By Frances Stebbins, Correspondent
[This is a memory from the many decades the author has been privileged to write for daily and weekly newspapers circulating in Western Virginia.]
In my “Night Person” hours, I’ve enjoyed re-reading favorite novels I discovered as I entered my teens.
Daphne duMaurier, a British woman of French theatrical ancestry, first captured my imagination with “Rebecca,” a best seller in the years just before World War II engulfed her homeland. My mother’s name and 1940 appear as its first owner.
Though it was the late author’s best-known work, it was far from the first or last. A clipping from a 1989 “Roanoke Times” reveals in her obituary that duMaurier produced 13 books, several made into Hollywood films.
When I re-read the book recently, I enjoyed it just as much as I had at 12 – and several times in between. If I like a book once, I often enjoy it just as much on re-reading.
I’m not a fan of mystery stories, and the books that the British woman produced are hardly typical. They are all written against the background of her home on the western coast of England in the county known as Cornwall. To me, that imparts a charm. I regret that when late husband Charlie and I visited the United Kingdom five times between 1985 and 1999, the closest our tours took us to the West Country was the county of Devon.
Nearly all of duMaurier’s novels – she also produced some non-fiction such as a memoir of her actor father, Gerald, and something of an autobiography, “Myself When Young,” have an element of mystery.
This is apparent especially in “Rebecca,” which is told in the first person by an unnamed shy young woman who was employed as a servile companion to a rich and domineering American woman spending time on the French resort of Monte Carlo.
There she encounters Maxim de Winter, a handsome but enigmatic widower and owner of a showplace home, Manderley, on the coast of Cornwall in England. The narrator is told by her employer that he had lost his wife a year previously; she had been drowned in her sailboat off the picturesque coast.
Meeting briefly in the dining room of the Monte Carlo hotel all shared, de Winter and the young woman, inexperienced in romance, soon became loving companions. Almost before she knew what was happening, he proposed marriage. She admits in her narrative that she was swept off her feet by his attentions quickly accepted and a simple ceremony took place in France.
All this is an opening chapter to what is to come as the couple return to Maxim’s ancestral home by the sea that had taken his former wife.
Re-reading this novel recently, I could again admire the genius of its author du Maurier in her delineation of the feelings of the narrator. At times it’s almost a stream of consciousness narrative as she first experiences the overpowering beauty of the gardens, galleries, rooms for special purposes in the mansion.
It’s all new to her, coming from a British family of a class unused to a host of servants, and especially the threatening and unwelcoming housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.
And over all lies the ghost of Rebecca, the first Mrs. De Winter, about whom the taciturn Maxim is reluctant to speak. To everyone, she appears the epitome of charm, skill and efficiency. The narrator, trying her best to make her elusive husband happy while feeling completely out of place in her surroundings, feels more inferior when the housekeeper and others continually remind her of the lost Rebecca’s charms.
Then the boat in which Rebecca reportedly had drowned is washed up on the beach in a summer storm. The unexpected happens indeed, but a reader will experience something of a happy ending.
“Rebecca” had, some 80 years ago, been set in mid-20th Century upper class England. People smoke heavily, drive about and use their telephones though, of course, television is not present in the fancy meeting rooms let alone all that came with the Digital Age. It did not seem dated to me.
Many of Du Maurier’s later books had historical backgrounds. My favorite, copyrighted in 1946, is “The King’s General.” It too is a love story with a tragic ending but set in the 17th Century of the English civil war between Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans and those loyal to King Charles I and his Catholic successors.
This Du Maurier book was timely; it was dedicated to the author’s husband, a General in the British forces invading Normandy to bring about the end of World War II. She hoped, she wrote, that he was “a more discreet one” than Sir Richard Grenville, defender of his king and a lost cause.
The stories and the countryside captivated me as a teen, collegian and into young adulthood. They impelled me to write a Freshman English term paper about Cornwall while at Richmond Professional Institute.