The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rebecca: Compelling Old Cheese

by Tricia Dower

I rarely gravitate toward romantic suspense, but I stayed up way past my bedtime Tuesday finishing Daphne du Maurier’s highly popular 1938 novel, Rebecca. (I don’t like to be too caught up on my reading.)

The story is narrated by an unnamed, impecunious 21-year-old Plain Jane, employed as companion to the idiosyncratic Mrs. Van Hopper. The narrator falls in love with and marries the dashing, forty-something Maxim de Winter, an aristocrat who has been suffering from depression since his first wife, Rebecca, died a year earlier. The new Mrs. de Winter moves into her husband’s estate, the majestic Manderley on the moody, windswept Cornish coast, and must deal with the “ghost” of the beautiful, talented Rebecca and the villainous Mrs. Danvers, Manderley’s housekeeper. The women wear frocks, and everyone smokes non-stop. (Mrs. Van Hopper douses her cigarettes in cups of coffee and jars of thick white face cream. Others flick ashes on the floor or fill giant ashtrays.)

I borrowed the book from the library as research for a writing project and intended only to skim it for relevant bits, but the famous first line hooked me—Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again—and I couldn’t put it down until the dramatic finish. I was captivated by du Maurier’s highly descriptive details and her ability to draw fascinating characters through both narrative and dialogue. (Mrs. Van Hopper is a particular treat and Mrs. Danvers gave me shivers.)

The book didn’t get cheesy for me until about three-quarters of the way through when Mrs. Danvers becomes all too transparent, spoiling my fun. Even cheesier are (a) Maxim’s later confession to his new bride that he killed Rebecca and (b) a litany of Rebecca’s heretofore unknown sins recited all at once. It felt like the last few minutes of a Colombo episode where Peter Falk assembles all the suspects in a room and proves he’s smarter than you. At this point, I lost respect for the book as a literary work, but I was so caught up in the twisting, turning plot I had to see it through to the surprising final paragraph. The Da Vinci Code of 1938, although Rebecca is better written. It rises above its genre, as do Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

After reading the book, I’m left wondering if the cheesy bits were failings on du Maurier’s part, or if I’m a snob when it comes to romantic suspense and its cousin, the gothic novel. I do enjoy mystery, danger, and strong settings. I loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the eerie castle in Transylvania, for example, not in small part because I could glimpse Count Dracula’s humanity and relate to him on some level. On the other hand, du Maurier’s “evil, vicious and rotten” Rebecca seems to have no redeeming qualities (unless physical beauty is a redeeming quality). You can be forgiven for being glad Maxim gets away with her murder; in fact you practically collude with him in it. And the almost too-good-to-be-true way du Maurier solves her plot problems is a letdown after the superb psychological studies she provides of jealousy and regret.

In a 1993 New York Times article, Stephen King said, “Rebecca is a pretty good novel and an excellent piece of entertainment—a book any aspiring popular writer should read, if only for its bravura pacing and narrative control. Critics may sneer, but it's impossible to do this sort of thing unless you have an almost perfect downbeat in your head. Du Maurier had it.”

The book was a tremendous success when it came out and still sells thousands of copies a year. (I’m an envious snob.) But the Wall Street Journal reported that du Maurier wrote to a friend: "You don't know how hurtful it is to have rotten, sneering reviews, time and time again throughout my life. The fact that I sold well never really made up for them."

So, my dear writing friends, what would you rather have: good reviews or compelling cheese that sells?

Photo: Daphne du Maurier

5 Comments:

Anonymous Larry said...

Compelling cheese that sells - hands down.

Thu Jan 15, 03:21:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Hey, Larry, thanks for weighing in. I want both!

Thu Jan 15, 04:23:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Great post. I'll take the cheese. I'm not cut out for that heady stuff anymore. I think my brain is getting stupider.

Fri Jan 16, 02:12:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger t said...

Of course, I'd like a bit of both, and would love to see a little cheese in my good reviews too ;)

(My kind of gothic novelist who always manages to keep cheese at bay is Angela Carter. Did she sell well enough to be labelled 'that sells'; she certainly got the good reviews. And deserved them, of course.)

Sun Jan 18, 11:00:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks Steve. Tamara, I don't know Angela Carter. I'll have to check her out.

Thu Jan 22, 10:44:00 pm GMT-5  

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