I reread few books because I was gifted with a photographic memory (which certainly helped at exam time) and speed reading (aquired with much practice). I also record each reading experience in a journal (now 5 volumes) which releases a floodgate of information at the mention of a title, a line, as sequence, a location etc. Still, every five years I find a comfortable chair and immerse myself in Tolkien. Shakespeare is welcome at any time. I never tire of Robert Frost. There are times, however, that I never want to reread a book. The memories are too graphic, violent or tragic or epic. Beloved by Angelou comes to mind, as well as Hawaii by Michner. The former is seared into my mind and with the latter I doubt I will ever have enough time to read Michner again! I suspect I will reread the 1000s of pages of the Game of Thrones series (or will the movies be enough?). In rereading, there is usually something new revealed, often enhancing my initial impressions. I suspect years and experiences contribute greatly with my feelings and interpretations on many books. Sometimes I want to reread a book to see what I missed the first time, other times I simply want to return to that special place or time. I too often don’t want to read the latest trend or what’s on Oprah’s list. I am always hunting for the next book, or the next new author.
Jonathan Yardley’s publication of Second Reading, Notable and Neglected Books Revisited, inspired me to revisit a few classics and old favourites. There are 60+ book reviews in this collection which had me seek out a few authors I had passed over- I had never heard of Paper Tigers by Stanley Woodward, nor The Fathers by Allen Tate. But when I discovered that most of one of my book groups had never read Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier, 1938), I knew we had our classic selection for the year and I checked out the BookGroup in a Bag at the Library.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again”, is the unforgettable opening line. I didn’t remember how melodramatic it now seems, and was far more impatient with the unnamed non-Rebecca wife. But this is a classic gothic novel, and much of our book discussion centered on that history. Gothic novels have haunted castles or mansions, windswept moors, usually obsessed handsome dark brooding men with defenseless young women, a few family secrets in and atmospheric romantic suspense plot. They are often adored by readers (and bestsellers!) and even more often deplored by reviewers. Some of the best gothic novels are Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! I would also include works by 19th century writers Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker and Elizabeth Gaskill. DuMaurier’s were also written as escapism and entertainment between the wars, and have delightful, accessible prose for easy reading.
The physical descriptions of the various settings of Rebecca are vivid and richly detailed. I absolutely love books and/or movies where the house is just as much a character as the people in the book! And I enjoyed learning that the house actually exists, and the success of her book enabled her to renovate the ruin and make it her home for a number of years. Much of the novel was written while she was staying in Egypt where her husband was stationed, and may also be filled with the longing and nostalgia for home.
In Rebecca, the plot has the unnamed narrator recall her past: As the companion to a rich American woman vacationing in Monte Carlo, she is courted (apparently unknowingly) by a wealthy Englishman, Maxim de Winter. After a week of courtship (not even recognising the proposal), she marries him, and they move to his Cornish mansion, Manderley. There she discovers that his first wife Rebecca is still alive in the memories of all the estate inhabitants, but especially its domineering housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, one of literature's great infamous female villains. I was actually horrified that the narrator feels relieved that Max didn’t love Rebecca when he reveals that he murdered her! (Remember the Hitchcock film has a different ending!) But because of the film, Rebecca has been in print since 1938.
I loved the comment that “If I wanted to go to Manderly again, I would just reread Rebecca.” Still, there are several books that have been approved by the du Maurier estate:
Mrs de Winter (1993), by Susan Hill is a sequel originally written in the 1980s.
The Other Rebecca (1996), by Maureen Freely is a contemporary version.
Rebecca's Tale (2001), by Sally Beauman, is a narrative of four characters affected by Rebecca. (My bookclub’s best comment: “Rebecca left no man untouched.”
Daphne by Justin Picardine, is also a fascinating fictional account of DuMaurier.
NB In Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, in the bookworld, they have accidentally cloned Mrs. Danvers which they use as troops against The Mispeling Vyrus, and other threats.
Maxim de Winter to the 2nd Mrs. de Winter “Do you remember that cliff where you first saw me in Monte Carlo?... That was where I found out about her... She stood there laughing, her black hair blowing in the wind, and told me all about herself - everything. Things I'll never tell a living soul. I wanted to kill her. It would have been so easy. Remember the precipice? I frightened you, didn't I? You thought I was mad. Perhaps I was. Perhaps I am mad. It wouldn't make for sanity, would it, living with the devil. "I'll make a bargain with you," she said. "You'd look rather foolish trying to divorce me now after four days of marriage. So I'll play the part of a devoted wife, mistress of your precious Manderley. I'll make it the most famous showplace in England, if you like. Then people will visit us and envy us and say we're the luckiest, happiest, couple in the country. What a grand show it will be! What a triumph!" I should never have accepted her dirty bargain, but I did.”
Maxim to the 2nd Mrs. de Winter “But you. I can't forget what it has done to you. I was looking at you, thinking of nothing else all through lunch. It's gone forever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved. It won't come back again. I killed that too, when I told you about Rebecca. ...It's gone, in twenty four hours. You are so much older.”
Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper to the 2nd Mrs. de Winter “So this is what's been happening during my illness! Tennis lessons, my foot! I suppose I have to hand it to you for a fast worker. How did you manage it? Still waters certainly run deep. Tell me, have you been doing anything you shouldn't?... But you certainly have your work cut out as mistress of Manderley. To be perfectly frank with you, my dear, I can't see you doing it. You haven't the experience. You haven't the faintest idea of what it means to be a great lady. Of course, you know why he's marrying you, don't you? You haven't flattered yourself that he's in love with you? The fact is that empty house got on his nerves to such an extent, he nearly went off his head. He just couldn't go on living alone... Hmmph, Mrs. de Winter! Goodbye, my dear, and good freaking luck.”
Mrs. Danvers to the 2nd Mrs. de Winter “Why don't you go? Why don't you leave Manderley? He doesn't need you. He's got his memories. He doesn't love you. He wants to be alone again with her. You've nothing to stay for. You've nothing to live for really, have you? Look down there. It's easy, isn't it? Why don't you? Why don't you? Go on. Go on. Don't be afraid.”
Book of the Moment
Michael Dirda’s On Conan Doyle (2012) just won a prestigious literary award! I have been reading it off an on since publication both because I love Sherlock Holmes and because I adore Dirda (yes, read all his books, would that I had access to his Washington Post columns!) This is a personal account of Dirda’s love affair from an early age with Sherlock Holmes through to his joining the Baker Street Irregulars, the famous group of fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He doesn’t give away any of the plots, generally discussing the fiction and nonfiction works, in a slender book. The section at the end on books that feature Sherlock is worth it alone for your next read (and he also lists a few of the best websites). I was just in Edinburgh, following a literary guide to Scottish authors and have been an avid fan of the new PBS series of modern Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Don’t forget the fantastic Mary Russell series by Laurie R King!