Monday, October 31, 2011

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Every scene in this book has the feel of an Edward Gorey illustration.


After King, Queen, Knave, I continued the theme of novels mocking the upper classes of pre-World War II Europe with Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, knowing nothing of the novel or the plot beyond the fact that a well-known Alfred Hitchcock film had been based on it.

As it turns out, Rebecca is the story of a naive young nameless heroine, who marries a much older English landed aristocrat and goes off to live at his immense estate. She is never able to escape the disapproving looks of the estate's staff, led by Mrs. Danvers, who can't help comparing her unfavorably to Rebecca, her husband's dead first wife and the novel's title character.

Unfortunately, the protagonist suffers from what TV Tropes, with its talent for description, calls Wrong Genre Savvy. She thinks she's the lead character in a fairly standard romantic story, and believes that her husband is still pining after his dead wife. She thinks her role is to convince her husband that he should let Rebecca go and he should live for the future, and to find a way to make peace with mean old Mrs. Danvers.

The, when the novel's half finished, some fundamentally game-changing bits of information come to light.

I was able to read Rebecca totally unspoiled, so I got to spend the first half of the novel raging at the heroine for being such a spineless wilting nonentity who let Mrs. Danvers bully her to her heart's content, and the second half fascinated to find out how the suddenly much more compelling plot would play itself out.

Never having seen the Hitchcock film, I imagined Mrs. Danvers as looking like a malevolent version of Professor McGonagall as played by Maggie Smith in the last Harry Potter movie -- basically, a strong, imperious old lady. Apparently in the film version her character's interpreted quite differently, by Dame Judith Anderson. She's quite younger (Anderson was in her 40s), and rather than coming across as a vengeful mother figure who has lost her child (as in the novel), her relationship with Rebecca has lesbian undertones instead. Either interpretation works, I suppose, but they're mutually exclusive (one would hope).

If I do see the movie version, I'm sure the alternative Mrs. Danvers will find an equal home in my imagination.

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