Mrs de Winter

Mrs. de Winter
Susan Hill
(Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd, 1993)

The first du Maurier I ever read was Jamaica Inn. The second was Frenchman’s Creek. The third? Rebecca. I can’t remember if I’d already seen the Hitchcock film by then (by the way, Joan Fontaine? Still not dead) but it seems highly likely I had given how much I love Hitchcock. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that du Maurier’s gothic romances were a mainstay in our house. Virago Modern classics have done a wonderful reprint of them all.

So when I spotted Mrs de Winter last year, I had to add it to my pile of published fanfiction. Or sanctioned follow-ups. Or meta-fiction. Or whatever you want to call them. Mrs de Winter is set a decade or so after Rebecca. The de Winters have spent it all abroad, travelling to avoid any unpleasantness (including, it seems, the second world war) but a family duty drags them unwillingly back to England.

There are many things these meta-novels need to achieve to be a success. The new author has to clearly understand the original’s style and tricks. Hill does. She ladens the opening pages with carefully observed descriptions of the Cornish countryside, scattering some dark birds amongst it to make the reader recall du Maurier’s The Birds. Rebecca opens with the famous line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”. Mrs de Winter starts with the de Winter’s return to Cornwall. Hill also ensures that the narrator remains nameless, defined solely by her relationship with her husband. She is always “Mrs de Winter”, denied her own identity.

Hill also understands that one of the key things that drives a reader through Rebecca is sheer frustration with the narrator. The second Mrs de Winter is so aggravatingly timid and passive that you want to grab her by her drab twinset and shake her into action. Maxim remains an equally annoying alpha male: silent, unemotional, stern. Their co-dependence is galling.

Yet you keep reading. I switched from reading a couple of chapters a night, to reading it whenever I got a chance. The chap’s attempts to talk to me whilst I had the book open were doomed. Even as you despair at the heroine’s inaction, you want to keep reading. You want her to have a happy ending. When she does finally take action, when she starts to build a stable future for herself, it goes diasterously wrong. Her solo trip to London reconnects her with the past they’ve been fleeing all this time, and it slowly, painfully crashes back into their new life. That’s another du Maurier trick – the slow, creeping build up to the heroine’s world suddenly overturning. It’s why she was such good source material for Hitchcock.

If you loved Rebecca, this works as a sequel. If you’ve never read Rebecca then you really should.

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5 Responses to “Mrs de Winter”

  1. Paul Freeman Says:

    Dreadful confession: I’ve never read Rebecca (but have seen the film)

    But weirdly, I have read Mrs de Winter and really enjoyed it.

  2. Sarah Says:

    I’ve just finished reading ‘Rebecca’ for the umpteenth time! And I’ve read both ‘sanctioned’ sequels, Hill’s and Beauman’s, and hate them because what they both get wrong is the development in the second Mrs de Winter’s character. Yes, she is quiet and timid and scared to death of Mrs Danvers and the secrets of Manderley, but – perversely enough – when she learns Maxim’s secret she grows up, she loses her innocence, she gains strength enough to fight for herself and her husband. Neither sequel seems to acknowledge this, and she is reduced to a caricature of her former mousey self. I would love to read a proper follow-up to ‘Rebecca’, telling what happened to Maxim and ‘I’, but it has yet to be printed. Perhaps it never should be. Beauman’s politically correct rehash certainly never should have been!

    Great review, by the way – I’m here from Librarything.

  3. Mags Says:

    Maybe she’s only good at crisis management? Faced with the need to protect Maxim, she is able to act – she’s just rubbish at defending herself? The suggestion in Hill’s sequel is that the subsequent decade has all been about protecting Maxim (and it’s that protectiveness which is ultimately her downfall).

    I’m not sure a sequel or prequel to Rebecca can ever work as an extension of the original story, simply because the original novel is effectively closed in both directions. It’s interesting that it’s one of the novels to attract such attempts though – like Gone With the Wind and Pride and Prejudice. It’s like people can’t just let the story fade but want something more…

    And Paul? Go and read the original! The Virago du Maurier editions are often in 3for2s in Waterstones…

  4. moosifer jones' grouch » Blog Archive » The Little Stranger Says:

    [...] has written a haunting story, strongly in the style of real post-war fiction such as Du Maurier. The reader hesitates between real and unreal explanations. Our narrator in this world is a doctor, [...]

  5. moosifer jones' grouch » Blog Archive » How to Read a Novel Says:

    [...] ETA (April 2010): Oh, and I have eventually read Mrs de Winter… [...]


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