Rebecca is a novel by English author Daphne du Maurier. Since it was written in 1938, the book has never gone out of print. The novel is remembered for the character Mrs. Danvers, the fictional estate Manderley, and its opening lines.
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again… I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.’
With those famous opening lines du Maurier created one of the classic Gothic romances.
Rebecca is written as a flashback. The heroine, who remains nameless, lives in Europe with her husband, Maxim de Winter, traveling from hotel to hotel, harbouring memories of a beautiful home called Manderley, which, we learn, has been destroyed by fire. The story begins with her memories of how she and Maxim first met, in Monte Carlo, years before.
As the story begins, the heroine is working as the traveling companion to a wealthy American named Mrs. Van Hopper and Maxim is staying at the same hotel. After knowing the heroine for only a few weeks, he proposes marriage. She accepts, they marry and he takes her back to his ancestral estate of Manderley. But a dark cloud hangs over their marriage. Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, drowned in a cove near Manderley the previous year, and her ghost haunts the newlyweds’ home. Rebecca’s devoted housekeeper, the sinister Mrs. Danvers, is still in charge of Manderley, and she frightens and intimidates her new mistress. Despite the encouragement of the house overseer, Frank Crawley, and Maxim’s sister, Beatrice, the heroine struggles in her new life. She feels that she can never compare favourably to Rebecca, who was beautiful, talented, and brilliant. And she becomes convinced that Maxim is still in love with his dead wife.
Manderley traditionally hosts a costume ball each year, and it is soon time for the gala to take place. Swept up in the preparations, the heroine’s spirits begin to revive. But the ball ends in disaster. On Mrs. Danvers’s suggestion she wears a costume that turns out to be the same dress that Rebecca wore at the last ball. Upon seeing his wife, Maxim is horrified, and the heroine becomes convinced that he will never love her, that he is still devoted to Rebecca. The following day, Mrs. Danvers almost convinces her to kill herself, and she only breaks away from the old woman’s spell when rockets go off over the cove, signalling that a ship has run aground. When divers swim near the grounded ship, they find the wreckage of Rebecca’s sailboat, with Rebecca’s body in the hold. This discovery prompts the uncovering of a series of secrets that lead to the book’s dramatic ending.
Laurence Olivier immortalised the moody figure of Maxim in Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning 1940 film and Joan Fontaine excelled as the naïve innocent caught in Mrs Danvers’s sights. The novel has repeatedly been adapted for stage and screen. There has even been Rebecca: The Musical, which had a three-year run in Vienna before moving to Japan, Germany, South Korea and Sweden.