Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799
Rebecca is one of those novels that critics have a difficult time disrespecting. On the one hand, it does have excessive, overblown language in places, and its plot is far from original. On the other hand, the book's overwhelming approval by the general public, from its first printing in 1938 up through today, has made it in some respects immune to negative criticism, forcing reviewers to think twice before dismissing it as just one more popular romance. In general, critics have tended to take the time to find out what is effective in this novel and why it works, rather than just dismissing it because of its weaknesses.
Basil Davenport, reviewing Rebecca for the Saturday Review when it was first published, identifies the book as a mystery about who Rebecca really was and what happened to her, but he also credits du Maurier for writing so well and so compellingly that she does not have to rely on the murder mystery plot: "The book is skillfully contrived so that it does not depend only on knowledge of it for its thrill; it can afford to give no hint of it till two-thirds of the way through." Davenport goes on to explain that Rebecca is, after all, melodrama: the heroine, for one thing, is "at times quite incredibly stupid," such as when she takes advice from the housekeeper whom she knows hates her. He also points out "a forced heightening of the emotional values," a disreputable trick that melodrama relies on. Still, Davenport finds the novel "as absorbing a tale as the season is likely to bring."
As time went on, critics saw Rebecca outlive the usually short life cycle of popular romances, elbowing its way into a position in literary history. John Raymond, writing about it in the New Statesman in 1951, identifies du Maurier as "a poor woman's Charlotte Brontë" of the 1930s. He goes onto note, "Her Rebecca, whatever one's opinions of its ultimate merits, was a tour deforce." He further suggests that du Maurier's fame may have made her a force for the literary world to reckon with but that her writing had become twisted by her commercial success so that she was then writing prose that was ready to be adapted to movies. Raymond's review of My Cousin Rachel, which came at the tail end of du Maurier's prolific period of one romantic bestseller after another, describs the book:
... a honey for any Hollywood or Wardour Street tycoon. Slick, effective, utterly mechanical, the book is a triumphant and uncanny example of the way in which a piece of writing can be emasculated by unconsciously "having it arranged" for another medium.
Like Raymond, critics of the 1950s tended to cloud their judgments of du Maurier's writing with the tremendous financial success that it brought the author.
In the 1950s, du Maurier's style shifted as she focused on supernatural elements, particularly in her collection Kiss Me Again, Stranger. The short stories in that book were met with mixed enthusiasm. John Barkham's review in the New York Review of Books simply captures the acceptance of her style at the time by noting of the eight stories, "None of them is bad, and several are very good indeed." In particular, he points out the excellence of "The Birds," which was adapted years later to one of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous movies.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, du Maurier became better known as a writer of the supernatural, rather than as a romance writer who used supernatural elements to build suspense, as she had been after the success of Rebecca. Susan Hill, writing in 1971 about another collection of scary stories called Not After Midnight, notes that it was:
... a good read, and most likely, a bestseller. If only the quality of the prose matched up to her inventiveness, if only the dialog were not so banal and the descriptions so flat, we might have something more than holiday reading on our hands.
With her popularity clearly established, and the reading public jumping at the chance to buy new novels from her, du Maurier moved, in later life, to writing about real-life subjects: her father, her grandfather, her early life, the countryside where she lived, and the occasional historical figure, such as Sir Francis Bacon. Critics tended to ignore her non-fiction works, or, if they did look them over, they approached them with a polite, patronizing attitude, suggesting that they viewed them as signs of a popular writer dabbling in a hobby. Of her book about Bacon, for instance, historian Pat Rogers notes, "Daphne du Maurier has many literary gifts, but I am not sure that this book has fully enlisted them." It is likely that a review of a book by a true historian would not have been so congenial and non-critical.