There are few opening lines in the history of English Literature as iconic as: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Spoken by Daphne Du Maurier’s nameless protagonist, these nine words have become an insignia of the haunting, gothic and romantic tale that is Rebecca.
My first encounter with the novel came at 17-years-old. My sister had an antiquated copy in her room, adorned in pastel greens and pinks. I was told that it was her (then) boyfriend’s mum’s book and that I could read it but had to be “very careful” not to damage it, as it was something of an heirloom.
Naturally, I ended up undoing the stitching of the spine within the opening chapter and, out of guilt and fear, stopped reading and slipped it back onto my sister’s desk. Petrified.
Fast-forward six years and the book reappeared in my life when my sister’s husband’s mother forgave me for damaging her copy and bought me a brand new one as a birthday present. Despite reading a quarter of the book sporadically over the following two years, it wasn’t until the start of 2016, at the age of 25 and a half, that I finally immersed myself in the text and fell under the spell of the novel – cast over generations of readers since its publication in 1938.
Believing Rebecca to be a romantic novel, I was shocked to discover it is a tragedy. Not for its political connotations about a drowning aristocracy fighting for its place in Britain at the time, but for its portrayal of how a clever, young and deeply sensitive woman can be worn down by jealousy, insecurity and a lack of self-assurance.
For the fact that the narrator of Rebecca has no name is extremely telling. She feels identity-less as a result of the lack of affection she receives in her marriage, and inadequate – thanks to the poor way in which she is treated by those who consider themselves above her. She feels that she is constantly being compared to her husband’s ex-wife – aka the book’s namesake, Rebecca.
Whilst living at Manderley, the narrator never truly feels like her real self is good enough. And that is tragic. More tragic than the novel’s shocking twist, unveiled in the finishing chapters.
She graduates from being a sensitive and shy young woman to a hard and emotionally starved wife whose entire existence has become shaped by how she compares to “the other woman”.
For me, the novel illustrates the way in which a vulnerable and naive personality can become totally defunct when placed in an environment that constantly judges and challenges.
After all, who hasn’t accidentally referred to the voice of Rebecca, as Rebecca?