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Rebecca Redux

by John Charles

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 RA News Newsletter. Sign up for this and other newsletters.


Book jacket

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." The first sentence of Rebecca is one of the most famous opening lines in English literature, and with these enigmatic words Daphne du Maurier sweeps readers away on a spellbinding journey of suspense and romance. A bestseller in both England and the United States, Rebecca has inspired an Academy award-winning movie, several noted PBS productions, more than a few literary "sequels," and a legion of books that aspire to evoke the same delicious combination of passion and peril found in du Maurier's timeless novel.

The plot of Rebecca centers on an unnamed heroine, who meets the mysterious and wealthy Maximilian de Winter while working in the South of France as a companion to a wealthy American. The novel's heroine is caught up in a whirlwind romance with Maxim, marries him, and returns with her new husband to Manderley, his estate in Cornwall. Once there, the heroine finds her marriage threatened by the ghostly presence of Maxim's first wife, the cruelly beautiful Rebecca.

Rebecca is a classic for many reasons: the subtly maintained level of chilling suspense in the plot, the book's brilliantly realized, wonderfully atmospheric setting, and du Maurier's elegant yet seemingly effortless writing style. In addition, by cleverly concealing the heroine's name throughout the entire novel, du Maurier not only flawlessly executed a literary tour de force, she also created an "everywoman" protagonist with whom readers can easily identify. Readers could not get enough of Rebecca's bewitching blend of danger and desire, and the novel became the gold standard by which all romantic suspense novels are now judged.

Sequels (Official and Unofficial)

Once a reader finishes Rebecca, however, they are often at a loss to find another novel that provides the same beguiling combination of suspense and romance. Unsurprisingly, the first place to which many readers turn are books written as sequels (both authorized and not) to Rebecca.

Mrs. De Winter, written by critically acclaimed British author Susan Hill, was the first sequel to Rebecca authorized by du Maurier's estate; it was published in 1993 on the 55th anniversary of the original novel's publication. Hill's story begins ten years after the events in Rebecca. The second Mrs. de Winter and her husband Maxim return home to England to attend the funeral of Maxim's sister Beatrice. While going through the flowers and wreaths sent for the funeral, the heroine discovers a card signed with a single letter: a boldly written, black letter "R"  --  exactly as Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, had signed all of her correspondence.

British writer Sally Beauman, who was openly critical of Hill's attempt to continue the story of the second Mrs. de Winter, penned the next authorized sequel -- the aptly titled Rebecca's Tale,-- in 2001. Here, writer Terence Gray arrives in Cornwall twenty years after Rebecca's death to find out everything he can about the first mistress of Manderley and her mysterious death. The book is told from four different viewpoints: that of Gray himself, Colonel Julyan, the magistrate who presided over the inquest into Rebecca's demise, the Colonel's unmarried daughter Ellie, and Rebecca herself in the form of a manuscript she left behind.

Maureen Freely's The Other Rebecca was originally published in Great Britain in 1996 but did not make its American debut until 2000. While not an authorized sequel, The Other Rebecca maintains a strong connection to du Maurier's novel (along with providing a serious nod towards the complicated marriage of real-life poet Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes). Freely transposes her tale to the present day, where the heroine (also unnamed), is an aspiring author working as a companion to a wealthy American woman on the island of Mallorca. There she meets Max Midwinter, a poet and publisher, whose own literary fame has been eclipsed by that of his first wife, the late Rebecca. As in Rebecca, the heroine marries Max after a whirlwind courtship and goes to live at his English estate, Beckfield. At Beckfield, the heroine finds herself entangled in lies and deceit as she attempts to discern the truth about Max's first marriage.

British author Mary Stewart's superior novels of romantic suspense reflect many of the popular elements found in Rebecca. Stewart's own elegantly subtle writing style closely matches that of du Maurier. With stories often set in  evocative European settings, Stewart delivers the romance and suspenseful thrills that fans of Rebecca crave. While any of Stewart's novels of romantic suspense are good choices for readers in search of their next Rebecca fix, suggest either Nine Coaches Waiting, in which Linda Martin arrives at Chateau Valmy for a job as governess only to begin to wonder if her new employer could be a killer, or Madame Will You Talk, in which Charity Selborne and Louise Cray's vacation in the south of France takes an unexpected and deadly turn.

Susanna Kearsley and Caroline Llewellyn are two other writers with a gift for channeling du Maurier. Kearsley has written a number of award-winning novels of romantic suspense (some with a dash of the paranormal), and all of her books offer readers gripping plots in which the past and the present collide, and wonderfully atmospheric settings like those of Rebecca. A perfect example of this is Season of Storms, in which actress Celia Sands travels to Italy to play the lead role in Alessandro D'Asanio's production of his grandfather's play -- only to be plunged into past mysteries and present dangers.

Caroline Llewellyn's four novels of romantic suspense  evoke echoes of du Maurier's gem. Her thrilling stories combine mystery and romance  while offering a strong sense of place. False Light' is a particularly good suggestion for Rebecca readers, since it is set in Cornwall at a mysterious house named Kerreck Du. American Dana Morrow has come to Kerreck Du hoping to further her research on the life of Victorian spiritualist Marianna Hobhouse, but her work is interrupted by a killer who might very well be Daniel Finn, whose family currently owns the estate.

Two other novels of note for Rebecca buffs are The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson, and American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin. Lawrenson's homage to du Maurier centers on a heroine referred to only as "Eve." She has a whirlwind affair with Dom, an, enigmatic Englishman who purchases a farmhouse called Les Genevriers, the former home of famous French perfumer Marthe Lincel. Eve moves in to Les Genevriers with Dom and quickly becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Dom's first wife, Rachel (perhaps a nod to another of du Maurier's novels My Cousin Rachel) as well as the mysterious fate of Marthe.

Daisy Goodwin's American Heiress puts a historical spin on the Rebecca story. Set in the late 19th century, the book's heroine Cora Cash is one of the many American heiresses, whose family fortunes landed them a titled Englishman for a husband. But once Cora arrives at her new husband's estate in England, she finds herself competing for her husband's affection with the memory of his first true love. Its older historical setting aside, American Heiress shares many of  Rebecca's key characteristics: a heroine striving to earn her new husband's love, a grand English estate, and another woman who threatens to destroy any hope the heroine may have for a happy-ever-after ending.

Almost seventy-five years ago Daphne du Maurier created reading magic with the publication of Rebecca. Over the years other authors have attempted to recreate that same brand of literary alchemy, whether by following directly in Rebecca's footsteps or more subtly evoking the novel's spirit. Regardless, readers will be happy to discover it is possible to return to Manderley again.

 


John Charles is an Adult Services Librarian for the Scottsdale (AZ) Public Library. In addition to reviewing for Library Journal and Booklist, Charles is the co-author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Mystery 2nd Ed. (ALA, 2012), The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Ultimate Reading List (Alpha Books, 2007), and Romance Today: An A to Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance Writers (Greenwood, 2006).