The way I figure it, if I want to go to Manderley again, I know how to get there: reread Rebecca. A lot of money, however, is riding on the wager that if you loved that misery-laden mansion the first time, you’ll jump to read Mrs. de Winter (Morrow), British novelist Susan Hill’s sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s enduringly popular 1938 romantic suspense saga. Here, after all, is moody, tormented Maxim de Winter and his tremulous, preliberated second wife. ) Here is the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, still stirring up evil mischief.
And here am I, thinking, Oh, grow up already, second Mrs. D, please do!
I would never have stamped my feet with impatience at Max or Mrs D-2’s behavior in Rebecca because I can happily take that overwrought gothic romance on its own terms (as, indeed, can others: Avon sells 4,000 paperback copies a month). And besides, Alfred Hitchcock’s magnificent 1940 film adaptation, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, is as much a pleasurable part of our perception as the book itself. But sequels — specifically sequels to classics by writers now dead — throw everything out of kilter. They elbow their way into our appreciation of the story like a bad architect’s graceless in-the-style-of addition to a fine old house. And they rattle with the wooden sounds of decisions made while eyeing the potential cash receipts.
(But damned if they don’t sell. Alexandra Ripley’s 1992 Gone With the Wind sequel, Scarlett, has sold more than 2 million copies, and there are not one but two sequels in the works, dear reader, to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.)
And thus we return to Manderley, on the premise that the de Winters, having restlessly knocked around Europe for years, are drawn home following the death of Maxim’s sister, Beatrice. Once she sets foot on England’s green and pleasant land, Mrs. de Winter (inevitably) deeply wants to stay but is afraid to express her desires to her husband. Mr. D, meanwhile, is (inevitably) deeply apprehensive. They stay, they buy a place. Can you guess that tragedy is in the offing?
Hill, a prize-winning and well-respected novelist (who reportedly split her £750,000 advance with du Maurier’s five heirs), has a particular affinity for descriptions of nature. She also trots out all the old regulars, including the nefarious Jack Favell (think George Sanders). She lets them wander around a bit. But where is there to go, what is there to do?
Nowhere and not much, except watch the sales figures. For ballast, though, you might try Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller (Doubleday,) by Margaret Forster. The secret? The author led a complicated sexual life and carried on a great love affair with the actress Gertrude Lawrence. Read this sex-obsessed bio and then review Mrs. Danvers’ declaration to Favell about her employer in Rebecca: ”She was not in love with you or with Mr. de Winter … She despised all men. She was above all that.” Makes the old book sound like new, no?
Mrs. de Winter: C+ Daphne du Maurier: B-