Review

Rebecca's Tale

by Sally Beauman



When I was in 10th grade, my favorite novels were GONE WITH THE
WIND, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and REBECCA. I was a romantic, lonely
girl, and to be engulfed in passion, in place --- to be abducted
--- was what I wanted out of a book. (It didn't hurt that two of
the three had been made into films starring Laurence Olivier, my
teenage heartthrob; Clark Gable was no slouch, either.) Of course,
I longed for sequels, even though sequels are, inevitably,
disappointing.

REBECCA'S TALE doesn't have the allure of the original; how could
it? Its only raison d'être is the brooding, gothic
mystery set in motion by Daphne du Maurier in her 1938 novel ---
the sequel takes place in 1951, two decades later --- and its
mandate is not to break new ground (although it does briefly cross
the Channel) but to undertake a thorough spading and replanting of
territory we already know. Or do we? In case the story has
temporarily slipped your mind, a REBECCA refresher course: Maxim de
Winter, proud scion of an old English family and possessor of a
very stately home, Manderley, marries a young woman he meets in
Monte Carlo while (apparently) on the rebound from the tragic death
of his first wife, the dazzling Rebecca. His second wife --- the
intriguingly nameless narrator of the story, she is referred to
only as "Mrs. de Winter" --- suffers the tortures of the damned
trying to live up to her predecessor. However, when new evidence
suggests that Rebecca's death was not a boating accident, as
originally assumed, but murder, perhaps committed by Maxim, wife
number two shows true grit, and Rebecca herself is unmasked as a
gorgeous predator. If the second wife in REBECCA felt overshadowed
by the ghost of the first, so Sally Beauman must have found her
work haunted by du Maurier's hugely popular, highly atmospheric
book. It's hard enough to write a decent novel without laboring
under that kind of handicap.

But Beauman is nothing if not bold. She even begins REBECCA'S TALE
with REBECCA's mesmerizing first sentence: "Last night I dreamt I
went to Manderley again." Here, however, the words belong to the
aged Colonel Julyan who, as a local magistrate, was crucially
involved in the investigation of Rebecca's death. He is the first
of four narrators, each delving into the puzzles of the past ---
who was Rebecca, really, and how did she die? --- and their
implications for the present. Julyan is followed by Terence Gray, a
young scholar pursuing his own connection to the de Winters; next
comes the text of a journal written by Rebecca herself; the
concluding section belongs to Julyan's daughter, Ellie, an
observant, thwarted young woman. Less of a romance than REBECCA,
more of a mystery, this book is largely plot-driven, and I don't
want to spoil the suspense by spilling the beans. Suffice it to say
that, in REBECCA'S TALE, the first Mrs. de Winter is not the
heartless person she appeared to be in REBECCA.

I can't help feeling that in beginning with men's voices, Beauman
may have committed a tactical error, for the first two sections
never quite come alive; they feel more like an intelligent
reconstruction than an imaginative leap. Much of the seductiveness
of the original lay in the reader's immediate identification with
its gauche, badly dressed, fantasy-prone, excruciatingly sensitive
heroine. (No wonder I worshiped this book --- the continual
comparisons between the narrator's awkwardness and her
predecessor's savoir faire must have struck a loud chord with an
insecure teenager doomed never to be one of the "popular" girls.)
Although Beauman is a pretty good writer, she doesn't find a
narrative voice with anything like the same force until she gets to
Rebecca's own tale, 250 pages into the book. Here, the language
heats up substantially; one senses that Beauman feels a certain
zeal about rescuing Rebecca from du Maurier's cryptic and none too
flattering portrayal.

Ellie's section, while not so highly charged, is effective, too.
Struggling for both love and autonomy, she becomes a kind of
proto-feminist figure; and toward the end of REBECCA'S TALE she
makes plain what she thinks of meek, dependent types like the
second Mrs. de Winter: "If this was where love led a woman, I
feared it. I no longer wanted to listen to the second wife, it was
the first wife's voice I needed now…"

That, in a nutshell, is REBECCA'S TALE. Do not think, however, that
Beauman, with her revisionism, is obliterating the Manderley we
know and love. One of the charms of a sequel, after all, is its
familiarity. We already know whom to be afraid of (Mrs. Danvers, of
course) and whom to revile (Jack Favell). There's an obnoxious
busybody who closely resembles the grotesque Mrs. Van Hopper, a
faithful dog reminiscent of Jasper, a no-nonsense aunt with a bit
of Maxim's sister, Beatrice, about her. I did wish that there
weren't quite so many echoes; like the people who stamp genuine
leather inside a belt lest anyone suspect it's plastic, Beauman
seems to have used these du Maurier-ish touches to confer extra
added authenticity. I think her book is quite credible without
them. 

Really dedicated REBECCA-philes may sniff at sequels --- at least
two others have been attempted --- but I urge them to give this
well-crafted, absorbing novel a chance. For what is more intriguing
than to hear the other side of a story we know, to relive
significant events from a different point of view, to get closer to
what really happened, and why? In REBECCA, du Maurier created a
fiction so powerful that it is tempting to take sides --- the first
vs. the second Mrs. de Winter --- and it's sometimes hard to
remember that this is invention, not fact.

And don't be surprised if, once you've finished REBECCA'S TALE, you
feel a sudden urge to dust off your old copy of REBECCA. I'm in the
midst of rereading mine right now, and I'm up to the night of the
costume ball, so if you'll excuse me...

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 23, 2011

Rebecca's Tale
by Sally Beauman

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Mass Market Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: HarperTorch
  • ISBN-10: 0061032042
  • ISBN-13: 9780061032042