Daphne du Maurier's novel "Rebecca" continues to be a success today, sixty years after its publication. In her novel, du Maurier touches her reader's heart with her heart breaking gothic romance set in the English countryside. "Rebecca," which was a best seller in its time, contains many different elements that make it attractive to many different people. First of all, it is a mystery with suspense so thick that it is almost palpable. In addition, romantic elements of "Rebecca" attract the female audience, who continue to be susceptible to romances. "The latest best-seller list only confirm that the sly suggestion underlying ?Rebecca' remains valid after 55 years: both in life and in bookstores, women continue to buy romances" (New Yorker). Many reasons contribute to the success of "Rebecca": the efforts of the publisher, the events at the time of publication, and the many element of the story itself. "Rebecca" was an immediate success. After two weeks of its publication, Publisher's Weekly listed it as a Candidate for the Best Seller's List, and within a month of its publication, it became the fourth book on the Best Sellers list. In the week of November 19, 1938, "Rebecca" became the top selling novel according to "Publisher's Weekly", and it remained the number one book for the next three weeks. "Publisher's Weekly" listed "Rebecca" as best selling novel for the month of November. Overall in 1938, Rebecca was the number four best-selling book of the year, and in 1939, it was the number three best-selling book of the year. Rebecca remained in "Publisher's Weekly's" top ten best seller's list for a total of nine months.
There are many reasons for the success of the novel. Book clubs played a large role in its success by introducing the novel to the public. "Rebecca" was the Literary Guild selection of the month for October 1938, which gave many readers easy access to the novel (Publisher's Weekly, 9/24/38). Doubleday, Du Maurier's publisher, also helped with the success of the book by creating many ad campaigns in order to spark the public's interest. "Doubleday starts a new series of small ads in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco newspapers this week, to be followed, beginning Jan. 22nd, with a big campaign giving sample high-spot scenes from the novel" (Publisher's Weekly, 1/7/39). Doubleday allowed the public a sneak preview of the novel in hopes that it would grab their attention and persuade them to buy a copy of the book. Doubleday also created attractive displays to accompany the novel in books stores, which was another ploy to catch the reader's attention in hopes of them becoming interested in the novel and then buying it. Doubleday also published a series of ads in both "Publisher's Weekly" and "The New York Time's Book Review," which also helped make the public aware of the book.
Daphne du Maurier's public persona did not add to the success of her book, mainly because she did her best not to create a public persona for herself. Du Maurier disliked being in the public eye; therefore, she avoided as many interviews and public appearance as possible. "She confided to [one interviewer] that she disliked entertaining or being entertained or any kind of public appearance . . ." (Cook, 141). In her rare interviews, she was reluctant to give any personal information about herself; she was an extremely private person. As a favor to her English publisher Victor Gollancz, Du Maurier attended a Foyle's Literary Lunch, along with two other female writers. Afterwards, she swore to never attend such an event again, for she felt that "authors never should be seen or heard" (Forster, 139). However despite resistance to having a public persona, Du Maurier answered all her fan mail, as long as a self-addressed stamped envelope was enclosed, and she formed many friendships through written correspondence with fans.
Critics praise many aspects of "Rebecca", usually beginning with Du Maurier's writing style. Many critics note that she is a natural storyteller. "?Rebecca' takes a familiar situation . . . and turns it into an occasion for mystery, suspense, and violence . . . Though reviewers point out (and du Maurier agrees) that she cannot take credit for inventing this formula. Many of them believe that her personal gift for story telling places her novels a cut above most other Gothic fiction" (Contemporary Authors, Vol. 6). In "Rebecca," Du Maurier tells her story with authority and assurance, making the characters and events seem believable, even realistic. Critics also praise the element of suspense that du Maurier weaves so gracefully throughout the novel, which grabs the reader's attention and keeps the pages turning. In reading "Rebecca," one becomes so interested in what happens next that one is reluctant to put the novel down. However, critics have given the most praise to "Rebecca" for its gothic elements. Many critics have identified "Rebecca" as a modern gothic classic. "The gothic romance, in any event, was for all practical purposes a dead form until Daphne du Maurier revitalized it in 1938. Du Maurier's ?Rebecca' is the first major gothic romance in the twentieth century and perhaps the finest written to this day. It contains most of the trappings of a typical gothic romance: a mysterious and haunted mansion, violence, murder, a sinister villain, sexual passion, a spectacular fire, brooding landscapes, and a version of the mad woman in the attic" (Kelly, 54). The gothic novel as a genre tends to be enormously popular. Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," Bram Stoker's "Dracula," and Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" continue to read by many people. The gothic elements of "Rebecca" spark the reader's imagination and keep them on edge, wondering how the novel is going to end.
Many similarities exist between "Rebecca" and Charlotte Brontë's classic novel "Jane Eyre". In both novels, a young orphaned girl marries a wealthy older man who has many secrets to hide. Both novels take place in a dark, disturbing mansion that a fire destroys. This comparison explains some of the success of "Rebecca," for "Jane Eyre" has been extremely successful throughout the years. Many readers, women especially, can relate to the vulnerability of Jane and the second Mrs. DeWinter, for most women understand the pain involved in loving man who seems unattainable. Also, readers, again especially women, enjoy the romantic element of the two novels, for in both cases, the inexperienced heroine succeeds and winds up with the man of her dreams. Women enjoy that type of story because the female character, who at first is weak but transforms into a strong figure as the story progresses, prevails at the end of the story. "Rebecca" and "Jane Eyre" as well can also be compared to the popular fairy tale "Cinderella," where the female orphan overcomes all obstacles and ends up marrying her Prince Charming. In all these stories, "Rebecca," "Jane Eyre," and "Cinderella", love prevails in the end. This element speaks for the success of "Rebecca," for most readers enjoy a good love story. "One way of reading "Rebecca" is as a love story, in which the good woman triumphs over the bad by winning a man's love: this version which confirms cherished conventions rather than challenges them, is the one that the nameless narrator would like us to accept, and it is a reading that undoubtedly helped make "Rebecca" a best-seller" (The New Yorker).
As mentioned earlier, part of the success of "Rebecca" might be due to the ability of the women readers to identify with the narrator. In the novel, Maxim de Winter controls his wife and totally oppresses her. All the second Mrs. de Winter wants from her husband is his love and attention, but he continually shuts her out of his thoughts and feelings, treating her as a pet dog who he pets absentmindedly. During the time "Rebecca" was published, the man was still the head of the household, and woman continually fought for equal rights. Women of this time could sympathize with the second Mrs. de Winter, for they were able to share her pain due to a controlling and gruff husband. Yet, the above reasons for the success "Rebecca" do not rule out the possibility for today's feminists liking the book. "It's possible for a feminist to enjoy ?Rebecca,' not in spite of its outmoded male/female conventions but because of them; Daphne du Maurier created a scale by which modern women can measure their feelings about mating and marriage, and judge the progress our society has made toward sexual equality. Seen in this light, Maxim's treatment of a woman he really does love is as acceptable as Huck Finn's matter-of-fact use of the word "nigger": not admirable but accurate: the ugly truth of a bygone age" (New York Times). Part of the reason women of today continue to enjoy "Rebecca" is that the novel highlights the advances women have made in the past sixty years.
"Rebecca" was published in 1938, at the tail end of the Great Depression and right before the declaration of World War II. "First published in 1938, at a time that is when capitalist society was experiencing one of the deepest crises in its history, Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" at first sight seems remarkable for its total lack of reference to anything that might even hint of the existence of that crisis. The simplest way for this lack of reference would be to consign the text to the category of ?escapist fiction', a means of relief for people whose everyday experience was dominated by the reality of the depression" (Bromely, 69). "Rebecca" is a gripping tale; it is easy to lose oneself within the pages of the novel and forget about all present-day realities. However, the novel does contain aspects with which depression victims could identify with. At the end of the novel, the de Winters lose their mansion to a fire, and they rebuild their lives in a much simpler environment. The depression victims could relate to their tragedy of losing all their possessions and having to relocate and start afresh.
"Rebecca" was a success for many reasons. In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock released a film version of the novel which won an Academy Award for best picture. "Contributing to the [the novel's] popularity was the Hitchcock film based upon the book" (Kelly, 66). "Rebecca" has continued to be a success despite the lack of literary recognition given to du Maurier. "du Maurier is a master storyteller who knows how to manipulate female fantasies. She creates a world that is simple, romantic, usually ambiguous, adventuresome, mysterious, dangerous, erotic, picturesque, and satisfying. It is a world that contrasts sharply with the mundane realities of ordinary existence, and it is a world that does not require the reader to suffer the pains of introspection and analysis. It is, in short, a world that brings considerable pleasure to millions of readers, especially women" (Kelly, 142). "Rebecca" has been a success with popular audiences for the past sixty years, yet it has been virtually ignored by the literary world. Literary critics have dismissed it as an inconsequential romance that has no real substance. Books like "Rebecca" pose the question: is it possible to be a best seller yet still obtain literary recognition? Many literary critics have attacked du Maurier for writing for the popular audience instead of trying to create a work of literary merit. "Perhaps du Maurier wrote too much, catered to cynically to the popular taste of her audience, but she created the ?classic gothic' novel of the twentieth century, setting the stage for hundreds of imitators grinding out formulaic tales of ion the Harlequin Romance series and others . . . If Daphne du Maurier had written only Rebecca, she would still be one of the great shapers of popular culture and the modern imagination" (Kelly, 144).
Kelly, Richard. Daphne du Maurier. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.
Forster Margaret. Daphne du Maurier. London: Chatto and Windus, 1993.
Bromely, Roger. "The Gentry, Bourgeois Hegemony, and Popular Fiction." Classic
Crime and Suspense Writers. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1995.
Cook, Judith. Daphne. New York: Bantom Press, 1991.
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Vol. 6.
Beauman, Sally. "Rereading Rebecca." The New Yorker. Nov. 8, 1993.
"Son of Best Seller Stalks the Moors." New York Times. June 6, 1993.