BOOK REVIEW / Now discontent is our de Winter: 'Mrs De Winter' - Susan Hill: Sinclair-Stevenson, 12.99 pounds
Sunday 10 October 1993
The oustanding virtue of Mrs de Winter is the elegance of its style, which that paper's serialisation unfortunately vulgarised piecemeal. Susan Hill, winner of both the Somerset Maugham and Whitbread prizes, ignores the lush emotionalism of the original, sacrificing psychological menace for a fresh, modest lyricism which suits both her story and her times.
According to Margaret Forster's recent biography of Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, published in 1938 and filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, was an exorcism of du Maurier's jealousy of her husband's former fiancee. The narrator, too meek even to tell her husband that she is afraid of him, is terrorised almost to paranoia by imaginings of his glamorous first wife, Rebecca, whose memory is maliciously burnished by the housekeeper of his stately home, Manderley.
From the sequel's title we can guess that there is no attempt to boost this feeble creature's self-esteem for her post-feminist readership. The pathetic heir to patient Grizelda and Jane Eyre is still denied her own name, but this, and many other features of the original, are lovingly installed as stylistic conventions which devotees will derive much pleasure from identifying.
Hill has also taken pains to resurrect almost all the significant characters, from Jasper the dog to the hideous figure of the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who makes an entrance worthy of Carabosse in last act of the drama. (Pedants will kindly note that although Hitchcock burned Mrs Danvers to death, du Maurier merely has her pack her bags and disappear one tea-time.)
With the exception of preplanned sagas like Star Wars, all sequels share the same problem. For the original story to be artistically satisfying, the central character must have exhausted her potential for development. At the end of her psychological odyssey, she will have nowhere to go - there'll be nothing to say in Part Deux.
Susan Hill solves this difficulty by rewinding the character development of Maxim de Winter and his Mrs, so that she is still insecure, anxious not to offend housekeepers and prone to fall over her own handbag when distressed, while he remains the incarnation of the old Mills & Boon male - aloof, enigmatic, dictatorial; Mr Darcy without a sense of humour. (Half of Maxim's speeches seem to be commands.) It is a plausible solution, but Mr and Mrs de Winter are not appealing people. A modern reader meeting Mrs de Winter for the first time will have a powerful urge to apply the toecap of her Doc Martens to our heroine's humble, tweedy backside.
Rebecca was a significant myth for its time. The second Mrs de Winter, standing hesitantly on the smart side of the green baize door, had jumped the social chasm from paid companion to mistress of a great house; her sense of inferiority arose partly from her class. In 1901, over one and a quarter million women were employed as domestic servants. By 1950 the figure had dwindled to a fraction of that, and many a suburban villa was a miniature Manderley, with an intimidated, socially insecure wife struggling to achieve a sense of possession of her own home. My own mother made such a transition, but never felt at ease outside her kitchen. Rebecca had relevance in her life and in the lives of others round her. Half a century later, when women head households and pay mortgages, the poignancy of Mrs de Winter's situation is lost.
It is also lost in this sequel, which would have benefited from a stronger sense of period. The de Winters exist in a dream of their own concerns, noting external events only casually. The year is 1949. It is clear that they spent the war in Switzerland, we must assume untroubled by any patriotic twinges, for all she feels homesick for England. They return to acquire a new country house, an Elizabethan manor, which she elects to run with two living-out maids - one of the small idiocies which momentarily spoil the book's charm.
Mrs de Winter is none the less a dignified, respectful work. It is ultimately tragic, but light in tone and domestic in scope, with pleasing descriptions of nature embroidered delicately into a fast-moving narrative. The depressingly large number of women for whom novels are verbal Valium will love it.
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