It's always the right time to return to your favorite book

January 7, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

What's your favorite book? Has it been made into a movie? Was the movie as good as the book?

My all-time favorite book is "Rebecca" by Daphne Du Maurier, published in 1938. Two years later, it was made into a fabulous four-star movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock (his first American film) staring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, George Sanders and Judith Anderson. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Cinematography.

It still represents, to me, the best and most faithful adaptation of a book to a movie. The haunting first lines in the movie, narrated by Fontaine, are taken straight from the book beginning with: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

The book continues: "It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited."

I have my mother's copy of "Rebecca." Her girlish scrawl, written in faded blue ink from a fountain pen, reads "Barbara Redfield, Christmas, 1938." Beneath her name she pasted one of her father's bookplates on the page, which reads "Ex Libris, C. Truman Redfield." Knowing that my mother, who died when I was a teen-ager, read and loved this book pleases me enormously.

She undoubtedly also saw the movie, perhaps many times. But she died long before videos and VCRs became common. She would be surprised to know that I have two copies of the romantic black and white movie, which I have watched so often that I can recite the dialog right along with Joan Fontaine.

As I have struggled along with my own writing projects I have asked myself again and again what magic Du Maurier employed when she wrote "Rebecca." Du Maurier was not one of the great writers of our time. But in "Rebecca," arguably her best work, she did everything right. What exactly did she do?

She told a wonderful, romantic story about a shy young woman who meets and falls in love with a rich older Englishman with the glorious name of Max de Winter. Curiously, Du Maurier never names her heroine. She just becomes "Mrs. de Winter" once she marries. The newlyweds return to his fabulous country estate in Cornwall, Manderley, where their happiness is clouded by the memory of Max's first wife, Rebecca.

As the new Mrs. de Winter roams the house and grounds, the ghost of Rebecca is always present. The tension and suspense builds. The reader knows that she will not enjoy a life of style and luxury because something quite terrible is going to happen.

Mystery. Romance. Glamour. Suspense. Good characters. Du Maurier delivers in every way. Upon publication the book was well-received in both England and America. Critics compared the book, usually to "Rebecca's" detriment, to "Jane Eyre."

Du Maurier began writing her most famous novel in 1937 when her husband, Tommy, was stationed in Egypt. He was a commanding officer in the Grenadier Guards. Egypt was hot, her small children required attention, and she had a great deal of trouble writing the novel. She originally conceived it as an exercise in jealousy where "wife No. 2 is haunted day and night" by what she thinks wife No. 1 was like. Du Maurier, hot and homesick, fantasized about walking in the woods and along the ocean shore in Cornwall and brought that description to life in "Rebecca." She wrote a quarter of the novel in Egypt and finished it in a creative burst when she got home to England.

"I tried to get an atmosphere of suspense," she wrote to her publisher. She succeeded. My recommendation for 1996 is this: read a great book written almost 60 years ago. You'll love it.

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