2007 TBR Challenge #8
It’s not much fun being companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, an overpowering woman who latches onto everyone in Monte Carlo who’s even remotely well-known. She meets her match in Maxim de Winter, a mysterious widower said to be unable to get over the drowning of his wife. He fends her off easily and at the same time strikes up a friendship with her companion. Usually awkward and painfully shy. she is able to talk freely to him; and when offered a choice between accompanying her employer to America or marrying him, she chooses the latter.
She goes with him to Manderley, where her youth and inexperience show themselves to worst advantage. The succession of introductions and social calls are a trial to her, and ignorant of how to run a household she finds herself deferring and apologising to the servants, who direct her as to how the house was run under the first Mrs. de Winter. Which only makes things worse, as she has a constant conviction that people are comparing her to her predecessor. Rebecca was everything her replacement is not: beautiful, charming, well-dressed, sociable - an accomplished hostess and ideal mistress of Manderley. Her impression of inferiority is reinforced by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who idolised Rebecca and is implacably hostile toward her successor. Then a chance discovery forces her to either come out of her shell and take charge of her new life, or risk seeing it all slip away.
At the end of the year I will have to count up all the books I’ve read featuring anonymous (or pseudonymous) characters. There have been a few, and this makes another. Here it’s effective because she spends much of the book taking her identity from her relation to the people around her: Mrs Van Hopper’s companion, Rebecca’s successor. It’s only later in the book that she really begins to act in her own right, and when she does it’s to step fully into Rebecca’s place and banish her from Manderley. A name would have suggested something beyond those roles, and perhaps made it difficult to believe her ability to get absorbed in them. I liked her and related to her; I know just what it’s like to be perpetually tongue-tied, and the line
I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth.struck a chord. In her place I would have been just as awkward and uncertain (though a lot more suspicious of Mrs. Danvers’s helpful suggestion regarding the costume party).
The story is told in the first person, which immerses you in all the poor heroine’s doubts and speculations and conjures quite an atmosphere. Past or off-stage events aren’t completely shut out, though, thanks to her vivid imagination; she pictures things so clearly that it can be hard to remember that that’s not necessarily how they happened. Another result of the narration style is that Maxim remains a mystery for much of the book; it’s only after the truth comes out that he is shown to be more than just your typical romantic hero. But his sister Beatrice I adored from the start, with her no-nonsense manners and carefree driving. And Mrs. Danvers ... now I know why the BookWorld’s Danvers clones (in the Thursday Next books) were such a fearsome sight. I don’t know which was more unnerving: her blank unfriendliness, her active hostility, or her tears and fawning. Seeing the heroine take charge of Manderley and set her in her place was a delight. It’s not even every book that you get to see a character transform themselves so utterly and I loved seeing it, even as I wished I could do the same (though without the preceding ordeals).
It does start out slowly; this was actually my second attempt at this book, the first having ended before page 50. This time I persevered, though by page 130 I was really beginning to wish that something would happen. Then it did, and during an unexpectedly long gap between classes I happily curled up in a big library chair and read for hours. Having heard enough about the book that I practically knew the plot already didn’t hinder my enjoyment; it was fun spotting the little clues that you normally only see the second time through. And then I discovered that not everything had been given away; there was something that I hadn’t heard of. No matter how much of the plot you’ve had given away by various sources, it’s still a suspenseful read; and if you can get up to where events really start moving, a rewarding one.