My first reading passion was for tales of mystery and suspense called “modern Gothic thrillers.”
From the time I was old enough to peruse the adult section of the public library in the small Southern town where I grew up, I devoured novels by Anya Seton, Mary Stewart, and fell in love with the prolific Barbara Mertz, writing as Barbara Michaels, who eventually published 30 wonderful suspense stories. And I first read Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Twenty years later as a young mother, I discovered the novels of the Bronte sisters: “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte and “Wuthering Heights” by Emily. Both novels have chilling Gothic elements. A foreboding house with dark corridors and winding steps; a sudden beam of moonlight in the darkness or a flickering candle or two; extreme landscapes and weather; a passion-driven, willful hero-villain; and a curious young heroine. And I first read Du Maurier’s “My Cousin Rachel.”
Du Maurier, born in 1907 in London, was one of the most popular authors of her day. She wrote dozens of books — biographies, plays and collections of letters as well as works of fiction. Today she is best remembered for only a handful of novels, including “Rebecca” (1938) and “My Cousin Rachel” (1951); perhaps only Alfred Hitchcock remembers she wrote a collection called “The Birds and Other Stories” (1952).
Quite a few of Du Maurier’s novels have been adapted for the screen, including “Rebecca,” “Jamaica Inn,” “Frenchman’s Creek”and “My Cousin Rachel.” Her masterpiece “Rebecca” has been filmed multiple times both for the big and small screen. A new digital restoration of the 1940 Hitchcock film, “The Criterion,” will be released as a two-disc edition with special features on Sept. 5.
Gothic thriller/romance/ghost stories usually have three stock characters: a moody hero, a young heroine and an older female household member. Some attributes of their roles are interchangeable: either the hero or household member can seem to be a villain; the heroine is often a ward or governess; and the female household member tends to be a housekeeper or unpaid relative. I would add the ancestral home owned by the hero as a character, especially one with turrets and a proper name. After all, the bulk of the story’s action takes place there. Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” contains all four characterizations.
Perhaps the Gothic female household member and the Gothic large manor house are forever linked. An online Strand magazine post from June 22, 2017, lists “Ten of the Best On-Screen Villains.” Here’s what it says about the Mrs. Danvers performance by Judith Anderson in the 1940 Hitchcock film:
“Who needs ghosts when Mrs. Danvers is your chief attendant and tormentor? As much a part of Manderley as its newel posts and wainscoting, Judith Anderson’s icy, spectral countenance seems to inhabit every shadow of the estate. ‘You’re overwrought, madam. I’ve opened a window for you.’ Pure evil.”
Although Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” won an Oscar for best movie of 1940, my favorite visual version is PBS’ 1997 one. “Masterpiece Theatre,” the PBS drama anthology television series, has long satisfied my craving for classic and contemporary Gothic thriller films with dark, old houses, lovely British countrysides and coastlines, well-cast actors and actresses and hypnotic musical scores. “Masterpiece” has aired “Rebecca” in two different productions.
The first television version appeared on “PBS Mystery!” (a spin-off of “Masterpiece”) in the 1980-81 season. It stars Jeremy Brett as Max de Winter, Joanna David as the second Mrs. de Winter and Anna Massey as Mrs. Danvers. It was praised for its high BBC production quality and for using the music of Claude Debussy instead of some dated “horror music” that often mars 1970s films.
The second adaptation appeared on “Masterpiece Theatre” in 1996-97 and was introduced by Russell Baker, who hosted from 1992-2004. Here is what Baker said about this production of Du Maurier’s novel: “’Rebecca’ may be the most popular ghost story to come out of England since Charles Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol.’”
“Now, at the center of the story is a haunted house — Manderley. Its mistress, the brilliant, beautiful Rebecca de Winter, has died before the story opens. Her drowned body has been found in the surf off the rocky coast that borders Manderley. Her husband, Max de Winter, apparently crushed by her death, has fled … and is traveling in the south of France. He is not only charming but very rich and, not surprising, highly attractive to adventurous, worldly women who would love to be the next mistress of Manderley.”
What none of them realize is that Manderley would be a formidable challenge for any woman who tries to replace Rebecca. It’s a house filled with dark spirits who don’t want a new mistress. One of these dark spirits is dead, the other alive.
The ‘96-‘97 version starred the dashing Charles Dance as Max. Diana Riggs is Mrs. Danvers and Geraldine James is Beatrice, Max’s sister. One has to go to the complete cast listings to discover that Emilia Fox portrays the second Mrs. de Winter. (Fox’s mother, Joanna David, had the same role in the 1979 “Masterpiece Theatre” production.)
Another Du Maurier novel inspired a black-and-white film: the 1952 version of “My Cousin Rachel” with its Nunnally Johnson screenplay stars Richard Burton (in his first Hollywood movie) and Olivia de Havilland.
“My Cousin Rachel” has a fairly simple plot. A young man, Philip Ashley, plots revenge against the woman he believes murdered his elderly cousin and benefactor Ambrose, but his plans are shaken when he comes face to face with the enigmatic beauty. The recently released 2017 film presents a visual feast of Du Maurier’s “deliciously ambiguous novel.” (I found talented Rachel Weisz as the titular character hauntingly beautiful, but Sam Claflin, who plays a duel role as Philip and Ambrose, is just another pretty face.)
So let’s read (re-read) or view (re-view) a Gothic thriller this summer. May I suggest “Rebecca?” I can guarantee an instant chill in the air when the second Mrs. de Winter utters her memorable line at the beginning of the novel or the film: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Jane Crooks Britt is an octogenarian who has lived in Jacksonville off and on for almost 30 years. She writes a monthly column for Tuesday’s Life section.