Monday, December 14, 2009


Probably one of the most well-known openings in fiction . . .

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. 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. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
I recently picked up a low-priced reprint of Rebecca. I had never read it before, but was very familiar with Alfred Hitchcock's wonderful film. I was completely and immediately caught up in the lush language and mise-en-scène of Manderley and its inhabitants. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and its twist—it's a bit more complicated, especially morally, than I expected, even knowing the inevitable outcome. The thriller still managed to thrill.

I couldn't help but wonder as I read Daphne Du Maurier's gothic novel, if today's youth would also allow themselves to become immersed in the atmospheric prose. So much of television dialogue is either grammatically incorrect or just plain snark, it seems. Would a kid, age 12 and above be able to get through that paragraph (lodge-keeper, padlock, the concept of a place like Manderley)?

When I was what is now called a tween I was going through my parents' paperbacks like a house on fireeverything from Agatha Christie to Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury and beyond. Of course I'm no kid now, and it's taken me all this time to run across Rebecca. Maybe I'm worrying unnecessarily. Harry Potter proves that kids have not only intelligence but stamina when it comes to reading a popular series. And J.K. Rowling hasn't dumbed down her prose.

I guess what impressed me most about Rebecca and its no-name heroine was how over-the-top it was in language, plot and drama, while still managing to give the reader a very realistic slice-of-a-very-different-way-of-life. I have always loved old black and white films. People really did live this way. Where the local rich family is thought to be the "head" of the county. Where rituals like tea and dressing for dinner and writing one's letters were the stuff of one's daily existence. Not to mention adultery and murder.

One of the most fun aspects for me in watching films like Hitchcock's Rebecca are the fabulous costumes and how the heroines are always perfectly coifed and put together. I have frequently thought that most women must have become lazy over the years, as no one dresses or grooms themselves like that anymore. But Du Maurier sheds light on the second Mrs. De Winter's life in one quick scene as she marvels during a crisis how the ordinary routines of life continue - the tea table being laid, the tray of cakes and scones, the shoes being set outside the door at night to be polished . . . Of course. Domestic help. Anyone can look perfect if they have someone to polish their shoes each night.

In Rebecca the narrator is always looking in, as the reader is, on a vanished way of life. She watches Maxim De Winter from afar in Monte Carlo, first hearing about him through gossip. After they are married she constantly feels the interloper as she sees traces of Rebecca everywhere - her desk and its accoutrements, her closet and its impeccably kept wardrobe, her dressing table with its immaculate brushes. She is always creating scenes in her imagination of what she thinks has happened, or will happen, as if she is actually a witness, although she is rarely correct or ever allowed to participate. She is a voyeur of her own life, which is why the book leant itself so well to film and undoubtedly why it would have attracted the ultimate voyeur Hitchcock.

If my daughter picks this book up someday and dives in, she will be even a few more steps away from understanding the historical context than I was. But good fiction can still pull you in. And Rebecca is definitely good, haunting, disturbing, enjoyable.


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