Originally published in 1938 and adapted for the cinema by Alfred Hitchcock, your book Rebecca (1938) is a great piece of modern Gothic literature, a novel of psychological suspense, in which the heroine is a shy young woman, whose name is never mentioned in the book, and who finds herself haunted by the past of her husband, a wealthy and enigmatic widower.
I read that you considered the book “a study of jealousy.” It is said that the work is based in part on your turbulent relationship with your husband, who had previously been engaged to a glamorous woman named Jan Ricardo. In The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories (Little, Brown and Company, 2013), you write your memoirs about the period when you wrote Rebecca: “I want to built up the character of the first [wife] in the mind of the second … until second wife is haunted day and night … the tragedy is looming very close and CRASH! BANG! something happens “.
Well, dear, “CRASH! BANG!” describes very well the plot twists in this novel. Rebecca’s narrative takes the form of a flashback: at the time when she tells us his story, our heroine lives with her husband in a kind of exile in Europe. The couple, who seems to aimlessly travel from hotel to hotel, still nurtures strong memories of the time they lived in Manderley. From this point on, the narrative turns to the past, the period in which the narrator met her current husband on a trip to Monte Carlo, many years before. At that time, the protagonist, an orphan of father and mother, worked as a traveling companion of a wealthy American lady named Mrs. Van Hopper. Maxim de Winter, a rich and somewhat moody widower, with twice the age of the narrator, was staying in the same hotel. After passing his time with her for a few weeks, Maxim asks to marry her, and they go together to Manderley.
A ghost hovers, however, over this rushed marriage: Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, was a beautiful, intelligent and charismatic woman, and died in a tragedy, in the previous year. The presence of this imposing woman seems to haunt the lives of the newlyweds, and occupies every room in Manderley, as well as the hearts and minds of those who still live there. Especially, Mrs. Danvers, the sinister housekeeper, who was very devoted to Rebecca, and who considers our heroine inept for the role of “new Mrs. de Winter”.
One of the strengths of the book is your skill in describing the unfolding events from the perspective of the unnamed character’s tormented mind. When the plot seems to become monotone, it quickly – CRASH! BANG! – turns upside down. The reader’s sympathy for the little clumsy narrator intensifies, page after page, at the same pace as the intensifying discomfort with the dark atmosphere that surrounds our heroine. The malevolent housekeeper seems to stalk her as mercilessly as hunters pursue their preys.
The narrator is possibly the less stylized and more believable character in the plot. Maxim, for his part, resembles a hero of the Brontë sisters’ novels (especially Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë): he suffers obscure pains, drops intense looks and takes enigmatic decisions, exerting an undeniable fascination on the protagonist – and on the reader. The picturesque scenery and the atmosphere of suspense, with supernatural tones and a hint of violence, give the tone of the plot, which covers all the core elements of a good gothic novel: a murder; the presence of a secret first wife; a malevolent minister; a mansion haunted by the past; a terrible fire; the romance between an older man and a younger woman; and descriptions of the landscape and climate that reflect the mood of the characters (the fog that covers everything when the heroine is confused and depressed; the storm that falls precisely during the most important events).
Rebecca is a novel that revolves around the protagonist’s struggle to fight the oppressive presence of something she can not grasp nor change: the past, forever lost. Under an atmosphere that suggests bad omens, the narrative weaves together two major unexpected twists. The suspense and psychological intrigue that marked the first half of the book give way to drama and, in the end, develops itself into a kind of detective story in reverse, in which the tension rises until the final scene. After coming full circle and passing through various genres, the story then throws us back to the present time, to the exact point in which the narrative had begun.