Friday 21 September 2018

Rebecca - the grandmother of great grip-lit

As Virago reissues a special new edition of Daphne du Maurier's classic, Claire Coughlan talks to contemporary authors about what is now seen as the original psychological thriller

Novelist Daphne du Maurier pictured in 1947
Novelist Daphne du Maurier pictured in 1947

Claire Coughlan

'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." It's one of the most recognisable opening sentences in popular fiction, endlessly evocative, a 'killer', to coin a phrase. As novelist Sarah Perry says in her introduction to Virago's new edition of Rebecca, which features a hand-stitched embroidered jacket: "Every novelist since has ground their teeth in envy: here is all the enchantment of a child's story, with an irresistible melancholy hung about it."

This opening has an epic, romantic sweep to it, but Rebecca is arguably anything but a romance, though it was considered to be one when it was first published. Narrated by a naive young girl who marries a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter, and becomes morbidly preoccupied with his first wife, the eponymous Rebecca, it is a dark, gripping story of obsession and murder that begins and ends with Manderley, the magnificent stately home of the family into which the unnamed young narrator has married.

As Sarah Perry also says in her introduction: "This, however, is not a book to be trusted. Du Maurier holds up the gilded mirror in which Manderley is reflected, but first she broke the glass."

In Books to Die For (Hodder), an excellent compendium of essays on crime fiction that was edited by novelists Declan Burke and John Connolly, crime writer Minette Walters cited Rebecca as being "a consummate psychological thriller".

Erin Kelly, author of the bestselling He Said/She Said (Hodder), agrees, saying she first read Rebecca at the age of 14.

"Back then I saw a romance: now, of course, I know it is the greatest psychological thriller of all time. I see du Maurier as a forerunner to Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Gillian Flynn: she is the giant whose magnificent shoulders the rest of us stand upon."

Tammy Cohen, author of psychological suspense novels such as When She Was Bad and They All Fall Down (Transworld), as well as historical mystery under the pseudonym Rachel Rhys, calls Rebecca "the original psychological thriller", the precursor to modern-day bestsellers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train and The Woman in the Window.

Just as those books do, it plays with our perception of truth and reality until, like the second Mrs de Winter, we have no idea who to trust.

"Like all modern-day psychological thriller writers, I try to emulate the building sense of menace that du Maurier managed so effortlessly in Rebecca which comes partly from the characters not knowing what is real, but also from the author's understanding of the murky depths of the human psyche," says Cohen.

"Du Maurier characters are multi-layered, flawed and often morally ambiguous, neither black nor white. That's definitely something I try to be aware of in my own writing - that sense of the darkness that's inside all of us."

Sales of Rebecca continue to soar, 80 years since its publication. Crime writer Amanda Jennings, whose most recent novel, The Cliff House, is due out in May, published by HarperCollins imprint HQ, thinks that Rebecca will "forever be relevant".

"For starters, the writing is pitch perfect, describing the characters in fine detail so we are sitting in the morning room with them, worrying about breaking the n n cupid, wanting Mrs Danvers to leave the poor girl alone.

"But more than that, du Maurier expertly plays on the reader's own feelings, tapping into those very human emotions of jealousy and self-doubt and the way we can't help but worry about what others think of us. At some time or another, we all fear we aren't good enough, especially when we are in a relationship where the balance of power is unequal, and this wreaks havoc with our confidence," she says.

"Plus, as unputdownable psychological thrillers gain in popularity year on year, this is one of the best on the shelves. I have no doubt that Rebecca will continue to bewitch new readers for generations."

Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin, director of the Inkwell literary consultancy, who writes crime fiction under the name Sam Blake such as Little Bones and In Deep Water (Bonnier Zaffre) featuring the kick-boxing heroine Cat Connolly, cites Rebecca as her favourite book of all time. She also collects first editions of the novel.

"I read Rebecca in the late 1980s when I was at university in London," she says. "Because I was totally broke, I used to wander around the second-hand floors in Waterstones in Gower Street and I found an ancient copy that someone had put down rather randomly on top of a pile of books on architecture I think.

"It's the perfectly told story, a potent blend of romance, intrigue and psychological suspense that is multi-layered with symbolism and imagery, and brilliant scene setting.

"It's perfectly paced with stunning twists. The characters resonate with you long after you've finished the book, scenes haunt you, it's unforgettable." Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, is published by Virago Modern Classics, €14.99

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