The Seen and Unseen

Just as many actors take such possession of a role as to own it, Lee J. Cobb, for instance, “being” Willy Loman, authors often find themselves captive to one of their works, a work that seems to identify them to the exclusion of all others. Scarcely a month goes by when one of Barnaby Conrad’s lunches out on the town is not pleasantly interrupted by a fan wanting his autograph on a copy of “Matador.” In the dying days of The Earthling bookstore and the burgeoning days of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone series, I saw a fan wanting an autograph, not on one of the alphabet-title books but rather on “The Lolly-Madonna War.” A prolific tide of new and different novels notwithstanding, Catherine Ryan Hyde appears to have the high-class problem of being associated solely with “Pay It Forward.” During his long, volatile lifetime, Mark Twain experienced more significant sales on works other than “Huckleberry Finn,” but History has tied the can of “Huckleberry Finn” to his tail, a just-but-ironic verdict.

This litany of what I like to think of as iconography in the making is not limited to prolific authors, a fact borne out recently when a friend asked me what I thought of the name Atticus for a prospective puppy. Harper Lee’s one novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is a splendid example of the current subject at hand – the way one book becomes the writer.

In any laundry list of iconic novels, particularly novels with memorable opening lines – see “First Paragraph: Inspired Openings for Writers and Readers” by Donald Newlove – you’d be sure to find: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

In writing “Rebecca,” Daphne du Maurier did what most writers do when setting forth on a new venture or what many actors do when they create their version of a role (see Alec Guinness as Fagin): she reached into her personal storehouse of emotions, memories, and preferences. She reached into the process she had assembled as a working writer. Pretty much business as usual for her, the results were satisfying, perhaps even comforting. But this time when Daphne Du Maurier went to the well, quite without thinking, she produced a classic. “Rebecca” is only one of du Maurier’s 37 titles.

The present day Harper edition of “Rebecca” subtitles it “The Classic Tale of Romantic Suspense.” For some of the same reasons that we turn to historical epics such as Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” and the more recent study of the Lincoln presidency (“A Team of Rivals”) by Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Rebecca” shows us what certain vital aspects of life were like “way back then,” when “Rebecca” was first written.

I first came to “Rebecca” as a pre-teen, precisely because my mother had brought it home from a lending library (5 cents a day) and after reading it herself, wanted me to see that life was not limited to the “Tom Sawyer” or “Ivanhoe” adventures of my own reading. Indeed, the early reading of “Rebecca” planted the fruitful seed that women’s adventures and dreams were often different from those of men. With a little stretch, one could have the best of both genders, a fact that was emphasized when my mother brought home (at 3 cents a day) “Jane Eyre.” Charlotte Brontë’s novel is no less suspenseful or romantic or, for that matter, thrilling than “Rebecca,” but that is the focus of another investigation, an investigation leavened with the information that one of Daphne Du Maurier’s 37 books is a biography of Brontë.

Building a Mystery

The narrator/protagonist of “Rebecca” is so plain, so good, and so ordinary that she does not even merit a name. No one – not even Maxim de Winter, whom she marries – refers to her by a first name, and the servants, even the imperious Mrs. Danvers, call her Mrs. de Winter. She relates the story in the first person, and although she has won the heart of Maxim de Winter, she is Plan B throughout the 386 pages of text. The eponymous Rebecca is already dead when the novel begins; it is her presence against whom our mousy protagonist is pitted. Rebecca – the first Mrs. De Winter – emerges through the reminiscences of the service staff at Manderley, particularly the version presented by the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who is in her own way as iconic as the Rebecca she worshipped. Readers also get a vision of Rebecca through Max de Winter and from the gossip of Mrs. Van Horn, the social predator and gossip who employs the nameless narrator as a companion-gofer.

First published before World War II, “Rebecca” is the literary equivalent of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” an orchestral romance that serenaded the innocence that was soon to fall by the wayside as the machines of war and destruction began to rattle through Europe. Just as “The Lark” opens with a calm set of sustained chords from the strings and winds, then a solo violin enters as the lark, soaring effortlessly on a series of ascending, repeated intervals and nimble, then elongated arpeggios, “Rebecca” begins with the personalized intimacy of a dream, which quickly adds the first to an ascension of menacing themes.

The younger reader may have to take on faith a significant theme Du Maurier was introducing. The protagonist who became the second Mrs. De Winter after a whirlwind romance was in all probability a virgin. Notwithstanding Max de Winter was by many standards “a real catch” (just ask Mrs. Van Horn), our protagonist could be seen as leaping at the chance of a lifetime. Perhaps it is stretching the psychology to suggest she was getting away from Mrs. Van Horn instead of her parents. Perhaps it is not a stretch. Not many pages later, our narrator slowly comes to realize the more subtle but primal theme of the time and indeed a favored theme of the gothic novel – in many ways, women discovered the disparity between what they knew of their husband and the suspicions that were later borne out. It does not spoil the story or its effect if you come to “Rebecca” realizing that our narrator has reason to suspect that her husband killed his first wife.

You might, for a time, question the premise of Max de Winter wanting to marry such a plain, simple, devoted young woman, nearly half his age. But the more you learn about Rebecca, the more you will see Max’s reasons.

One of the more chilling scenes is the one in which our narrator discovers Rebecca’s former rooms, immaculately cleaned, her clothing laid out as though she would come in after riding her horse, to bathe, then change for the activities of Manderley afternoons.

The concept of “woman at peril” has roots in the older gothics and in “Jane Eyre,” but they are brought to lovely and satisfying levels in “Rebecca,” a novel neither Daphne Du Maurier nor her millions of readers have forgotten.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” the novel opens. “It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me.” Barred to her but an insistent draw to those of us who relish the secrets that reside behind gates and within the hidden recesses of the heart.