A dream - or two - of Manderley, by Ali Bacon

For the last few months I’ve been helping with a teenage book-club and the breadth of reading of these 12 – 14 year-olds is awe-inspiring. Pride and Prejudice and The Help get equal billing with comic books, Harry Potter and Maze Runners. What was I reading at that age? Apart from school Home Readers and a few children's classics, mostly the novels loved by my parents and already on our bookshelves at home. I mean authors like Howard Spring, Nevil Shute, Hammond Innes, Alistair McLean. 

Those we have loved
This brought me to think about the lifespan of popular novels, books regarded as de rigeur by one generation and elevated to classics or simply neglected by the next. I mean is anyone still reading Rider-Haggard – adventure novels par excellence of my parents’ generation? Will The Thorn Birds, possibly the most popular novel of my twenties, still be around when my own copy has been consigned to the bin by grieving (I hope) offspring? Is there some characteristic other than literary excellence that gives a book longevity?

Sequel - or prequel?
Coincidentally my reading club theme for this month is the ‘spin-off’ novel, aka fan fiction. Already familiar with lots of Austen spin-offs (including Valerie’s!) and not particularly interested in sub-Bond confections, I hit on the idea of reading Mrs De Winter by Susan Hill which after reading some dire reviews I hastily amended to Rebecca’s Tale by Sally BeaumanAnd it occurred to me that if a book elicits tributes (or more cynically cash-ins?) by later writers this must surely be a sign of an enduring appeal. 
As luck would have it the library also had a copy of Du Maurier's original Rebecca on the shelves, so off I went to refresh my memory and work out why this story has been revisited so many times. 

For anyone who needs reminding, from its famously rhythmical opening, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," Rebecca is a humdinger of a read. I’ve read many great novels this year (i.e. interesting, engaging, engrossing, sometimes challenging!) but this was the first one in ages that has given me that longing between reading sessions to be curled up with the book. Yes it is dated now, a period piece in which everyone speaks like Celia Johnson (or Victoria Wood's version of Celia Johnson!) Nor is the description particularly brilliant, but there is a hypnotic rhythm to the writing and the voice of the hapless narrator never falters in a piece of simply awesome storytelling.

But in some ways I’m still surprised this book has spawned so many genuflections. Most ‘fan fiction’ draws on a series or body of work: a colleague of mine had a secret life writing sub-Brent-Dyer Chalet School adventures, and Jane Austen, although hardly a cult read, does at least give her Janeites a whole world and social milieu to recreate, not to mention characters we long to follow. But Rebecca is a one-off. Its narrator, the second Mrs de Winter, is more infuriating than lovable, and the other characters have little scope for development. And despite its abrupt ending, the questions asked by the story are pretty much answered. Chapter 2, "We can never go back again, that much is certain. the past is still too close to us" (heck, another stonking line!) tells us what happens in the end. The only real mystery is the name of the heroine (or anti-heroine) and surely her anonymity is non-negotiable.  I’m only a short way into Sally Beauman’s book and so far she is rightly, I think, telling Rebecca’s story through new characters or those who play a small role in the original.

Saved from obscurity?
What gives this book its iconic status? Hitchcock and co must have helped, just as he made The Thirty-Nine Steps the best known of John Buchan's cannon. The other factor is the location, the sense that the house itself has a character and a part to play. The whole first chapter of Rebecca is a description of the ruined Manderley. It is a novel of jealousy and obsession, which according to this article, might be the author’s as well as the heroine’s. Perhaps this is what gives it its pulling power. 

I think Beauman is going to prove a good choice for my spin-off theme, but although I’m enjoying Rebecca’s Tale I’m not sure I’m going to fall in love with it. More importantly, is the original Rebecca going to be as popular in the future, or has its come to the end of its natural innings? When I asked my teenagers, none of them had heard of the book or the film. But they have now! They‘ll be the ones to decide if this is an all-time classic or simply so last century


Wendy H. Jones said…
Thanks for this. It has made me think. Also now I want to revisit Rebecca
AliB said…
You should Wendy! A.
Great post, Ali! I love Rebecca. Love the movie, too. 'I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool!' - Olivier was so brilliant. Somebody was telling me recently that she knew of a group of young women who had rediscovered Rebecca and were reading the novel enthusiastically, so I suspect it will last. There will probably be another television adaptation coming along soon. There was a radio dramatisation a long, long time ago, probably back in the 1950s because I remember sitting in my nana's kitchen and listening on an old 'wireless'. I remember the opening lines, vividly - and even though I was very young indeed and it was some years before I was even old enough to read the novel, I remember the sheer magic of them. I asked my mum and my aunty 'what is that?' and they said 'It's Rebecca of course.' It sparked an early interest in drama and fiction at the same time, I think: the sudden realisation that you could make things like this up!
Mari Biella said…
I love Rebecca - and I hope that its popularity will continue for a long, long time. It certainly has intrigue enough to keep people guessing for generations to come: as you pointed out, Ali, the second Mrs de Winter could be seen as either a heroine or an anti-heroine. We don't know why the narrator remains unnamed. We don't know whether the characters' memories of Rebecca represent the truth - indeed, truth and artifice are recurring themes. I've re-read the novel several times, and each time I find something new there.
Susan Price said…
I think that's the secret isn't it? - Can you re-read and re-read it? Do you find something new each time? If you can, it's going to last.
There was a post somewhere reblogged on the Passive Voice recently about the supposed fact that kids reread books while adults don't. Pretty much all of us commenting observed that the original post was quite wrong. There were some books - quite a lot of books in many cases - that we can read again and again and again. I know I do!It's like meeting old friends. And Rebecca is definitely one of them.
Lydia Bennet said…
thanks for the namecheck Ali! The power of some books to lurk in the imagination and keep drawing people back is not easily explicable. Rebecca is one of those books you'd feel as if you had read if you hadn't (there are lots of films like that too) as it's referenced so often. Frankenstein is another - impact beyond the actual words of the book, and interestingly the main character has no name, as with Rebecca. Spooky!

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