During the summer I took refuge in a second hand bookshop in Lyme Regis to get out of the pouring rain and found myself weaving around the higgledy-piggledy assortment of shelves, lazily scanning hundreds of titles to read.
The aptly named Sanctuary Bookshop on Broad Street stocks metres of books in every direction. It also has a reading room with comfortable armchairs, a cosy fire, and if you are a slow reader they can put you up in overnight accommodation. It’s a book lover’s paradise. (http://www.lyme-regis.com/)
For some reason I felt myself being drawn to the back of the shop and to a particular shelf where I found the book I’d been longing to read but never got around to doing so This was a sign, I thought, and grabbed the second-hand paperback off the shelf before anyone else suddenly took a fancy to it.
The well-worn book in my hands of Rebecca was published by Pan Books in 1978 under a fourth print run. Daphne du Maurier’s classic suspense story was first published in 1938 by Victor Gollancz and became an instant bestseller. It has never been out of print and according to the publishers Virago it still sells around 4,000 a month.
I’d seen Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of Rebecca many times and was curious to know why Hitchcock didn’t think much of his movie that brought him his first fame in Hollywood. I was rather hoping by reading the book it might shed some light on why he had taken this harsh attitude towards his movie.
The 1940 film was Hitchcock’s first in Hollywood and the only one to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Hitchcock was a close friend of Du Maurier’s father and wanted to make Rebecca several years earlier, but was unable to afford the rights to the novel. He’d already turned her novel Jamaica Inn into a film and would later direct her short story The Birds into one of his best known movies.
It got off to a bad start when the producer David O. Selznick rejected the script Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville had worked on. Selznick who was busy producing Gone With the Wind at the time was renowned for loving and understanding books. He’d insisted that the film faithfully adapted the plot of the book, including scenes and dialogues.
Here was a monumental clash of artistic differences – the producer seeking a literal approach versus the director’s visceral approach. It led to extensive re-writes, but Selznick got his movie and won Best Picture for the second year in a row after winning the same award for Gone With the Wind in 1939.
The black and white photography also won an Oscar and was put to good effect to convey the darkness of the book.
It might not have been the film that Hitchcock wanted to make but without Selznick’s interference some commentators doubt that it would have been so successful as Selznick brought a solid structure to the story, something that Hitchcock would eventually adopt in his later works.
Adapting the gothic melodrama to screen no doubt helped Hitchcock expand his repertoire from his trademark of sharp shocks to more moodier themes which eventually established him as an all-time great film director.
Hitchcock captures well the shy girl (Joan Fontaine) who suddenly enters the rich world of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and Manderley, his beautiful mansion by the sea. Mr de Winter’s immature bride acts at first passively towards the large household of servants led by the pernicious housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), who instils the idea that she is not worthy of replacing Rebecca, the late Mrs de Winter. From that moment on she is tormented by the ghost of Rebecca until she grows up to confront her demon and learn the truth about her death.
Du Maurier’s novel is a study of a new wife’s jealousy of her husband’s first wife who eventually goes on to discover that everything she had built up in her head is completely wrong. Echoes of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, possibly, but as Du Maurier admitted it was a story about a fairly common theme. In reality, it was based on her own marital experience.
Both the book and Hitchcock’s film were well received by the public. The toxic combination of jealousy and suspense has led to several versions of the story reaching the stage, television, radio, Bollywood, and even the opera.
The book is apparently read and re-read by fans the world over with many of them seeing something different in the characters each time. It is easy to understand its popularity just by reading the first opening sentence, one of the most memorable in classic fiction. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’
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