By Charlotte Poole
For her book review, our guest blogger, Charlotte from Sheffield Hallam University, chose an old favourite of ours, Rebecca. What does she make of a novel written some 65 years before she was born?
This is the last of our guest student blogs, and it has been great to host reviews and reading journeys from Sheffield Hallam University folk. Many thanks to Dr Ana-Maria Sanchez-Arce for making all this possible.
The book Rebecca was written by Daphne du Maurier in 1938. The story involves a young English woman who travels to France and meets and marries an older rich gentlemen called Maxim de Winter. This woman remains nameless throughout the book but is the main protagonist. They then go back to his mansion in Cornwall called Manderley. It is here that the problem starts. The house carries the strong legacy of Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca – the protagonist consequently has to deal with many issues.
Originally, I thought this novel would be a dull boring dated piece of work, because most things I read from the 19th or early 20th century are not interesting to me (barring Little Women). However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did it hold my attention, but I was eager to continue the story. Somehow, its approach was fresh and exciting. I was pleased to see that on Ruth Potts’ reading journey blog, she said:
Rebecca is my favourite book of all time. My father also loved du Maurier. Rebecca and Jane Eyre are my favourite books, both with strong female lead characters who get what they want in the end.Ruth Potts (Hewson, 2019)
I wouldn’t say it’s my own favourite book of all time, but I do agree with Ruth that the strong female character is excellent.
The main themes in this book show the limited choices of a poor lower-class woman in these times, and how one of the only options to better themselves would be to marry an often older richer man with a higher social status. Women did not have financial independence and therefore their decisions were limited. It is disappointing that even now in modern times, women still do not have the same opportunities as men. For instance, we still have an ever-increasing gender pay gap, especially in higher level jobs.
This book demonstrates the inequalities in class. The main character has moved herself upwards by marrying, yet she still identifies more with the household employees because their way of life is all she has ever known (though the household staff mostly resent her because they think she has betrayed her own class). She therefore becomes unwelcome in both worlds, no matter where or how she presents herself. Looking at where we are now, I feel class is thankfully not as important as it was back then. I, myself, feel I can achieve anything I want to and that it is not my social class that is going to hold me back. The difference here is, the main character in the book would never have been able to achieve anything on her own terms.
This publication has been extremely successful world-wide. It was first published in 1938 in London with only 20,000 copies. It has been translated in many languages such as Chinese, French and Ukrainian. It was also huge in America, and this work has been listed in the 20th century American bestsellers by University of Illinois. The author has written many other books, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. However, none of them have gained the kudos that Rebecca reached.
At the time it was written, the responding reviews were mixed. For example, one reviewer said,
The novel is immensely long, written in the first person by a heroine who remains irritatingly and unnecessarily nameless to the end, and it lumbers along for three-quarters of its length to a creaking Victorian machinery of melodramatic hint and horror and piled-up pathos.Rowse, 1938, p.233
So they didn’t like it very much then. Personally, I think the main character remaining nameless works, as it adds to her mystique. It is also quite a common writing style e.g. Roald Dahl did the same thing in his book The Witches. Another review I found stated,
If one chooses to read the book in a critical fashion – but only a tiresome reviewer is likely to do that – it becomes an obligation to take off one’s hat to Miss du Maurier for the skill and assurance with which she sustains a highly improbable fiction.Jasmine, 2018
This review is more in line with how I felt about the book.
The novel has also been made into two films, the first being the Academy Award-winning black and white 1940s Alfred Hitchcock version. This starred the actresses Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson. Hitchcock was in his element and developed it as a strong psychological thriller. Rotten Tomatoes gave it 100%. The second film was shot in 2020 and starred Armie Hammer and Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas. The portrayal of Manderley was actually filmed in six different manors and estates, including Cranbourne in Dorset and Hartland Quay in Devon. The Guardian reviewed the film and felt ‘it was an overdressed and underpowered romantic thriller’ (Bradshaw, 2020). In fact, Rotten Tomatoes only gave it 39%. Having been gripped by the novel, I found the film flimsy and misleading – a poor representation of the book.
The author du Maurier was married to Tommy Browning who was a lieutenant colonel in the Grenadier Guards. She was fortunate that she did not need to work and was able to write when she and her husband travelled with the army. The main theme the author wanted to convey in this work was jealousy, a reflection of her own life – as her husband, too had been engaged before to a dark-haired beauty who Du Maurier believed her husband was still in love with. As a theme, the jealousy that the second wife has for the first wife is as relevant in the present as it was back then. The only difference being that perhaps today, it would more likely end in divorce, rather than death.
Here is Charlotte’s reading journey.
Rebecca (novel). Wikipedia. (n.d). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_(novel)
Michael Hann (2012, August 7). My favourite Hitchcock: Rebecca. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2012/aug/07/my-favourite-alfred-hitchcock-rebecca
Rae Boocock (2020, October 28). Nine Beautiful Film Locations from Netflix’s Rebecca. Suitcase. Retrieved from https://suitcasemag.com/articles/netflix-rebecca-film-locations
Peter Bradshaw (2020, October 15). Rebecca review – overdressed and underpowered romantic thriller. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/oct/15/rebecca-review-ben-wheatley-armie-hammer-lily-james-kristin-scott-thomas
Val Hewson (2019, March 8). A Tale of Six Generations: The Reading Journey of Ruth Potts. Reading Sheffield. Retrieved from https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/a-tale-of-six-generations-the-reading-journey-of-ruth-potts/
Taylor Jasmine (2018, October 6). Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938). Literary Ladies Guide. Retrieved from https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/book-reviews/rebecca-by-daphne-du-maurier-1938-a-review/
A.L. Rowse. (1938, September 3). Books and Authors. Via ProQuest. Retrieved from https://www-proquest-com.hallam.idm.oclc.org/docview/1542861396?pq-origsite=primo
du Maurier, D. (1938). Rebecca. Gollancz.