to London for a while and we meet an assortment of criminals and gang members, the novel loses the quirky country-mystery feel it has at the beginning and I found that the second half of the novel has a very different tone from the first.

As for the character of Albert Campion himself, I couldn’t decide what to think of him! I liked the fact that there is clearly a lot more to him than meets the eye – his relationship with the police is never quite explained, and there are even hints that Albert Campion is not his real name. Although there was something about his constant quips and silly behaviour that I found slightly irritating, I was intrigued because it was obvious that his foolish, flippant public persona is designed to hide his true thoughts and his true intelligence. I can see why he is sometimes compared with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, but based on what I’ve read of both so far, I prefer Sayers and Wimsey. Still, I’m looking forward to reading more books in this series and to meeting Albert Campion again!

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

A Shilling for Candles My first read for this year’s RIP event is this 1936 mystery from Josephine Tey. It’s only the second book I’ve read by Tey – the other was The Daughter of Time, in which Inspector Alan Grant attempts to solve the mystery of Richard III and the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower from his hospital bed. A Shilling for Candles also features Alan Grant but this time he is investigating the murder of Christine Clay, an actress whose body is found washed up on the beach on the south coast of England.

At first it seems that the cause of Christine’s death is either suicide or a tragic accident, but when a coat button is found tangled in her hair it becomes obvious that someone else must have been involved. Suspicion immediately falls upon Robin Tisdall, a young man who has been staying with Christine in her cottage near the beach, but Grant soon has a whole list of other suspects. Could it have been Christine’s rich, aristocratic husband? The American songwriter with whom she is thought to be having an affair? What about her fellow actresses, who could be jealous of Christine’s success, or Lydia Keats, the eccentric astrologer who casts celebrity horoscopes? And then, of course, there’s Christine’s estranged brother, Herbert, who has been left “a shilling for candles” in her will.

I was intrigued by the mystery and enjoyed getting to know the characters; my favourite was Erica Burgoyne, the Chief Constable’s teenage daughter who has an encounter with one of the suspects in the middle of the novel and is inspired to do some investigating of her own. I also liked Tey’s portrayal of life as a celebrity – particularly her descriptions of the negative side of fame and the difficulties famous people can experience in trying to keep their private lives private.

However, I have to confess that I found this book disappointing overall. There just seemed to be too much going on: too many red herrings and too much time spent developing storylines that didn’t really go anywhere. I thought the plot lacked structure and the final solution of the mystery seemed to come out of nowhere – unless I missed an important clue, which is entirely possible! I’m wondering whether the problems I had with this novel could be due to the fact that it’s one of Tey’s earliest; I thought The Daughter of Time (1951) was much better than this one, so maybe her writing improved over the years. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books at some point, so I’ll be able to find out.

If you’ve read anything by Josephine Tey, I’d love to know which of her other books you would recommend. Also, has anyone seen Young and Innocent, the Alfred Hitchcock film based on this book?

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby

Poor Caroline Poor Caroline, published in 1931, is the third book I’ve read by Winifred Holtby. I read both South Riding and The Land of Green Ginger in 2011 and enjoyed both (particularly the wonderful South Riding) so I don’t know why I’ve waited five years to try another of her novels! I enjoyed this one too, although the setting and subject of the book make it very different from the other two I’ve read.

The Caroline of the title is Caroline Denton-Smyth, an elderly spinster who has founded the Christian Cinema Company with the aim of reforming the British film industry. With feathers in her hat and beads around her neck, peering at the world through a pair of lorgnettes, Caroline is a figure of fun – someone to be pitied and certainly not taken too seriously. Caroline herself, however, takes the Christian Cinema Company very seriously indeed and is determined to make it a success. And so, despite having no money herself, she sets out to encourage others to invest in the company and to put together a board of directors.

This is not a novel with a lot of plot; the enjoyment is in getting to know the various people who become involved with Caroline’s business venture in one way or another. First there’s Basil St Denis, an idle, pleasure-seeking young man whose lover, Gloria, persuades him to leave his life of leisure in Monte Carlo to become chairman of the company. Then there’s Joseph Isenbaum, who hopes that joining the board will increase his standing in society and help to secure a place at Eton for his son. Hugh Macafee is an obsessive Scottish scientist who has invented the Tona Perfecta, a new film technique which he is desperate to put to use, while the American scenario writer Clifton Johnson is a greedy, unscrupulous man who, like the others, is interested only in what he can get out of the company.

Not a very pleasant collection of people so far, but there were two more whom I found slightly more likeable: Caroline’s much younger cousin, Eleanor de la Roux, newly arrived in London from South Africa with an independent fortune to invest, and Roger Mortimer, the young priest who falls in love with Eleanor and who is also the object of Caroline’s own affections – leaving her open to even more ridicule, as she is old enough to be Father Mortimer’s grandmother.

Poor Caroline vmc Each of the characters I’ve mentioned is given a chapter of his or her own, so that we have the chance to see things from several different points of view and add to what we know of Caroline, of the other characters and of the Christian Cinema Company. Although the opinions of Caroline differ from character to character – some view her with scorn, some with pity and some with frustration – each chapter ends with the same words: poor Caroline!

Caroline is an unusual heroine; being almost seventy-two at the time of our story, she devotes herself to her cause with an impressive amount of energy and enthusiasm, yet this devotion makes her unrealistic about what she is likely to actually achieve and blind to the things which are more important in life. She is not always a nice person and, as her family like to point out, she has spent a lifetime borrowing money from people knowing that she will never be able to give it back. Despite all this, I had a lot of sympathy for Caroline and couldn’t help admiring her as well as feeling sorry for her. Even though it seemed obvious that the Christian Cinema Company was doomed to failure, for poor Caroline’s sake I wanted it to succeed.

Reading Poor Caroline has reminded me of how much I like Winifred Holtby’s writing. I’m glad I still have a few more of her novels to look forward to – if you’ve read any of them please let me know what you thought!

God and the Wedding Dress by Marjorie Bowen

the-1938-club After the success of last year’s 1924 Club, Karen (of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Simon (of Stuck in a Book) are back with The 1938 Club, the idea being that bloggers read and review books published in 1938, building up a picture of the literary scene in that year. I found lots of possibilities – 1938 seems to have been a particularly great year for literature – but I knew I was only going to have time to read one of them. Luckily the book that I decided on turned out to be a good choice for me.

The intriguingly titled God and the Wedding Dress is set in the seventeenth century in the village of Eyam in England’s Peak District. William Mompesson, the new Rector of Eyam, has recently arrived in the village with his wife, Kate, their two young children and Kate’s sister, Bessie, but the family are finding it difficult to adjust to their new life. They have all been used to luxury and comfort, but Mompesson’s new position requires them to live within their means, avoiding unnecessary extravagance. With Bessie’s marriage to the wealthy John Corbyn quickly approaching, however, the women are determined to make it a day to remember and so they send to London for a beautiful – and very expensive – dress.

God and the Wedding Dress Unfortunately, both women are unaware that with plague sweeping across London, Mompesson has been advised not to have any contact with people or items coming from the capital. By the time the Rector hears about the wedding dress, it’s too late: it has already been delivered to the tailor, the box has been opened, and the tailor’s apprentice is about to die a rapid and unpleasant death. It seems that the plague has arrived in Eyam.

What follows is a story which is both depressing and inspiring; the story of a small community working together in the face of unimaginable horrors, making sacrifices for the good of others which will have deadly consequences for themselves. It’s also a true story, based on the real events of 1665/66 (it’s not the only novel to have tackled this subject – Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders is also set in Eyam, although I haven’t read that one yet). Eyam itself really exists and is known today as ‘the Plague Village’, while many of the characters, including William Mompesson, were real people too.

Although we do change perspective from time to time, most of the story is told from Mompesson’s point of view, which I thought was the right decision. Mompesson, like his wife and sister-in-law, likes the finer things in life, but also has a desire to live the way his parishioners expect the Rector of Eyam to live. He is in conflict with himself, but also with the people around him. At first he views the villagers as little more than pagans, trusting to spells and charms to protect them from the plague. He finds it difficult to gain their respect and it is only when he joins forces with Thomas Stanley, the former Puritan minister of Eyam who was appointed during the time of Oliver Cromwell and who lost his position following the restoration of the monarchy, that Mompesson really begins to feel part of the community.

In her foreword, Marjorie Bowen states that there are many different types of historical novel and ‘this author has tried most of them’ which may sound conceited until you look at the very long and impressive list of books she wrote! I have read three of them in recent months (the other two being Dickon, a fictional biography of Richard III, and The Viper of Milan, a wonderful story set in Renaissance Italy) and I can say that the three I’ve read are all quite different in subject, style and tone. This is a quieter, more reflective novel, as much about a man’s inner struggles as it is about the history surrounding him.

I enjoyed God and the Wedding Dress, although it is obviously not the most cheerful of novels and not one to read if you need all of your characters to have a happy ending. It’s a fascinating story, though, and an important one because I think the sacrifice made by the people of Eyam deserves to be remembered.

~

Other 1938 books previously reviewed on this blog:

Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

“On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells, and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like black beetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances.”

The Road to Wigan Pier I am working very slowly through George Orwell’s books, having read Keep the Aspidistra Flying last year and Coming Up for Air the year before, as well as 1984 and Animal Farm as a teenager (I should probably re-read those two one day). The Road to Wigan Pier is the first example of his non-fiction I have read.

Published in 1937, this book was commissioned by the publisher Victor Gollancz, who wanted Orwell to write about the living conditions of the unemployed in the north of England, particularly in the industrial towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Orwell spent several months in 1936 living in Wigan, Sheffield and Barnsley while he researched the book…which turned out to be not quite what Gollancz had hoped for. When it was issued by the Left Book Club, Gollancz was concerned that members would be offended by some of the ideas expressed in the book and added a foreword in which he distanced himself from Orwell’s views.

The Road to Wigan Pier is divided into two very different parts. The first half documents Orwell’s time spent in the north, staying with working class people and studying the way they lived. Orwell’s observations are honest, vivid and non-judgmental, and this is by far the most interesting section of the book. Although he was originally asked to write about the unemployed – which he does – he also writes about those who are employed but still living in poverty, and he devotes a lot of time to describing the working conditions of one sector of workers in particular: the miners. Orwell went down a coal mine himself as part of his research, in an attempt to understand what it was like, and the respect he gained for the miners is clear.

I found it fascinating to read Orwell’s descriptions of the houses he visited and stayed in: the layouts of the buildings, the furnishings and amenities (or lack of them) and the sleeping arrangements. The levels of squalor in which families with young children were living is shocking to read about. Here is one of the many examples Orwell gives of the notes he made while inspecting these houses:

1. House in Wortley Street. Two up, one down. Living-room 12 ft. by 10 ft. Sink and copper in living-room, coal hole under stairs. Sink worn almost flat and constantly overflowing. Walls not too sound. Penny in slot gas-light. House very dark and gas-light estimated at 4d. a day. Upstairs rooms are really one large room partitioned into two. Walls very bad — wall of back room cracked right through. Window frames coming to pieces and have to be stuffed with wood. Rain comes through in several places. Sewer runs under house and stinks in summer but Corporation ‘says they can’t do nowt’. Six people in house, two adults and four children, the eldest aged fifteen. Youngest but one attending hospital — tuberculosis suspected. House infested by bugs. Rent 5s. 3d., including rates.

The Penguin Classics edition I read includes a selection of photographs so you can see what these homes looked like (although, curiously, most of them are pictures of buildings in Wales and London rather than the northern towns discussed in the text). Being from the north myself I feel I should point out here that, thankfully, things have changed drastically since the 1930s! The slums were cleared long ago and towns and cities have been regenerated; some areas are still suffering from the loss of heavy industry, and poverty still exists, of course, but not on the scale or of the type Orwell describes in this book.

The second half of the book takes the form of a long essay in which Orwell talks about his own upbringing as a member of what he calls ‘the lower-upper-middle class’ and how this affected the way he felt about the unemployed and working classes (he grew up, he says, being told that working class people smell). He goes on to explain how his attitudes began to change and to discuss his theories on socialism, the class system and left-wing politics. He also takes the opportunity to criticise the views of his fellow socialists, which is what sent Victor Gollancz into a panic. While I found this part of the book much less compelling than the first (I have to confess that I found my attention wandering a few times and had to force myself to concentrate), it was still interesting to read.

Because Orwell puts so much of himself into this book, it has given me a better appreciation of what he was trying to say about class and capitalism in novels like Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I’m now looking forward to reading Down and Out in Paris and London!