The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave. Rebecca has been described as being a Cinderella story where the fairy godmother is replaced by an older successful gentleman. It is also considered one of the first major gothic romance novels of the 20th century. The narrative contains some classic gothic elements: a house haunted by a previous occupant, a brooding hero, a mad woman, melodramatic tension, and a house destroyed by fire. Du Maurier based the grand house of Manderley on two actual houses: a house called Milton in Peterborough and Menabilly, the home of the Rashleigh family in Fowey in Cornwall. Manderley is a brilliantly described hellish gothic mansion that seems to almost have a consciousness of its own. Rebecca has something for everyone: romance, horror, crime, mystery, and an excellent twist ending.
Rebecca, Virago Press, 1938, 9781844080380
My Cousin Rachel is about Philip Ashley, a twenty-four-year old naive gentryman, orphaned as a baby and brought up by his bachelor cousin Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir. But the cozy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence, falls in love, marries, and then dies suddenly. Philip prepares to meet his cousin’s widow with hatred in his heart. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to the mysterious Rachel, yet might she have had a hand in Ambrose’s death? This is a fascinating study into the blindness of passion. Philip is an unreliable narrator because he chooses to only see what he wants to see and convinces himself to ignore warning signs. My Cousin Rachel contains complex characters and a highly intricate plot. One of the reasons the book did not do so well initially is because the plot is more complicated then Rebecca. The mystery is well developed and the tension is maintained up until the frustratingly ambiguous ending. Also, the atmosphere is wonderful. Even though du Maurier is a little heavy handed with the sense of foreboding and doom.
My Cousin Rachel, Black Dog & Leventhal, 1951, 9781579125691
Her mother’s dying request takes Mary Yellan on a sad journey across the bleak moorland of Cornwall to reach Jamaica Inn, the home of her Aunt Patience. With the coachman’s warning echoing in her memory, Mary arrives at a dismal place to find Patience a changed woman, cowering from her overbearing husband, Joss Merlyn. Mary is thwarted in her attention to reform her aunt, and unwillingly drawn into the dark deeds of Joss and his accomplices. Written in 1935, this is du Maurier’s fourth novel. The inspiration for the narrative came from du Maurier’s childhood enthusiasm for adventure stories, such as Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Ever since, she aspired to write an adventure in a similar style. The characters in this novel are fully developed and imaginative. Most of the action occurs in Cornwall and du Maurier described the landscape so well it transports the reader there. Due to the excellent descriptions, Jamaica Inn sold more copies in its first three months than all her earlier books combined. Overall, Jamaica Inn is a truly classic gothic adventure with tinges of romance.
Jamaica Inn, Avon, 1935, 9780380725397
The Restoration Court knows Lady Dona St Columb to be ripe for any folly, anything to alter the tedium of her days. But there is another Dona who longs for a life of honest love – even if it is spiced with danger. It is this Dona who flees London for remote Navron, finding there a hunted pirate. This novel has been variously described as an adventure story, a romance, or just straight up escapism. Du Maurier described Frenchman’s Creek as the only romance novel she ever wrote. When it was first published in 1941, the reviews were non-committal and lacked the immediate success of Rebecca. However, it went on to become one of du Maurier’s most successful novels, probably due to the narrative being set in Cornwall. There are several competing opinions on why du Maurier wrote this kind of novel. The most popular opinion is that she wrote it to escape from the realities of war time life. Frenchman’s Creek is an engrossing novel that enchants the reader and keeps their attention up until the end. This is a wonderful read and one of du Maurier’s lighter novels.
Frenchman’s Creek, Time Warner Books, 1941, 9781844080410
In this novel, du Maurier explores the concept of time travel in a unique manner. Dick Young, the protagonist, agrees to test out a drug that allows his mind to travel back in time. Dick takes the drug and is transported to the fourteenth-century, where he shadows his guide through a world of intrigue, adultery, and murder. Frustrated by modern day life, Dick increasingly takes this drug in order to let his brain escape to the past. However, Dick’s “trips” to the fourteenth-century soon endanger his life and he tries to strangle his wife and struggles with paralysis. The theme of imprinted history was influenced by du Maurier’s readings of the psychologist Carl Jung and his notion of the ‘collective unconscious’, a sort of ancestral memory embedded in every human being. Du Maurier wrote this book during the LSD craze of the late 1960s. The effects of the drug described in the novel is quite similar to LSD. Dick’s modern life is described as being dull and boring, while his trips are vivid and exciting. This is not du Maurier’s best written novel; however, it is quite interesting.
The House on the Strand, Virago Press, 1968, 9781844080427