This is my year of horrible reading. I am
reading the classics of horror fiction during the
course of 2016, and each week will write about
a significant work in the genre. You are invited
to join me in my annus horribilis. During the
course of the year—if we survive—we will
have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts,
demons, vampires, and monsters of all
denominations. Check back each week for a
new title...but remember to bring along garlic,
silver bullets and a protective amulet. T.G.
|How Daphne du Maurier's
Rebecca Got R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Considered a lowbrow romance when it was
first published, Rebecca has belatedly gained
recognition as a Gothic suspense masterpiece
by Ted Gioia
"Rebecca is a lowbrow story with a middlebrow finish,” announced The Times
Literary Supplement when Daphne du Maurier’s bestselling novel was first
issued in 1938. Critic V.S. Pritchett was even more
dismissive in his review, announcing that Rebecca
"would be here today, gone tomorrow." The novel
did generate positive coverage in Good Housekeeping
and Ladies Home Journal, but that kind of praise
did more harm than good in elite literary circles.
Du Maurier, for her part, chafed at the notion that
she wrote formulaic romances for the mass market.
Her publisher hardly helped her cause (although
perhaps elevated her sales) by the supermarket-rack
look of their cheap paperback editions of her books.
I can hardly blame critic Sam Jordison for admitting
that "before I read Rebecca I always thought of Du
Maurier as a slightly more sophisticated Barbara
Readers take note: Rebecca has had a makeover—
not the text itself, which hasn't changed, but rather
its positioning in the literary universe. This novel has
slowly climbed the path from lowbrow to highbrow in
the eight decades since its initial publication, and is now more likely encountered
on a college syllabus than at a supermarket checkout counter. You will now find
Rebecca on the assigned reading lists of classes on gender politics, British fiction,
Gothic style and other academic subjects. In short, Rebecca has gotten classy.
It perhaps helps that the cover of my current-day edition dispenses with
romance, and instead features a sober, sepia-toned photo of an autumn landscape.
But the credit really goes to du Maurier, who never wrote down to her readers,
and at her best was a prose stylist of the highest rank. As a result, what was once
considered by many an escapist romance is now lauded as a classic of modern
Gothic, and a textbook example of how to intensify narrative suspense through
indirection and ambiance.
Indeed, the title heroine never appears in these
pages. The story begins after the death of Rebecca
de Winter, when her distraught husband Maxim
is trying to forget the circumstances surrounding
her demise. But Rebecca haunts almost every page
of this novel. Over the course of 400 pages, readers
will follow the course of Maxim's second courtship
and marriage, to the unnamed woman who narrates
our tale, but a story-behind-the-story also gradually
emerges, and eventually dominates the book, about
the first Mrs. de Winter and her almost hypnotic hold on everyone she knew.
Rebecca ranks among the most acute literary explorations of jealousy, and I
suspect that much of its verisimilitude comes from the firsthand experiences of its
author. Six years before the publication of Rebecca, the author married British
military hero Frederick 'Boy' Browning, who had previously been engaged to
Jeannette Ricardo, a glamorous, vivacious young woman who bears more than a
little resemblance to the fictional Rebecca. The wedding was postponed, and
eventually the engagement was broken, but in the early days of du Maurier's
subsequent marriage, she discovered old letters from Ricardo—who signed her
name with a flamboyant capital R much like Rebecca—and began to fear that her
husband might still hanker after his old flame. In an eerie twist to the story, Jan
Ricardo committed suicide in 1944 at age 39, the real-life Rebecca dying young
much like the fictional one.
Other details in Rebecca are drawn
from du Maurier’s married life, in
particular the estate Manderley,
ancestral home of the de Winter family.
This setting, almost as important as plot
and character in the success of Rebecca,
is based on Menabilly in Cornwall, where
du Maurier lived from 1943 to 1969. She
also added details from the more lavish
Milton Hall in Cambridgeshire, a stately
residence she had visited several times
during her childhood. Some of my favorite
passages in Rebecca describe the domestic
setting of the story—at the top of the list I place a lovingly detailed account of
Manderley's gardens and grounds, some thirty pages into the novel, that I would
consider assigning to aspiring writers who want to understand how to handle
landscape in a narrative.
Given the intensely personal nature of this book, I am surprised that charges of
plagiarism are still raised against Rebecca. Edwina Levin MacDonald started
these allegations with her failed court case, in which she tried to prove that
Rebecca was based on her 1927 novel Blind Windows—her lawsuit cited "46
parallelisms" between the two works. But these "parallelisms" were simply plot
and character elements found in hundreds of thousands of novels. "I had never
heard of Mrs. MacDonald or her Blind Windows," du Maurier later wrote. "The
novel was sent to me and I glanced through it. It was nothing like my Rebecca
save for the fact that the man in the book had been married twice." Parallelism
isn't the same thing as plagiarism. One could just as easily 'prove' that Rebecca is
based on Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. If plagiarism standards are that lax,
the Jane Austen estate could just as legitimately demand remuneration from the
countless stories that recycle the bare ingredients of Pride and Prejudice.
In truth, plot plays only a small part in the lasting success of this novel. The story
itself is simple, and even the supposedly surprising twists are often telegraphed
long in advance. What sets Rebecca apart from its peers is its author’s mastery of
tone and mood, emotion and psychology.
This dark gothic romance was an immediate bestseller upon its release in 1938,
and the success of the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation—which won the
Academy Award for Best Picture—only served to boost sales. But most bestsellers
from that era are now forgotten. Not so for Rebecca, which has never been out-of-
print, and still sells around 50,000 copies per year. When a musical version was
launched in 2006, it ran for three years in Vienna, and later found receptive
audiences in Finland, Japan, Germany, South Korea and Sweden. Plans are still
afoot to mount a production on Broadway.
So Rebecca lives on, and has now moved far beyond Manderley to become a hot
global property. Perhaps the story that went from mass-market romance to
highbrow literary work will eventually come full circle. Perhaps the musical will
lead to another Rebecca movie (I’ve even seen a YouTube video that envisions an
updating with Jon Hamm as Maxim de Winter), and maybe a book tie-in. Who
knows, perhaps Rebecca will even return to that supermarket rack someday. But
only in very classy supermarkets.
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen
to Jazz, published by Basic Books.
Publication date: May 1, 2016.
|To purchase, click on image
You will now find
Rebecca on the assigned
reading lists of classes
on gender politics,
British fiction, Gothic
style and other academic
What Rebecca Looks Like Today