Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth.

You know, I’d decided to stay away from horror and the resolve seems to have lasted barely two months and about twelve books. I suppose Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier isn’t horror in the strictest sense, it’s a mystery and a romance; but it is ruthless, daring, packed with haunting emotion and brutally honest; which makes it everything I wished to avoid about horror and am glad I didn’t.

Summary: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This is definitely one of the most iconic book beginnings ever. Right from the very first words, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier maintains an engrossing style. The book begins with our narrator giving us glimpses of her life in the present in a hotel, with her husband, and nostalgic memories of another life, in a place called Manderley that she dares not mention to her husband. Then our unnamed narrator takes us back to when she first met her husband, Maxim de Winter, in Monte Carlo.

When they first meet, the narrator is a naive twenty one year old orphan working as a lady’s maid for the insufferable Mrs. Van Hopper. Maxim de Winter is a handsome middle aged gentleman who is known for his fabulous house, Manderley, and the fact that his wife drowned a year ago. Both find escape from their lives in each other’s company, and when it’s time for the narrator to leave to New York with her gossipy employer, Maxim de Winter proposes to her and offers her to accompany him to Manderley.

‘A little while ago you talked about an invention,’ he said, ‘some scheme for capturing a memory. You would like, you told me, at a chosen moment to live the past again. I’m afraid I think rather differently from you. All memories are bitter, and I prefer to ignore them. Something happened a year ago that altered my whole life, and I want to forget every phase in my existence up to that time. (…) You have blotted out the past for me, you know, far more effectively that all the bright lights of Monte Carlo.’

But in Manderley, which is scenic and mesmerizing, things aren’t as easy as the new Mrs. de Winter supposed. She can see her husband is happy at home, but he’s also distant, and prone to the oddest mood swings. And as she soon begins to discover, the house and its people and relations are still stuck in the past. The the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, looms over the narrator, stifling her, making her an intruder on her own life. Wherever she goes, it’s Rebecca this, Rebecca that, “she was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.” Their neighbours, the narrator feels, compare her with Rebecca and she falls short. Rebecca’s old lady’s maid, Mrs. Danvers hates the narrator for trying to replace her mistress, and tries to sabotage her relationship with Manderley at every turn. The gossip torments our uneducated, untrained, innocent narrator and the expectations bog her down.

And in the midst of it all, there’s the mystery of Rebecca’s death. As if an accomplished sailor drowning in her own boat wasn’t odd enough, the narrator finds Mrs. Danvers and a strange man in Rebecca’s old room, Maxim pales at even the barest mention of his first wife, a crazy guy called Ben living in the cottage where Rebecca spent her many nights has freaky things to say about her, and as the narrator tries to piece together the tragedy of Manderley, she wonders if Maxim would ever love her as he loved Rebecca.

My thoughts: The narration is evocative, urgent, authentic. The descriptions are vivid, richly suspenseful. But for me, it’s the construction of the book, the falling in to place like a puzzle of the story, the timelines, the little technical details like never revealing the narrator’s name, and never actually showing us Rebecca, we see not even a picture, only the impression she’s left on those alive and what the narrator makes of it, the truth revealed is all the more shocking hence. I love the writer for showing us just enough to help us guess the truth on our own. At the end it’s not a story we’ve been told, it’s something we’ve experienced – and that lends it its intellectual charm.

For the first time in a long time, I wrote about the book first in my diary and am now typing it out. I’ve written three pages of notes. I’ve written how I love the brooding aristocratic Maxim and his relationships, especially with his sister and his ever carefully calm and composed exterior. It occurs to me how you can never guess the torment inside anybody, no matter how well you think you know them. Poring over my notes, I realize I could never fit them into a conventional review; the scenes that stand clear in my memory; how Mrs. Danvers tried to coax the narrator into taking her life, how the narrator burnt the page of the book of poems with Rebecca’s writing on it, how she seethed at the thought of Rebecca calling her husband Max and how even at the end the narrator never did end up calling him that, how she never fit in, accidentally saying Mrs. de Winter was dead when she answered the phone, how she never second guessed her judgments nor doubted her self image. It’s a coming of age story; a story of her youth through the voice of her aged wisdom. At twenty one, I find Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier perfect in some places and mysteriously irrelevant in others, the book is terrible in so many ways, but it also makes me just a little hopeful.

They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word. Today, wrapped in the complacent armour of approaching middle age, the infinitesimal pricks of day by day brush one but lightly and are soon forgotten, but then – how a careless word would linger, becoming a fiery stigma, and how a look, a glance over a shoulder, branded themselves as things eternal.

A few weeks ago I told someone I don’t like Romantic books. It was in reference to Frankenstein, which isn’t my favourite book at all. That being said, that was a generalization that I would like to take back. From now on, when someone says gothic romance, I’ll think of Rebecca and be happy, and sad. What a book. The funny thing is, I’m already reading the book again as I type this and it is still just as engaging. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you to read this book. If you have, tell me, did you like it?

I might say that we have paid for freedom. But I have had enough melodrama in this life, and would willingly give my five senses if they could ensure us our present peace and security. Happiness is not a possession to be prized, it is a quality of thought, a state of mind of course we have on moments of depression; but there are other moments too, when time, unmeasured by the clock, runs on into eternity.

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

I read this as a part of the Back to Classics Challenge hosted at Sarah Reads Too Much. This is a “classic set in a place you’re unlikely to visit” : Wessex, England, because it’s fictional 🙂

Summary: Earlier: Michael Henchard, a common hay-trusser, gets drunk at a country fair and sells his wife and daughter to another man for five guineas. Susan, believing the sale to be binding and legal, goes off with the sailor, whom she considers to be her new husband. The next morning, realizing his mistake, Henchard swears off drinking for the next twenty one years.
At Present: Susan, after the seeming death of her husband (the sailor) sets off to find Henchard. She is accompanied by her eighteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who still believes the sailor to be her real father. Reaching the town of Casterbridge, the mother and daughter find out that Henchard is now a wealthy merchant, and also, the Mayor of the town. The story progresses as Susan and her old husband plan to get together, without letting their daughter know their little secret.

My Thoughts: About a month ago we were having a discussion in drama class about Macbeth, and how it was his choices that led to his destruction and that he chose his destiny. Someone mentioned deus ex machina and that led to a conversation about Thomas Hardy. I read this book because we were supposed to compare Shakespearean tragedies with the tragic novels written by Hardy. I do believe in fate; rather, our inability to change it. But I also think that life gives us this illusion of control, the right to make choices. Whether these do affect/shape our fate is another point entirely, but I believe in accepting and exercising that right and making the correct choices. I don’t think our life is a haphazard network of incidents over which we have no command. I genuinely don’t believe our lives are like any of Hardy’s poor old characters.

Throughout the novel, any major plot change occurs only due to some supposed accident or a convenient death or disappearance. I think a plot should work itself out, develop from the inside. After a certain number of pages, the writer shouldn’t have to introduce any major events that aren’t controlled by his characters. I don’t agree with that very basic thing that the book tries to reinforce: that nothing, including redemption, is really in our hands – that “happiness (is) but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.” (Say it were true, which I don’t think it is, even then – I would like my books to provide me with an inkling of that happiness rather than a 300-page-long description of that pain that I apparently suffer all the time.) The idea is depressing and so is the novel.

None of the characters stood out or made any strong impression on me. Michael Henchard is a petty coward and there’s nothing pleasing about him whatsoever (though that was how he was supposed to be.) I was particularly annoyed by all female characters in the novel and the only words used to describe them: weak, plain, simple, dull. At one point, Henchard actually tells his wife that he doesn’t blame her for not understanding, that he knows that she can’t help being so simple – or something of the sort. I know I ought to put such things in context, relate them to the time when the book was written, but it is just too condescending and irritating to ignore. Ever Donald Farfrae, one of the better characters, was ultimately just a flimsy author’s puppet used to keep the story in motion.

The Mayor of Casterbridge was not too long and it was also easy to read. I actually loved the style of writing. But does that really even matter? I finally read Hamlet, and I do think that tragedy as a result of bad choices works much better than tragedy as a result of just plain bad luck. What do you think?