Rebecca is the novel that made Daphne du Maurier famous and that remains her best-known work. Rebecca has been called a modern Jane Eyre, and there are certainly striking similarities between the two novels. In each there is a shy, poor, and rather plain heroine who takes up residence in a grand country house. Once there she is terrorized by strange goings-on, falls in love with the master of the house (an older man), and lives to see the house burned to the ground by a deranged woman. The differences are few but important. Du Maurier’s heroine is not a governess but the second wife of a man whose tempestuous first wife died under questionable circumstances. The new wife’s shyness is made more painful when she compares herself with the exotic Rebecca.
In Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester’s first wife is alive but mad and stands in the way of his marrying Jane. In the du Maurier story, Rebecca is dead but her spirit haunts the halls of Manderley and puts a strain on the marriage between Maxim and his new wife. Throughout the novel the new wife is convinced that her husband is brooding over the death of Rebecca. This misconception is reinforced by Mrs. Danvers, the sinister housekeeper who keeps Rebecca’s boudoir exactly as it used to be. She does her best to poison the heroine’s mind, even to the point of encouraging her to jump from a high window.
Maxim is distraught because the truth is that he killed Rebecca in a fit of rage, put her body in a boat, and scuttled the boat. The reader finds out later that Rebecca had deliberately goaded Maxim into killing her because she had just learned she had a terminal illness. The tension between Maxim and his young wife eases once this cloud of secrecy is lifted. Meanwhile, Mrs. Danvers, sensing defeat but unwilling to surrender, sets fire to Manderley and perishes in the conflagration, just as the mad wife does near the end of Jane Eyre.
Du Maurier said that not giving her heroine a name became a challenge to her in writing the novel. For readers it has remained the perfect way to suggest the heroine’s low self-esteem, especially since the story is told through her eyes. Above all, however, is du Maurier’s superb sense of atmosphere that, once established in the haunting opening lines, continues unflawed until the last chilling lines when the de Winters realize that the crimson glow in the sky is not the sunrise but Manderley in flames. Du Maurier’s obsession with Cornwall can be felt in every line, and it is this total sense of place that gives Rebecca its magic. Du Maurier began writing the novel when she was in Egypt with her husband while he was stationed there. In an effort to shut out the stifling heat, the harsh light, and the teeming masses, she returned in her mind to Cornwall’s chill mists and stormy seas, its craggy promontories, and its windswept beaches. The result was a modern but ageless love story—with a twist.