Some people cannot keep the secrets of some classics, as though they expire after a certain period of time. Right before I watched Citizen Kane for the first time in 1982, I was asked, "You know Rosebud is [SPOILER], right?" I responded, "Well, I do now."
So I approached Rebecca like reading it was a state secret (except to Carole, who was her fabulous no-giveaway self, as I knew she would be). No bonehead was going to tell me about Daphne du Maurier's "Rosebud," so I started the novel with no information other than the brief and completely innocuous summary on the back of the 1970s-era paperback I picked up at the thrift store.
Thank heavens. There were so many great elements I would have been quite vexed to have had any of them spoiled.
The summary is simple: a young woman is rescued from a life as a "traveling companion" (a.k.a. maid) to the American bore Mrs. Van Hopper by Maxim de Winter, who owns the legendary English estate Manderley. There in the halls of Manderley the young bride faces a more complex and frightening future than Mrs. Van Hopper: that of being the second Mrs. de Winter. The first, you see, was Rebecca, a tall, beautiful, popular, graceful woman — all qualities the second Mrs. de Winter honestly felt she lacked.
The story is told by this young woman, whose new husband is more than twice her age and who hasn't as much professed love as asked her to join him in his life. After a quick marriage and honeymoon abroad, she comes "home" to an estate of which she has heard, but it's grander than her wildest dreams.
Maxim is not the most attentive of men and the second Mrs. de Winter is an inexperienced young lady left her to her own devices — and to those of Mrs. Danvers, who served as Rebecca's personal maid who also ran the household under Rebecca's exacting eye. Frith, the butler, addresses the young bride as "Madam" and directs her by stating what "Mrs. de Winter" would have done.
Maxim is not only inattentive, he refuses to run Manderley as it had been in the past, rejecting the idea of lavish parties and other entertainment that was to have gone on with Rebecca. The second Mrs. de Winter is left to decide what this means for her as a wife and mistress.
The story is told by the second Mrs. de Winter, which provides a clear eye to established society and history. It is new to her, so it's new to us. Each piece of information — how Maxim acts, how Mrs. Danvers lurks, how Frith directs the ingenue — offers clues to the drama with subtle, caressing tension that entraps readers. We know we're toeing close to the edge of disaster with the second Mrs. de Winter, and yet we can't look away because we really don't want to leave her alone at Manderley, not like this. What is Mrs. Danvers doing in the west wing? Why is Jack's visit so disturbing? Why would Maxim refuse to follow the dog down the path to the beach? What is the draw of Rebecca, what is her secret?
The story is told at first as a mix of the past and present, with clues that suggest the de Winters are not presently at Manderley, that mention of this beloved home is painful. Once the second Mrs. de Winter arrives at Manderley, the story and the reader remain there with her.
And remain we must, until the final pages with an end that I found spectacular and completely fitting to the story.
Please read this, especially if you plan to watch the movie. Read the book first — let du Maurier tell you her story, then allow Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier (or, later, Emilia Fox and Charles Dance) to perform it for you.
And if anyone opens their mouth to discuss the book, ask them to wait. You will want to talk about this story, if only to remind yourself that it is, after all, only fiction.