Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Narrator

My mother's battered old copy of 'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier sits in my lap. It's a UK Penguin edition which originally sold for 30p, and I'm halfway through its musty, yellow pages. A story of a young girl who marries the widowed Maxim de Winter and finds herself having to get to grips with Manderley, his Cornish estate, and the ghost of its former mistress, the beautiful Rebecca. Reading it for the first time, it's captivating me. I've always been told “It's your sort of book”, but although they were right, I didn't like to be told; I had to choose to read it myself. These five words echo in my head as I progress through the chapters. What had they meant? And why were they so certain? I'm a little taken aback by their accuracy; that they know me so well. What gave me away? Was it my fondness for remnants from bygone eras? For crumbling great houses and life below stairs? Perhaps people thought, 'She belongs to a National Trust property', like a figurine that could be dusted and polished, and kept on display in the drawing room. Or perhaps they thought, 'She'd make a fine housekeeper in a black dress with a belt of keys fastened around her.' That must be it, but I'm also struck by the closeness I feel to the heroine. The nameless narrator. It's natural to compare yourself to the central character, but like the ghostly presence of Rebecca, this feels almost sinister.
From chapter two I knew the narrator was out of her depth. She wasn't cut out as a companion to Mrs Van Hooper or as Maxim de Winter's new wife. She was too inexperienced and sensitive to criticism. Her life handicapped by her awkwardness and her intense desire to please. I can relate to that, as I too have trailed in the wake of those I judged to be superior 'like a shy, uneasy colt.' I've imagined scenarios, conversations, and other people's thoughts in my head. But unlike the narrator who is looking back, I wonder if this diffidence will ever leave me. Uncertainty plagues me as it does in her words and voice. Should she try to imprint her habits on the house or take over the first Mrs de Winter's? Use the library instead of the morning room; light fires and order tea at unspecified hours. She thinks of it, but refrains from acting on it, remaining passive. She can't assert herself over the staff or the dead Mrs de Winter. We share the same unspoken thoughts: What exactly is my role? Where do I fit in this? What belongs to me? She doesn't own her Christian, maiden or her married name. Mrs Danvers treats her like an intrusive guest, and her husband as if she were a child. She compares herself unfavourably to the former mistress of Manderley. Her devil is the spirit of Rebecca, while mine is society.
The turning point for the narrator is not the twist, but the personal revelations that come from it. In piecing the truth together, she realises what she believed was imaginary. The Rebecca that loomed in her constant thoughts was an illusion. She wonders how many other people, have 'built up a great distorted wall in front of them.' I'm one of them. Like her, I find it hard to break out from my 'web of shyness and reserve,' and I recognise this, as society does, as a weakness. I too have 'built up false pictures in my mind and sat before them.' I've made comparisons, perceiving others as perfect, clever and capable. It turns out this is society's illness, not mine to bear alone.
As I read on, I continually returned to the novel's beginning because this is the genuine ending. Here, the narrator speaks with new-found confidence and maturity. The shadows have dispersed; the narrator has won, not Rebecca.