BOOK REVIEW / Dreaming of Manderley again: 'Mrs de Winter', Susan Hill's sequel to 'Rebecca' was published this week, but Natasha Walter found it timid; 'Mrs de Winter' - Susan Hill: Sinclair-Stevenson, 12.99 pounds

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LAST night I went to Manderley again. I peered through the gates, heart beating with anticipation, but instead of grand lovers playing out their romantic struggles, I saw two middle-aged chaps in a Gloucestershire garden having a squabble. I left as soon as I could, but it will never seem the same again.

Of course sequels, like second wives, have to run the gauntlet of odious comparisons. It would be difficult for Mrs de Winter to be anything but a poor, gauche substitute for her incomparable predecessor. But anyone can be persuaded. The second wife was seduced by that immortal line, 'I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool,' and Susan Hill by the immortal offer of pounds 650,000. One feels the same amused pity for Mrs de Winter's dreams of equality ('Daphne du Maurier would have approved,' says the dust-jacket) as we did for Mrs de Winter's silly idea, in that Monte Carlo hotel, of stepping into the first wife's shoes with ease. But though we sympathised with Maxim's desire for a companion in the empty mausoleum of Manderley, few readers have ever felt the need for a successor to Rebecca.

The apotheosis of Daphne du Maurier's art, Rebecca is an assured and finished work. We close it knowing that the whole story has been told, all innocence lost. We know that Mrs de Winter is no longer a child, because Maxim tells us so: 'It's gone forever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved. It won't come back again. I killed that too . . .' We know that she has accepted her husband's past and that the couple have entered on an adult sexual relationship, because she tells us so: 'We began to kiss one another, feverishly, desperately, like lovers who have not kissed before.' And with the assumption of knowledge, the terrible power of Rebecca's old intimates, Mrs Danvers and Jack Favell, ceases. Even before the whole truth comes out, Mrs de Winter changes a menu without consulting Mrs Danvers, taking charge of Rebecca's old empire.

No one can dispute that by the end of Rebecca, Maxim and his wife are a self-sufficient couple, welded by fire: 'The devil does not ride us any more. We have come through our crisis.' It is part of the slightly trashy side to Du Maurier's consummate art that we don't wonder, what next? Such unreal, iconic lovers only exist for the wheel of the tale to come full circle.

Given this absolute sense of an ending, the only way to start again on the de Winter story would be to add a daring new twist that would have played to the Du Maurier pitch of intrigue and mystery. There could have been a crazy discovery that Rebecca was not dead after all, perhaps - and Susan Hill lays a red herring suggesting that very thing in the only moments of fun in her workaday 400 pages. Or we could have moved, in the style of Wuthering Heights, into a new generation with a Rebecca-like daughter of Jack Favell's or a Maxim-like son of the de Winters.

But Susan Hill declines to trust her own imagination, and just fiddles impotently with Du Maurier's grand inventions. It brings to mind Mrs de Winter sitting down at Rebecca's desk for the first time, and being so overwhelmed by all the evidence of her predecessor's energy that she can hardly pen a childish, blotted letter.

This timid sequel begins when Maxim and his wife return to England for Maxim's sister's funeral. They get so frightened by a picture of Rebecca that they run away again, and then on a whim return to buy a house in - of all places- the Cotswolds, to be terrified all over again by Mrs Danvers and Jack Favell. Without much emotional impetus, this wavering back and forth between Europe and England provides a tentative, dragging opening that lasts for 200 or so pages, as though Hill had run out of ideas before she even began.

Throughout it all, Mrs de Winter, although 10 years older, has the same reactions as the gauche, childish character we long ago saw her shrug off. Not only does she have a little fainting fit in an Italian villa when she remembers Mrs Danvers, but she is still 'scruffy, ill sorted, drab, aware of the buttons that had broken on my cardigan'; she still follows Maxim around like a little dog; and she even begins to distrust and hate her husband for his dark past, which stands at loggerheads with everything the two had achieved before.

Eventually we realise that there is nothing here except the old ghosts, dragged out of their dignified retirement and forced to dance again. Here is Jack Favell, met by unlikely chance in the brisk light of post-war London, 'his eyes hot and blue and wild, staring, staring into my face'. Here is Mrs Danvers, come to call while Maxim is away: 'The face was narrower and more lined, there seemed even less flesh on the white skull . . .' But without the spectral darkness of Manderley, the sound of the sea and the colour of the rhododendrons to frame them, their power is nothing. We cannot sympathise with the older wife in her own home who scrabbles around after Mrs Danvers, apologising and knocking over the biscuits, in the way we could tremble with the young bride standing fearfully in Rebecca's dim rooms.

The denouement, such as it is, comes at Mrs de Winter's garden party. Jack and Mrs Danvers confront Maxim together, but lit by the soft Gloucestershire light, and heard through Susan Hill's gentle, hesitant intonation, there is no force in the confrontation. Jack Favell holds out an envelope of 'evidence', but we never find out what's in it. 'I thought that Favell might laugh, or hit Maxim, or take some dreadful paper that told the truth out of the envelope, or even . . . make a lurch for me . . . Then, without a word, as if he had collapsed somehow within, Favell swayed, turned and walked out of the drawing room.'

For some reason, this inconclusive scene is frightening enough to force Maxim to his death. But no word is spoken that bears any of the weight of that tolling soliloquy when Maxim confessed his guilt to us 10 years ago. Seeing that the telephone is broken, Mrs de Winter wanders off to bed rather than calling for help after Maxim rushes off in a storm, white-faced, to assuage his guilt. Would Du Maurier ever have stooped to such a clumsy device?

Throughout the media jamboree attending this sequel, Rebecca's remaining lovers will feel like Mrs Danvers - dour, uncomprehending, and dismissive of the newcomer's ineffective attempts to please. The peace of Manderley, they will mutter, should never have been disturbed. We only wanted to dream about going back.

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