I paid homage to Daphne DuMaurier’s “Rebecca” the way that all writers show their love: I stole from it.
The opening line of this book is as good as a ghost beckoning you down a dark corridor. It evokes the feeling of loss, of haunting. It follows that up with sun-dappled reminiscences of the good times in a tone that can only mean there is no way to go back to that place. As opening paragraphs go, “Rebecca” punches in the same weight class as Shirley Jackson.
When I was young, I didn’t know my family well. We weren’t (and still aren’t) close. Whenever someone I was related to told me what their favorite book was, or what a departed member’s favorite had been, I tracked it down as a means to know them better. This led me to some truly terrible novels (“The Calico Palace,” thanks, Grandma) but also some great ones. “Rebecca” was my oldest sister’s favorite. She had been a grown woman by the time I was more than a larva. I didn’t know her, but I could know this book.
Oh and I knew “Rebecca” in the biblical sense. I went headfirst into the gothic adoration of an old and storied house. I drank deep of the rivalry that exists between first and second wife. I observed with unease born of several mothers the cold obsession of the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. I read it when I was scarcely beginning to understand my queerness; the torrid meanings of glances and petting empty fur coats were still occluded in my babyish eyes.
Which meant I was free to make a romantic hero of Maxim, the tall dark rich and handsome murderer who has no personality and just glowers at our unnamed heroine. (Yes, I stole that, too. I thought I had never seen a trick as good as DuMaurier robbing her protagonist of a name of her own. I couldn’t resist trying it out.) Maxim was a suit of clothes; an empty gesture of romantic fulfillment like when Briar Rose dances with an owl wearing an air-puffed cloak in Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.” I didn’t yet know how to accept the unblinking adoration of a lover’s reliquary like Mrs. Danvers. I had dreams about Maxim DeWinter. I had dreams about Manderley. That place was as real to me as any I had ever seen in life.
It is ironic bordering on the ridiculous now to recall how much I loved stories about estates and inheritances and entails during this period in my life, which was punctuated by evictions and stints of homelessness or near-homelessness. It was as if these haunted houses on the moors were compromised and I could imagine having them, if they were distressed enough. If Tara were auctioned for taxes. If rich people fell on hard enough times, I might get trickled-down into a house that couldn’t be taken from me. I might have my own Manderley.
I did not, but I had this book as a constant companion for years. I learned to bury the truth in a story from this book, how to misdirect and raise the specter of a bad boy to deflect attention from an actual monster. I learned a lot about how to make a setting become a character in the story; to treat weather like news and dress fabric like text. DuMaurier wrote like a woman and was one of the first woman authors I really knew, whose footsteps I knew I could follow.
I follow them back to Manderley, again and again.