“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This, surely, is one of the most oft-cited openers in literary history. The immediate, enduring popularity of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca makes perfect sense: Wreathed in shadows—our narrator likens Manderley to “the forest in a Grimm’s fairy tale”—the novel creates a terrifying, compelling hermetic world in which the conscious and the subconscious, the living and the dead, brush up against each other. So vividly depicted that we can see it, Manderley is a place where all boundaries are in flux: shore and sea, house and garden, inside and outside, real and imaginary.
Du Maurier was a great gothic writer, a worthy successor to Poe and Collins, but she combined this gift for the ghostly with a Freudian perspicacity about the fantasies, anxieties, and struggles of emerging female selfhood and an intimate frankness about those struggles. It’s no surprise that so many first read Rebecca as teenagers, because, at its heart, it’s a novel about the challenge of making your way in the shadow of others’ perceived expectations. Class, social prowess, history, beauty, sexuality, independence—the late Rebecca de Winter had it all: She is the ideal woman, the Vogue model, the cipher celebutante against whom so many of us, as young girls, painfully measured ourselves.
In Rebecca, of course, our narrator is (perforce) an orphan, with no safe guide to adulthood. Her two models—Mrs. Van Hopper, her repellent, socially ambitious employer, and Mrs. Danvers, the terrifying Manderley housekeeper—are set on undermining rather than assisting her. Mrs. Danvers emerges as the repository of all darkness and, complicatedly, in her Sapphic obsession with Rebecca, as both the inversion and the enforcement of the social order.
Rebecca compels in its tenebrous secrets, but of course it satisfies and—for fifteen-year-old girls, relieves—in its triumph of “good” over “evil.” The cost of that triumph is innocence, which is inevitably the cost of adulthood for us all.
Du Maurier’s story was fantastic and antiquated when published in 1938, but it has direct relevance even today: Think of Kate the commoner and William the prince, marrying beneath the ghost of Diana, a Rebecca in her own right. Less literally, it stands indelibly as an exploration of what it means for any young woman to grow up, to enter the world burdened by its expectations and her own fantasies, to awake into all the dark complications of desire.
Claire Messud's most recent novel is The Emperor's Children (Knopf, 2006).