Rebecca is one of those books I was always assumed I had read. I knew the basics of the plot, and of course the famous opening line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” When I realized I’d somehow missed reading it, I picked it up. It’s the perfect book to curl up with on a rainy Sunday with a cup of tea. While I didn’t love it as much as everyone else seems to, I certainly enjoyed it.
While working as the companion to a rich woman on vacation in Monte Carlo, our unnamed protagonist meets wealthy widower Maximillian de Winter. After knowing each other only a few weeks, the pair decides to marry. After their honeymoon, the couple goes to de Winter’s estate, Manderly. Our narrator, never full of self-confidence to begin with, is a bundle of nerves, as she becomes certain that her husband and everyone around her are comparing her unfavorably to her predecessor, Rebecca.
Ah Rebecca. Beautiful, brilliant, lively, adventurous, perfect Rebecca, who drowned a year before. The servants and the villagers seem to prefer her to our narrator. She sailed boats, threw wild parties, and was good at all the things rich wives should be good at. And everyone our narrator meets falls over themselves to remind her of this. While wandering the halls of her new home, a servant informs her that Rebecca would spend this part of the day in the library, and so should she. Any attempt at change would be stymied with the proclamation that Rebecca had wanted it that way.
Our girl, never particularly strong to begin with, wilts under the pressure. She’s easily manipulated, especially by Mrs. Danvers, a maid who loved Rebecca. Her husband’s kind of a dick, ignoring her if she displeases him, petting her head like a dog if she’s done well. All that matters to her is making sure her husband is happy, and if something upsets him (like the freaking wind changes direction) it’s obviously her fault.
The setup of this book reminded me a lot of Jane Eyre. Both feature poor woman in love with a rich man. The rich man has a terrible secret regarding his first wife. Both couples are constrained by social norms (divorce is a truly great thing, y’all). I’m only bringing this up because I spent a lot of Rebecca annoyed with our weak-willed protagonist, begging her to grow a damn spine. Then I’d remind myself that she was from a different time, and it wasn’t fair to impose my own values on her. Then I remember that Jane Eyre was published nearly a century beforehand, and Jane would NOT have tolerated this fuckery (Mr. Rochester was also a dickbag, but still).
Our narrator is right. Maxim is keeping a secret from her. But it isn’t that he loved his Rebecca. It’s that he killed Rebecca. And instead of being horrified, our girl is thrilled! Because he hated Rebecca! And he loves her! Whoopee! Seriously, she doesn’t even blink when he comes clean. Instead, she starts to develop confidence in herself because if her husband loves her, then she must be great. Girl, you should be a little concerned.
Honestly, I had higher expectations for this book considering its long-term popularity. But I still enjoyed reading it. It kept my interest the whole time, and the prose was beautiful. It’s the perfect book for a beach read or a long car trip. Just don’t get your hopes up.