Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Adventure classics -- Haunted by the past


by Daphne du Maurier


It’s got one of the most famous opening lines in fiction, a house that puts Downton Abbey to shame, and an unforgettable title character -- who just happens to be dead. Who couldn’t love Rebecca? Maybe not Daphne du Maurier. The author of dozens of novels, short story collections, plays and biographies claimed she never understood why the 1938 book she termed a “rather grim” study in jealousy became an instant bestseller.

But it was in her role as “the author of ‘Rebecca,’” as her 1989 obituary in the New York Times characterized her, that she received letters from readers for the rest of her life.

The novel’s never-named young narrator marries wealthy widower Maxim de Winter. After their whirlwind courtship, de Winter takes his new bride home to Manderley, his magnificent house in Cornwall. There, the new bride discovers her husband is haunted by the memory of his first wife, the beautiful and dashing Rebecca, who seems to have charmed everyone who knew her, leaving mousey wife number two feeling decidedly second-rate.

If you haven’t read the book, or seen the several movie and TV versions of the story -- beware, this post contains spoilers. While the second Mrs. de Winter fears her husband regrets their marriage, comparing her to his incomparable first wife, the yacht on which Rebecca took her final voyage is found. And although de Winter previously identified a battered corpse as his supposedly drowned wife, the boat holds a body which is undeniably Rebecca’s. And undeniably not dead of natural causes. Was it suicide, murder, or a terrible accident?

The novel makes it murder by de Winter, goaded by Rebecca’s taunts of her infidelity as she knows herself to be dying from cancer. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 movie version turns the death into an accident, almost a suicide by proxy.

“America’s Motion Picture Production Code refused to let a hero kill even a promiscuous wife and end the movie unpunished,” writes literature professor Nina Auerbach in Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress. “Moreover, not only (lead actor Lawrence) Olivier, but also Ronald Colman, who had turned down the part, refused to alienate audiences by killing Rebecca.”

In the end, Rebecca dominates the book, psychologically destroying de Winter and his beloved estate of Manderley, which her worshipful, psychotic housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, burns down after learning the manner of Rebecca’s death.

Du Maurier claimed she never gave a name to the second Mrs. de Winter because “I could not think of one, and it became a challenge in technique.” In truth, no name she chose could have rivaled Rebecca’s.

Unlike Rebecca herself, the story refuses to die. It’s been remade many times, most recently in a 2008 Bollywood version, with rumors of a new remake by DreamWorks. For a link to the complete Hitchcock version, see du Maurier’s official website,

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a March of thrillers and suspense with Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Yes, I’d promised Jules Verne, but I’m reading a biography of a paleontologist and have dinosaurs on the brain. Verne will get his turn later this month.)

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