Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! This month’s novel is Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. It has nothing to do with Thanksgiving because it’s British, but it’s a fun read anyway.
We start with a lovely daydream where our narrator envisions she is a ghost haunting an estate called Manderly, which no longer exists. We don’t really care about this yet, but it’ll make more sense by the time we get to the end. She wakes up and continues to reminisce about the past, remembering the first time she met the owner of Manderly, Mr. Maximilian de Winter: she is employed as a companion for the outspoken and snobbish (and American) Mrs. Van Hopper, and the three of them have an awkward tea session while vacationing in Monte Carlo. When Mrs. Van Hopper comes down with the flu or the vapors or some similar plot device, our narrator is forced to dine alone and somehow ends up spilling a vase on herself. She becomes instantly relatable. Mr. de Winter invites her to his own table, and has her explain that she is paid to be a companion because her family is all dead. The two discuss how lovely and unusual her name is, but unfortunately we readers just have to use our imaginations because they’re never going to tell us what it is.
By the end of their long discussion, Mr. de Winter informs her she should quit her job because she’s too young and soft (of course, she also withholds her age from us, too – probably so we don’t fret about legality issues). Since she has some vacation time thanks to her mistress’ illness, our narrator decides to get in this strange man’s car and accompany him to the beach. They laugh the whole drive down, but when they get to the sea, Mr. de Winter gets out, broods for a few minutes and declares that the place hasn’t changed. He drives them home, lends her a book of poetry and kicks her out of his car. She looks at the book of poetry and finds the inscription inside that reads “Max—From Rebecca.” Thus begins the mystery.
Instead of calling him out on his unsubtle regifting practices, our narrator spends more time with him. She lies to Mrs. Van Hopper and says she is learning tennis instead of cavorting with strangers every day. It takes our narrator a few days to wonder why this man is driving her places, and he is pretty vague about the answer, except to say that she helps him forget whatever happened to his wife a year ago. He nearly throws her out of the car for asking but instead just makes her cry and kisses her hand. He hugs her close and tells her to call him Maxim. A few mixed signals here.
Our narrator is distraught when Mrs. Van Hopper is suddenly ready to go home to New York. She visits Maxim in his room while he’s shaving to tell him the news. (Oh, the scandal.) At breakfast, he asks her if she’d rather go to New York with Van Hopper or to his home at Manderly with him. When she still seems confused and asks if he wants to hire her as his secretary or something, he replies “No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” What a romantic. She remains confused by this sudden escalation of events and he turns the question back on her again. She starts crying again because she loves him, and he assumes it’s settled. He assures her that her duties to him will be just like her duties to Mrs. Van Hopper, though she mustn’t let him run out of his favorite brand of toothpaste. We’re still not entirely sure if he’s joking.
Our narrator doesn’t answer, though – she has already started imagining her idyllic life as Mrs. de Winter. Maxim decides they should probably explain things to Mrs. Van Hopper, who has been wondering where her companion has been this whole time. While Maxim does this, our narrator is still imagining everyone declaring how romantic the whole thing has been. And because everything is so romantic, she decides to cut Rebecca’s inscription out of the book of poetry, tear it into little bits and throw it in the fireplace.
Mrs. Van Hopper is (rightfully) upset about the subterfuge of “tennis” that our narrator has been up to, and doesn’t seem impressed by the fact that Maxim is only 42. She’s pretty sure it’s going to be a big mistake, and thinks he’s only married her because Manderly is so big and empty.
Skip to the point after the wedding and the honeymoon (because they’re minor details) when they arrive at Manderly. Our narrator is understandably nervous, as her arrival means that the entire staff has gathered out of curiosity to watch her come in. She is introduced to everyone and Mrs. Danvers stands out in particular as a creepy skeletal old housekeeper who will surely be no trouble whatsoever.
Our narrator then has the thrilling afternoon of drinking tea in complete silence while Maxim reads his mail. Oh, marital bliss. In her boredom, she starts to imagine their lives in old age with obnoxious children. She is later taken to her new quarters, which have been renovated, while Danvers informs her that she’s been here since the first Mrs. de Winter came as a bride. Our narrator offers to be friends, if only to kill the awkward silence, and assures her that she can keep doing her job like she’s always done.
Maxim comes in, delighted at how the redecorating has turned out, and asks what his wife thinks of Danvers. She replies “a little bit stiff” which is kind of an understatement, as “a walking corpse” might be nearer the truth. Maxim doesn’t see anything odd about her (which amuses me to no end). As they lounge by the fire after dinner, our narrator is struck by the morbid thought that she is sitting in Rebecca’s chair with Rebecca’s cushions.
The next morning, Maxim is quite busy, but says his sister will pay a visit to entertain his new wife. Our narrator laments that she’s not wasting away the day by the sea with her new husband, arm in arm, but is quickly jolted out of her daydreams by the servants, coming to clean up breakfast. She goes up to her room, but maids are busy in there, too, and she feels awkward trying to find out where she belongs at this time of day (and if that isn’t one of the most realistic portrayals of adjustment to a different lifestyle, I don’t know what is).
She ends up in the “morning room” where she finds a neatly organized collection of letters, menus, and a record of guests who have visited. Like taking over the desk of a previous coworker who met with a tragic accident, our narrator feels a bit weird. Suddenly, the telephone rings and Danvers asks for Mrs. de Winter. Our narrator informs her that Mrs. de Winter’s been dead for a year. An awkward pause later, she realizes that she is Mrs. de Winter and that Danvers probably thinks she is an idiot. Danvers has probably already figured this out and she carries on, asking about the menu and informing her of how to send out all her letters. After hanging up, our heroine stares at the “letters-unanswered” folder, which is fortunately empty because she probably wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway. (Too bad they don’t teach a class in household management for new brides.) Out of extreme boredom, she starts to write a letter to Mrs. Van Hopper, because she can’t think of anyone else to write to.
She hears a car pull up, and thinks about appropriate hiding places so she doesn’t have to meet Maxim’s sister without him. She runs through corridors and somehow stumbles into the west wing, with furniture covered by dust sheets and the sound of the sea. Danvers finds her, and it’s hard to tell if she’s angry or just mildly annoyed. It’s Rebecca’s wing, after all. Danvers offers to show the west wing any time our narrator would like, just tell her when, with an emphasis on the “tell me.”
Danvers takes her back to meet Maxim’s sister, Beatrice, her husband, and a friend. After a few awkward conversations, Beatrice mentions that Danvers adored Rebecca (which is probably why she’s always glaring daggers at the new Mrs. de Winter). Beatrice is surprised because the new Mrs. de Winter not a bit like Rebecca.
Time passes, and our narrator grows even more intimidated by the memory of Rebecca, hardly daring to speak her name or ask about the mysterious furnished cottage down by the docks. She does finally get Frank the estate manager to talk, and we learn a little about Rebecca drowning in the bay and washing up on the beach months later. Our narrator remains terrified of Danvers, and barely has the guts to make menu changes, let alone confess to breaking one of the creepy yet valuable little cupids decorating the mansion. She has difficulty adjusting to her life as a trophy wife, and complains about it to her husband, who doesn’t see a problem unless it’s that he’s not much of a companion for her. She assures him that he’s like a father, brother, and son to her, all of which are pretty creepy things to call your husband.
When Maxim goes out of town, our narrator goes down to the beach. She chats with Ben, the slightly unhinged local who, like everyone else, remarks that she isn’t like “the other one.” Unlike the rest, however, he describes Rebecca as a snake who threatened to put him in an asylum if he told anyone she’d been at the dock. Our narrator assumes he’s just talking crazy and makes her way home. She sees a strange man at the window and overhears Danvers telling the mysterious man how to sneak out without being seen.
He runs into our narrator anyway and offers her a cigar. Since the game is up, Danvers introduces him as Mr. Favell, and it becomes very apparent that he is not welcome as a guest. He makes the new Mrs. de Winter uncomfortable, and finds it funny when she offers him tea out of politeness. He declines and has her walk him to his car, where he asks her not to mention his visit . It’s more than a little suspicious, and our heroine is smart enough to realize that he chose the perfect time when everyone was scheduled to be out of the house for his visit.
Our narrator wanders into Rebecca’s room and fondles her clothes. Danvers catches her and offers to show her everything in the creepiest way possible. She insists that she touch Rebecca’s nightdress again (never been washed since she last slept in it!) and that she feel how soft her slippers were and how Rebecca used to insist that Maxim brush her hair for 20 minutes a day and how the rocks battered her body to bits when she washed up on the shore. Danvers asks her if she also feels the presence of Rebecca drifting through the house, watching them. It is entirely possible that this lady is quite obsessed and a bit unhinged.
Our narrator feels ill for quite awhile after these revelations. She finds out from Beatrice that Jack Favell was apparently Rebecca’s cousin and someone Beatrice doesn’t much want to discuss. Beatrice instead takes her to see Maxim’s senile blind grandma, who can’t remember one conversation to the next, but wants to see Rebecca anyway and throws an awkward little tantrum when our narrator turns out not to be her.
Eventually, the de Winters give in to societal pressure to throw a fancy dress party, though neither of them are particularly interested. Maxim refuses to dress up, but suggests that his wife go as Alice in Wonderland. (Exactly how old is she?!) Our narrator frets over a costume, determined to make it a surprise for everyone. Danvers suggests using one of the portraits in the gallery as inspiration, particularly the girl in white. While this should send off warning bells automatically, our narrator takes her suggestion anyway.
As preparations get underway, the de Winters commiserate over tea and look forward to a time when they don’t have to throw parties. In spite of this, our narrator finds herself quite excited about her costume by the time the party rolls around. She has the staff announce her entrance, but when she appears at the top of the stairs, the crowd goes quiet and pale, and Maxim sends her back to change into something else. She runs off, nearly careening into Danvers (wearing the unsubtle expression of an exultant Disney villain on her face) before tripping over and ruining her dress on her way back to her room.
It turns out that the costume was the exact same one that Rebecca had worn at her last party. Our narrator changes and sulks for awhile before making her way down to mingle with her dull guests. Maxim is not there when she wakes up the next morning, and she concludes that her marriage is a failure because they are all haunted by Rebecca.
No one has seen Maxim, so our narrator visits Danvers, who’s been crying like an actual person and not a Disney villain. It turns into a confrontational showdown as Danvers confesses that she hates the new Mrs. de Winter for trying to take Rebecca’s place, hates Maxim for replacing her, and especially hates the fact that everyone calls the new bride “Mrs. de Winter.” (Come on, though – it’s not the new Mrs. de Winter’s fault that no one thought to give her a first name.) Danvers reminisces about a Rebecca who cared for nothing and nobody but herself and apparently didn’t mind cheating on her husband – a real role model. Danvers then encourages our narrator to jump out the window to end it all. (Wait, what? Why?)
Suddenly they hear rockets exploding and completely forget about the whole suicide-encouragement thing as they realize that a ship has been stranded in the bay and they should probably help. Well, Danvers goes to prepare a meal for potential victims and our narrator just goes to watch. As she’s eating lunch, the captain of the ship comes in and tells her that while they were digging the ship out, they found Rebecca’s sunken boat and a body in its cabin.
After the captain leaves, our narrator finally confronts her husband, who laments that they’ve lost their chance of happiness and that Rebecca has won. She’s a bit puzzled by this sentence, until Maxim explains that the body in Rebecca’s crypt is some Jane Doe, while Rebecca’s actual body is in the cabin of her boat. He happens to know this because he’s the one who shot her in the sea cottage, put her on the boat, and sank it.
While our narrator is completely stunned by this turn of events, Maxim tells her he loves her and they make out. It turns out he hated Rebecca all along because she was evil and clever. When he had discovered her cheating on him five days after their wedding, she offered to run the house so well that they’d be famous for miles around as long as she could do whatever she wanted. She kept that promise, except her private affairs tended to become a little more public than Maxim liked. He followed Rebecca to the cottage by the sea one evening, where she confessed that she was pregnant, gloated for awhile, and then he shot her. He dragged her to the boat, down into the cabin, and sailed it out to sea where he punctured a hole in the bottom. He sailed home in a dinghy and went to bed. When a different body washed up later, he identified it as his wife.
Now that she knows her husband doesn’t love Rebecca, our heroine is full of ideas and intelligence, and tells him he must act as though the body identification was a mistake. With her new-found spine, she also decides that Danvers’ menu of party leftovers is not appealing today and sends for a hot meal. She doesn’t answer Danvers’ questions and starts ordering the servants around like she’s some mistress of the house or something to the point where even her husband is amazed at her change.
The news of finding the body hits the papers, of course, and even when our narrator hides the local ones, the story shows up in London news as well. She suspects that Frank knows the truth, but doesn’t want it known that he knows, and so they all dance around each other at meals.
Maxim later attends the inquest into the boat discovery. Our narrator waits in the car for most of it, but slips inside at the moment that it’s the shipmaker’s turn to give evidence about how he’s noticed that the pipes were opened and there were holes drilled into the bottom. Our narrator chooses this point to swoon a bit and so we don’t get to hear the rest of the proceedings.
When she wakes up, she frets awhile and imagines Maxim’s hanging and the newspaper headlines. He gets home eventually and we find out Rebecca’s case was ruled a suicide. Maxim goes to the church with a few others to bury the correct Rebecca in the correct tomb, and our heroine encounters Favell. Favell, it appears, has kept Rebecca’s last note to him, asking him to meet her urgently, which makes him suspect that her death was not a suicide, but likely a murder by her husband. Well, he’s not wrong. He is willing to keep the note to himself for a small fee of two or three thousand per year for life. Maxim doesn’t give in to the blackmail and instead calls the magistrate. When the man gets there, Favell tells him everything he knows, and starts to cackle. This, of course, makes the magistrate think he’s drunk. Maxim calmly explains how Favell tried to blackmail him, and the judge believes him.
Favell offers to provide a witness, and Frank goes off to get Ben, the resident simpleton. Of course, his plan backfires when Ben says he doesn’t recognize Favell. This gets Favell upset enough to bring in another witness, Danvers. The poor magistrate at this point is probably wondering why they didn’t do this earlier in the courtroom and why he’s not getting paid for working overtime.
Favell asks Danvers if Rebecca was in love with him. She says no, Rebecca was just playing games with every man she slept with. The magistrate asks if she happened to know why Rebecca might have killed herself and fortunately, Danvers keeps Rebecca’s diary in her shrine to Mrs. de Winter the First. They have another clue now, with “Baker” written in Rebecca’s appointment book. This suddenly turns into a detective novel as they track Baker down to a doctor’s office, and they decide to pay him a visit the next morning. By this time, Danvers has begun to suspect Maxim, and Frank has realized it. Everyone is side-eyeing each other, which is my favorite kind of mystery novel trope.
While everyone tries to settle for the evening, Beatrice calls, quite upset about the whole suicide verdict. She’s pretty sure they can get it changed to death by tramps or communists or something if they just call in the right judge, and our narrator tries to persuade her from drawing more attention to the case. What a helpful sister.
In the morning, the de Winters and the poor magistrate pack for London and finally find Doctor Baker. He doesn’t recall a Rebecca de Winter, but there was a Danvers at the appointed time, and she matched the description of Rebecca. Her illness, it appears, was a cancerous malformation of the uterus which would have been painful and eventually fatal. Fortunately, this matches up quite well to the suicide excuse, but not very well to her telling Maxim she was pregnant. In any event, it completely destroys Favell’s case and Maxim drives everyone else to a hotel for dinner to celebrate.
Maxim tells his wife that he’s pretty sure Rebecca lied so that he would shoot her. So…suicide by proxy? Maxim calls Frank to let him know the results, and finds out that Danvers has cleared out of the house. This freaks him out, while our naive little narrator is just glad they won’t have to see her again. In fact, she’s determined to turn over a new leaf and start managing the servants and having babies and all sorts of things that proper ladies do. Maybe she’ll even come up with some people to write letters to.
Maxim just wants to get home as quickly as possible. As he drives through the night, our narrator drifts off in the car and dreams of her dog chasing butterflies and writing invitations and such. She dreams of Rebecca’s hair changing into snakes like Medusa (and one could certainly write a literary essay on that mythological connection) and wakes up shouting that they should go to Switzerland. As one does. It’s two in the morning and she thinks the light breaking over the hills in the west looks like the beginning of a beautiful sunrise.
Except that it’s two in the morning.
And the sun doesn’t rise in the west.
And Manderly is on fire.
And that’s how this delightful little novel ends. Guess they won’t have to worry about throwing any more boring parties after all.