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.