I was 13 when I read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca for the first time, crossing the line from childhood mysteries to what my favorite librarian told me was a perfect Gothic thriller. The opening drew me in immediately—“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”—with the intimacy of the first-person narrative setting up a dark psychological drama of fear and suspicion.
The protagonist, whose whirlwind Riviera courtship with the elegant Maxim de Winter seems so romantic and sun-filled, soon finds herself overwhelmed when they take up residence at Manderley, battling the omnipresent spirit of the beloved Rebecca—Maxim de Winter’s late wife. The brooding groom, the longtime servants, and the community of friends who surround our narrator compel her to try even harder to please, ratcheting up her level of anxiety. It is palpable to readers that the new Mrs. de Winter is terrified about every minor decision she has to make.
Several impressions have remained me with since that first of many times that I have devoured this classic. It is through the second Mrs. de Winter’s eyes that the story unfolds, and we experience the insidious destruction of her naïveté by all of those loyal to Rebecca’s ghost. I cannot think of another novel in which we inhabit the emotional perspective of the narrator throughout, yet never learn her name. As an aspiring writer, I admired du Maurier’s subtle technique, with which she underscored the profound insecurity of her isolated young bride.
This novel also impressed me with its powerful sense of place. There is very little action in the story, but the relentlessly increasing atmosphere of impending doom that builds so steadily from the moment the de Winters arrive at Manderlay is unforgettable. The great manor house itself stands for all that torments the new Mrs. de Winter—a dense backdrop for the riveting twists that so steadily unfold as she tries to make the home her own.
From du Maurier I also learned the brilliance of storytelling in which the events—the inevitable disaster that would befall our narrator—were shown to us, rather than told to us. We are with the young Mrs. de Winter when she summons the courage to enter Rebecca’s room for the first time—touching the silk dressing gown, tracing her finger over the dead woman’s monogram, envying the wardrobe full of shimmering evening clothes. She is caught in that moment by the sinister, "skull-faced" Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca’s personal maid, who forces her to re-examine each exquisite item while Danvers describes how beautiful her mistress looked in each of them.
And as this haunting suspense builds to its nerve-wracking conclusion, have I mentioned that du Maurier has buried a murder within her dark tale? Rebecca remains one of my favorite crime novels, though murder was certainly not the reason a librarian first placed it in my hands.