Monday, May 13, 2019

Gothic Suspense—Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Reviewed by Kristin

Rebecca has been one of my favorite novels since I was a teenager.  “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” remains one of the most memorable first lines ever written.  When I graduated from the young adult series featuring Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and Cherry Ames up to the dusty aisles of adult fiction at my hometown library, I found Elisabeth Oglivie, Mary Stewart, Eugenia Price, and Daphne du Maurier.  Characters who were often moodily walking across bracken filled moors or strolling on sun-dappled beaches were appealing to the landlocked Midwesterner that I was.  I’m sure I didn’t know what a moor was (until I looked it up in the encyclopedia) but it seemed to be a fine place to take brisk walks with the wind whipping across my face.

Rebecca is perhaps the best known of du Maurier’s novels, selling almost 3 million copies in the first three decades after its 1938 publication.  The unnamed narrator is the second Mrs. de Winter, the first being Rebecca—the dead first wife whose presence overshadows the Manderley estate.  Maxim de Winter and his young second wife return home to Cornwall after meeting and marrying abroad in Monte Carlo.  The narrator is fearful of not living up to the elegance and sophistication of Rebecca, a fear strongly reinforced by housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.  Not surprisingly, not all is as it seems.  What kind of gothic suspense would this be if it was predictable?  Events unfold and rise to a crescendo, teasing and tantalizing readers from the original publication to today.

Alfred Hitchcock directed the film rendition of Rebecca in 1940, which won two Academy Awards for Best Picture and Cinematography.  Featuring Sir Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and Dame Judith Anderson, the movie remains a classic well worth remembering.

Mysterious, complicated women seemed to be a favorite of du Maurier.  Recently I decided to pick up another of her titles:  My Cousin Rachel.  Confirmed bachelor Ambrose Ashley lives on a Cornwall estate and has raised his young cousin Philip as a son and heir.  Ambrose goes abroad for his health and meets Rachel, a young widow in Italy, falling in love and marrying her.  When Ambrose falls suddenly ill and dies, Philip is prepared to intensely dislike his cousin’s bride.  Rachel comes to visit the Ashley estate; Philip holds his distance as long as he is able, but soon becomes captivated by her charms.  Is Rachel what she seems?  Du Maurier is a grand dame of drawing out the suspense as the characters take actions which will change their lives forever.

What’s next?  I certainly have my choice of several novels as well as works of non-fiction set in du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall.  Her works have inspired other novelists to imagine sequels to Rebecca, including Mrs. de Winter by Susan Hill and Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman.  Du Maurier’s works remain relevant today, with devotees maintaining a website at and a Twitter account @D_DuMaurier.  Who says I can’t have one foot on those Cornish moors while I also browse the internet in search of more to read?

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