I’ve always been a fan of the story ‘Rebecca’, the novel written by Daphne Du Maurier, the Hitchock film, and the later TV series, featuring the ever reptilian Charles Dance as Maxim (was never comfortable with that casting.) I knew that several novels had spun off from the original story over the years, but considered this a travesty, a calculating ploy by the publishing industry to claw in more bucks, rather than any honest attempt to continue the story with integrity. As it happens, I was wrong.
Only recently, and after a conversation at one of my ‘writing and dining’ evenings with my friends Louise Coquio and Paula Wakefield, I decided to get hold of these novels, see for myself. The three of us are interested in the Gothic in fiction and all engaged in writing rather dark stories of our own at present. Our discussion of inspirations led us to Du Maurier and inevitably to ‘Rebecca’. Paula had read one of the ‘sequels’, ‘The Other Rebecca’ by Maureen Freely and said that she’d enjoyed it and that it was written well. Lou had been given another of the three, ‘Rebecca’s Tale’ by Sally Beaumann, but hadn’t yet read it. We took a look at Amazon and discovered the third book ‘Mrs De Winter’ was by Susan Hill, one of my favourite ghost story writers. The next day, I ordered all of the books.
I will assume that anyone reading this will be familiar with the plot of the original novel, but if not, it can be found easily online. Here’s a link so my following article will make sense. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_(novel) But if you haven’t read that book, why not?! Be aware though that spoilers concerning the original novel inevitably litter this article.
As Paula had recommended ‘The Other Rebecca’ (2011) I read that first. It’s a modern retelling of the story, with allusions to the original and includes quite clever twistings of that narrative. The Midwinters, as the original De Winters are renamed, are mostly monstrous. Mrs Danvers is not the cadaverous, looming creature we know from ‘Rebecca’, (sister in spirit clearly to the housekeeper of Hill House!), but a more youthful, red-headed, while completely bonkers old friend of Rebecca’s – Danny – who is still very much attached to the family after Rebecca’s death and cares for her rather dislikeable children. (Maxim and Rebecca had no children in the original.) The story is told in the first person and the protagonist is a writer of minor importance struggling to make a career, while (like the original un-named second Mrs De Winter) being fraught with insecurities and anxieties. After her marriage to Maxim, she comes into a crazed nest of creative people and is at a loss at how to cope with them. They’re cruel, sneering and condescending. Maxim’s sister Beatrice, the stout rock of Du Maurier’s novel, is presented as still strident but scheming and untrustworthy. She’s one of the more sympathetic characters, though. Big plot spoilers next, so skip to the next paragraph if you intend to read this book……………………….
There is a ‘Gone Girl’ twist to ‘The Other Rebecca’, and the latter novel definitely came first. As with ‘Gone Girl’s male lead, the selfish and priapic Maxim is being set up all the way through the story. The difference to the original ‘Rebecca’ is: I didn’t particularly care what happened to him. He’s an unpleasant character, in turn whining and then callously aloof, bragging about his sexual conquests. Whatever his faults, I never saw the original Maxim as a whiner, blubbing into his wife’s arms. He kept himself rigidly contained. If he’d ever had affairs, he would never have mentioned them, and certainly not to his wife. But this is a modern novel. The original Maxim would be an anachronism in it. As with the major characters in ‘Gone Girl’, Rebecca and Maxim are loathsome, spoilt, hedonistic and careless. Self-obsessed and narcissistic creative souls, who happened to have great talent, despite their failings. The bone of contention between them was always their work. (Still part of the spoiler: a neat detail is Danny ‘getting messages’ from Rebecca, which you imagine are lies or delusions, rather than true psychic communication, but of course… they’re actually real, and Rebecca orchestrates everything from afar.)
But despite the nature of the characters, or perhaps because of it, the author pulls it off. While I did find the over-extended Midwinter family and its inter-relationships hard to follow, I suspect this is deliberate, since the protagonist herself can’t keep track of the milling relatives either. Sometimes the story is too inscrutable and I found myself rereading parts to see if I’d missed something. Maybe a second read through is required to ‘get’ everything. Danny like Mrs Danvers is still obsessed with Rebecca, who was a famous poet, and is engaged in collating her correspondence in order to write a book. She keeps Rebecca’s workroom as a shrine. In this story, it isn’t the dead woman’s silky negligees that are the fetishes, but her comfy slippers under the desk, the ash trays, the little clay models her children made. Danny isn’t a reliable biographer. She has an agenda, and while there’s no indication she has a murderous hatred towards and jealousy of the protagonist, she does see this woman as an instrument to help her achieve her aims. This is a world of novelists, tabloid journalism seeking thrills, and professional rivalry.
Manderley, the De Winter house, was a major character in Rebecca, but Beckfield, the house in ‘The Other Rebecca’ plays no great part. It’s Bea’s house. Maxim and his wife live in a large cottage in the grounds. Strangely, though, when the new wife arrives at Beckfield to attend a sprawling garden party, full of twittering authors, artists and poets, the first thing Danny says to her is: ‘Welcome to Manderley.’ A knowing aside, as if the book ‘Rebecca’ exists in that world and Danny is aware of the peculiar similarities between her life and the novel.
Apart from borrowing the central idea and skeletons of the characters from Du Maurier, Freely has written a book unconnected with the original. But I didn’t dislike it, read it quickly, and appreciated the strength and skill of the writing, although even as I’m writing up this review can’t remember the end. It’s not a book I’d want to read twice.
I wanted to save Susan Hill’s ‘Mrs De Winter’ (1993) till last, as I like her writing so much and considered the Beaumann novel might be lightweight, as I associated her work with ‘women’s romantic novels’, a sort I don’t like to read. (Happily, later proved wrong on that count!) But I just couldn’t resist picking up ‘Mrs De Winter’ after the Freely, probably because I wanted to snuggle into writing I knew I’d really enjoy. And I’m glad I did because chronologically (in the ongoing story) this is the book that should be read after ‘Rebecca’. Beaumann’s carries on from Hill’s.
Hill keeps the voice of the original novel and this is truly a sequel. Maxim and his wife are still in exile at the start, living in posh hotels, with few belongings, wandering about Europe, settling for a few months here and there. Ten years have passed. They have a found a quiet space between them, where it’s comfortable for them to live, after the traumas of the past and their flight from England at the end of ‘Rebecca’. But even so, right from the start we’re made aware that Mrs De Winter can’t suppress the memory that her husband killed Rebecca. He has a murderer’s hands. Much as the mild, damaged man she cares for now seems removed from the person who could commit such a crime of passion – he still did it. His wife also misses her home country immensely. When they receive a call from Giles, Beatrice’s husband, to tell them she has died from a stroke, Mrs De Winter’s first thought is that they must return home for the funeral. Maxim stalls, clearly terrified of the prospect. But duty wins through and they return. Manderley is long gone, and is never mentioned by the family. Mrs De Winter doesn’t know if it’s still in ruins, has been restored, or whether the land has been bought up and modern houses built on it. We never find out. But once she’s back on English soil, she knows she can’t bear to leave it again, and wonders how she can persuade Maxim to let them settle there. The past is done. There’s nothing left to haunt them, no reason not to come back. (Slight spoilers follow but nothing major.)
But of course, the central conflict of the story is that there is a reason to stay away. A simmering desire for vengeance still burns in the hearts of those who most loved Rebecca – or were obsessed by her. The first sign of trouble is a wreath left on Beatrice’s grave, which Mrs De Winter stumbles upon after the funeral. Perfect white flowers in dark green foliage, and a card signed with the single letter R, in Rebecca’s distinctive curling script. This must be a cruel joke. Mrs De Winter eventually takes the card and hides it.
Suppressing this information, coupled with a visit to Maxim’s former estate manager, Frank Crawley’s new home in Scotland, plus the sheer bewitching glamour of the British countryside, enables Mrs De Winter to convince Maxim they can come home at last. On a final motoring tour of England before they return abroad, they come across the house Cobett’s Brake, a vision of beauty and old England. Not immense as Manderley was, but a comfortable, sagging manor house in the heart of the countryside. Both fall in love with the place, even though Maxim is clearly nervous of admitting that to himself, and for a while he stalls and insists they return to Europe. Mrs De Winter simmers with resentment and anger, but it’s not in her nature to shout and stamp her foot about it. While touring Italy, she has a peculiar experience when Manderley housekeeper Mrs Danvers’ voice returns to her, whispering in her ear, savaging her self confidence. But again, she remains silent. And when on her birthday, Maxim presents her with the information that Cobett’s Brake is now hers, (he has secretly negotiated its purchase with Crawley), she feels her life is to begin anew. And so it does for some time. She and Maxim enjoy an idyllic few months in their new home, which is as far from Manderley as it’s possible to get. It’s like a mother to Mrs De Winter. She feels protected there.
But then, on a visit to London to visit a gynecologist, (she hopes to have children), she bumps by chance into Rebecca’s louche cousin, Jack Favell. He looks as if he’s been living on the street, and because Mrs De Winter lacks the strength of character to tell him where to go, or indeed call the police when he follows her into a hotel, she ends up having tea with him, giving him money, hoping this will be enough to get rid of him. As if! Then, on her return home, the newspaper clippings of Rebecca’s death start to arrive. And so begins the build up to the storm that will engulf Mrs De Winter and her world. As her strength wanes, Mrs Danvers comes back into her life, turning up at the house, apparently on a polite social call, as she’s been engaged as companion to an old lady in the area. As terrified of and intimidated by this dour female as she ever was, Mrs De Winter keeps Mrs Danvers’ visit and proximity secret from Maxim, and limply allows Danvers to manipulate her. She even accepts an invitation to tea at Danvers’ place of employment. Whatever spurts of strength she experiences are literally like damp squibs, sputtering a bit but failing to explode.
As the secrets build up, and the storm clouds build, and Mrs De Winter attempts to hang on to control of her life and protect Maxim from the past, we know that her world will inevitably tumble about her. We knew that from page one, really.
The spare version of the plot above makes the story sound more exciting than it is. ‘Mrs De Winter’ is a very slow-moving book. The De Winters don’t get to Cobett’s Brake until two thirds of the way through the novel, and it’s only then, really, that the story gets going. Until that point, there are endless – if beautiful – descriptions of countryside, houses, nature and weather. Endless self pity. Too much of all that, and not enough story. But I thought then, and still do, that this perhaps was intended, to make the novel ‘literary’ rather than ‘popular’ – the exciting elements are played down. I got fed up of Mrs De Winter telling me she’d found new strength, only to find that no, she hadn’t. She was as limp as ever and remained so throughout. Rebecca would have had none of the nonsense her successor passively subjects herself to. She’d have had Favell and Danvers out of her home with a gun pointed at their heads the moment they appeared. But still, the fact remains that Maxim was guilty of murder, however much he was pushed to it. And he did get away with it.
I did enjoy the book but not as much as I’d hoped. On the cover, one of the gushing blurbs called it a ‘ghost story’, so I was hoping for one of Hill’s superb, eerie tales with more than a hint of the supernatural. But the ghosts in ‘Mrs De Winter’ remain firmly in people’s minds. That didn’t disappoint me so much, though, as the fact the story was turgid, too slow, too full of hand wringing and sighs. It would have been more satisfying for me if Mrs De Winter had in fact grown up, grabbed her demons by the throat and turned the tables on them. However, the voice of the narrator is perfect, and it’s a convincing sequel to Du Maurier’s original. This book was my second favourite of the three.
But first prize must go to Sally Beaumann’s ‘Rebecca’s Tale’ (2001). Again, she keeps the voice of the original well, in terms of time and place, but the first narrator, in a novel of four parts, is the aged Colonel Julyan, who presided over Rebecca’s inquest. He’s always had his suspicions about what truly happened, but the mistake that Favell made, and perhaps readers too, is that he didn’t keep his suspicions quiet in order to protect Maxim and his family name, as was implied. He kept his silence in order to protect Rebecca, as he’d been very fond of her. The novel starts with him reminiscing over the past, because an upstart author wants to write yet another book about the Manderley mystery, which has become folklore in its part of the world. Julyan recollects his long relationship with the De Winter family, and I loved his description of being a boy, playing at the great old house. His portraits of the terrifying De Winter matriarch, (Maxim’s grandmother), the kind but wilting Virginia (his mother) and her glorious sisters, and of Bea and Maxim as children, are wonderful. The story draws you right in from the start because what happened to Rebecca was wholly tied up with the way the De Winters were, an ancient family going back eight hundred years. There’s more than a whiff of authors like P G Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh, in the light, acerbic wit of the writing. This is nowhere near a ‘women’s romantic novel’.
I was surprised – and pleased – to find ‘Rebecca’s Tale’ keeps to the ‘canon’ found in Hill’s ‘Mrs De Winter’ – i.e. what happened to the De Winters when they returned to England, or at least as much of that as Julyan and other major characters can possibly know – which is only the bare facts. Still, this novel carries on neatly from Hill’s, and it seems to me that Beaumann must have known of that book and kept to the same story. Or the similarities are just uncanny coincidences…
Part Two of the story is told by Terence Grey, the writer who’s in Kerrith investigating the story of Rebecca. Grey is a complex character, with secrets and tragedies of his own. His interest in the old story lurches towards obsession, dangerously so. Through Grey we meet some of the other characters from ‘Rebecca’ and hear their version of events – such as the cousin Jack Favell, Frith the erstwhile butler of Manderley, and other colourful Kerrith characters. The truth about Rebecca, it seems, is more convoluted than everyone thought. Her own history is revealed in tantalizing glimpses – the girl she’d once been and the woman she became who was mistress of Manderley. The reader begins to learn about her heritage. While Grey investigates, an anonymous individual is sending notebooks of Rebecca’s to Colonel Julyan, and is also perhaps the same person who leaves a wreath at Rebecca’s old boathouse cottage, and sends a piece of her jewellery to Favell. Mysteries mount, and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!
Part three is Rebecca’s own tale, as found in the second notebook sent to Julyan. But we know already that Rebecca is often a minx. Is her testimony reliable? Whether this is true or not, it’s riveting to read. A free spirit, Rebecca was born ahead of her time, totally unsuited to a woman’s life in the early part of the 20th century. She suffered for her difference, as she was rarely understood. And the tragic way she narrates her story to an unborn child she believes she is carrying is moving while being unsentimental. Naturally, Rebecca’s tale is cut short by her own death. Many threads are left dangling.
Part four is related by Ellie, Colonel Julyan’s daughter. Hers is a strong, true voice, but even she has her obsession with Rebecca, seeing in the dead woman a promising template for female emancipation at a time in history when women were fighting for their rights, and most men still regarded them as mistresses, mothers or domestics. Ellie’s is undoubtedly the most political account, but she is also a vibrant, convincing character with her own desires and dreams. Ellie uncovers more mysteries, and in one case solves one, while simultaneously growing as a person. During her account, the narrative never falters. All four narrators, each with their distinctive voice, carry the story along at a good pace, but it is still deep and ponderous – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. This is not a short or shallow book by any means.
Most, but not all, the threads finally weave together and the reader is left to make up their own mind. You don’t feel in any way short-changed by that, though. What Beaumann has done is create a convincing account, including the difficulty of discovering historical truths, when the main protagonists are dead. Some truth died with them. Rebecca affected everyone she met, often dramatically. She is perhaps all the things everyone ever thought her to be, and more, a girl who fought to survive throughout a difficult childhood and adolescence, who set her will at making an adult life for herself, to her liking. But she is always human, believable. Her gift to Ellie is revealed at the end of book, perhaps far different from what you expect all the way through. I loved that. My favourite book of those I’ve read over the past few years is ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters, but Sally Beaumann’s ‘Rebecca’s Tale’ will now be stored on the same shelf.
Of these three Rebecca novels only the Hill and the Beaumann can be seen as continuations of the story. In fact, with the original they effectively make up a trilogy. And yes, there could be more to tell, should some other writer be urged to take up the tale. The Freely is entirely separate, while still quite an interesting read. But it’s not connected with the beguiling, mysterious Rebecca as we know her.