I’m a big Hitchcock fan – I’ve seen over twenty of his movies, and when AllNight’s Jason Smith asked me (off air) the other day which was my favorite, I scuffled a little, because it’s hard to pick one. I eventually went with North by Northwest, although I considered Rear Window and To Catch a Thief (Two hours of Grace Kelly? Hell yeah!) first. But there’s one major Hitchcock flick I’ve yet to see, because I wanted to read the book first: his adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.
My wife had a copy of Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn in the house for years, but I never considered reading it because it was a purple mass-market paperback that looked like a trashy romance novel (which is odd, because my wife never reads that crap). Then I noticed Hitchcock had adapted that book as well – it’s a 1933 film before he came to Hollywood, and the print that still survives is low quality, with horrible audio – and my wife told me I was being an idiot. It turns out that it’s an incredible suspense novel with a faint romantic element, and it has a steady crescendo that accelerates through the last two-thirds of the book or so. I enjoyed the book even more because I’d recently finished The Lighthouse Stevensons, a nonfiction book that describes the construction of lighthouses around the coast of England by the family that also produced Robert Louis Stevenson, and which gave me a lot of background that made the plot of Jamaica Inn clearer.
Rebecca is a different kind of suspense novel than Jamaica Inn, eschewing the protagonist-in-mortal-danger motif for a more psychological one, with jealousy as its dominant theme. The narrator, a never-named 21-year-old woman, marries Maxim de Winter, a 42-year-old widower who lives on an estate called Manderley in rural England. Maxim’s previous wife, Rebecca, was killed in a boating accident just under a year prior, and it appears that the staff, particularly the sinister Mrs. Danvers, are none too pleased about his quick remarriage. The discovery of the boat Rebecca was sailing when she died sets off a chain of events that put Maxim, his wife, and Manderley into danger, but largely danger of a psychological sort rather than a physical one. Jealousy flies in all directions from multiple characters, notably the narrator’s jealousy of her deceased predecessor and Mrs. Danvers’ jealousy of the narrator for taking Rebecca’s place.
Du Maurier’s prose is fantastic, as she has a clear eye and an easy way of imparting the details of the environment, particularly anything out of doors, to the reader, and her dialogue is quick and intelligent. The story itself flows brilliantly, hinging on small twists of fate and relying more on the realistic actions of its characters to drive the plot forward. And the characters are given multiple dimensions, although the narrator’s timidity – overcoming which is a background theme in the novel – made me want to slap her a handful of times after she first arrived at Manderley.
Rebecca also owes a significant debt to Jane Eyre, another novel of a somewhat-forbidden relationship set in a large, foreboding country estate. I hate to apply the word “gothic” to any novel, given the connotations the word has today, but these are two clear masterpieces of English literature and transcend the limitations that “gothic” might seem to impose on a work of fiction.
All that said, I think I preferred Jamaica Inn for its intensity and the way it builds to a big, long climax to Rebecca‘s more grounded and perhaps more realistic drama of speech and situation, even though Rebecca stands up better to literary analysis â€¦ and is the only one that comes in a non-purple, trade-paperback edition.