Sometimes when I want a palette-cleanser from some tepid books, I look through “classics I’ve never read” hoping I’ll find a gem. This is regarded as one of the best books of a greatly-admired author and I figured it would be worth a listen. It was.
The first thing I noticed was how literature has changed in the past 50+ years. This was written in the early 20th century, and the differences always strike me. The protagonist is 21 years old when the book starts, an orphan hired as a lady’s companion, living in Monte Carlo and being the dogsbody for an abrasive old woman. She’s mousy and quiet and painfully shy, without the faintest spark about her. They speak of her youth as an affliction she is unfortunate enough to suffer from but which she will recover from in a few years. This caused a huge culture shock to me, because of course these days women are seen as milk-like in which age=deterioration of quality and freshness is paramount. The fact that she’s thin is also seen as a problem. And then of course there’s the usual weirdness of taking a bath in the morning and wearing gloves when it’s not snowing.
The protagonist has no name. All we know is that Mr. DeWinters pronounces it correctly, and the protagonist is pleased and surprised that he does so. (I decided to tell myself it was Clothilde). They have a whirlwind courtship while the protagonist’s employer is laid up with the flu, and then DeWinters asks her to marry him. After that she’s Mrs. DeWinters, which sidesteps the whole “what is her name?” question.
Rebecca, of course, was the first Mrs. DeWinters. When they go to Manderlay, Rebecca is everywhere. Even before then, Rebecca is everywhere. The unspoken memory of her is in the car when our protagonist and Mr. DeWinters are courting. Her handwriting is in the book of poetry he lends her. Her scent is in the coat she borrows in the hall. Her taste is in the furnishings in the house. Wherever Mrs. #2 goes, she can’t get away from the comparisons. And Manderlay itself is basically ruled by Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, who simply doted on Rebecca and deeply resents the intrusion of Mrs. #2. Mrs. #2 cows to her, letting Danvers take charge in all the decision-making. Mrs. #2 is terrified of the servants, the subject of contempt of even her borrowed maid. She has no idea how to be the sort of wife that’s expected. She doesn’t ride, she doesn’t hunt, she doesn’t play golf, she doesn’t know how to arrange fancy parties, she can barely converse and making social calls is almost too much for her. Frankly, I didn’t much like her. She seemed to have no personality whatsoever. Mrs. #2 feels inferior to Rebecca, and feels that everyone else is comparing her to Rebecca unfavorably. Everyone loved Rebecca (and they don’t love #2). Rebecca was beautiful, Rebecca was well-bred, Rebecca was accomplished, Rebecca knew what she wanted ane wasn’t afraid to say it. Rebecca was clever. Mrs. #2 feels like an also-ran, too browbeaten and timid to talk to her husband about it, so she just kind of shrinks into herself, feeling like a complete failure as a wife, until Danvers tries to convince Mrs. #2 that it would be better for everyone if she just killed herself, and as a reader (listener) I wondered if she might.
But then there are some explosions, and everything changes. These are literal explosions, rockets signaling a ship that has gone aground right outside the cove next to Manderly. And the pace of the novel suddenly changes. This is another stylistic thing of 20th century works; they have a greater tolerance for slow pacing. Mrs. #2 starts asking people what happened, people gather on the shore to see if the ship will sink, everyone starts talking and gossiping about it, and it plays out like an exciting event only for people who don’t subscribe to any premiere television. I wondered what happened, not with the boat, but with the novel. Everything had been about Mrs. #2 and her failing marriage, and now it’s about a commercial ship that ran aground and whether the insurance will cover the damage (all of which was very dull.)
But the divers find another ship in the cove, and the ship has a body in it, so suddenly it’s a murder mystery. You know who the body is and who did it, the only question is whether or not the murderer will get away with it. The opening scene of the novel has Mrs. #2 is in a car driving away, knowing she will never go to Manderlay again, so you know something bad happens, but you don’t know what. It veers between certain destruction and certain safety about a half-dozen times, with great plot twists.
So in effect, this is two novels in one. It’s the novel about a mousy second wife who feels displaced by the memory of the first one, and it’s the story of how Rebecca managed to destroy lives even after she was long dead. I really enjoyed it. I loved the characterizations, the tight plotting, and the vivid descriptive scenes. I loved how I managed to predict the plot yet was occasionally surprised when my predictions proved false. Truly, this is a solid book from a master writer.