Friday, March 19, 2010

Does duMarier's Rebecca stand up to today's rules?


“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.”
Dana Mentink here and last night I finished listening to a spectacular audio recording of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, Rebecca. I was riveted of course, through all 12 disks, but I found myself wondering if Rebecca, arguably one of the best romantic suspense novels ever written, follows the tried and true rules of modern day romantic suspense novels. Let’s just check it out, shall we?
Rule #1: No flashbacks. Good novels are action packed, moving forward without plot devices that stop the forward momentum.
Rebecca is actually one giant flashback as the second Mrs. de Winter relates her memories from their residence in exile. Hmmmm. A novel sized flashback? I'd be hard pressed to sell that to my editors.
Rule #2 : You need a strong heroine. I’m sure I’m going to get some e-mails about this one, but the second Mrs. deWinter is relatively powerless. Yes, I know the year is 1938 and women didn’t have much status in society but Mrs. de Winter is so powerless she can’t even manage to change the dinner menu, much less assert her place in the de Winter household with the nasty Mrs. Danvers. The book is largely about power and position so the protagonist fits in perfectly in her era, but she would not be a good fit in today’s romance novels. Heck, we don’t even learn the protagonist’s first name!
Rule #3: The heroine must clap eyes on the hero in chapter one and they need to be together on virtually every page. Nah. Du Maurier’s characters are strong enough to handle a little separation. Maxim is often tootling off to London and it’s a good many pages before the hero is even introduced in the story in the first place.
You’d think a novel which breaks so many rules would be hopelessly outdated and unattractive to the modern reader. So why does Rebecca still continue to fascinate seventy two years after it was penned? Because, though it doesn’t follow today’s formulaic rules of writing, it give us two critical components. The first is unforgettable characters. Personally, I rather despised Maxim and thought Mrs. de Winter was somewhat of a fool to follow Mrs. Danver’s advice about the fancy dress ball, but I found myself thinking about these fascinating, flawed characters long after I finished the book. Second, du Maurier does what all suspense authors aspire to accomplish: she neatly leads us into believing one thing will happen, and then completely turns the tables on us. I was absolutely convinced that Rebecca had conceived a child with Favell and Dr. Baker’s revelation at the end of the novel floored me. That happened many times in this amazing book right up to the fiery finish. The author never gives you what you expect, including a happy ending.
Oh yes. That is cardinal rule #4. Always give the romance reader a happy ending. In Rebecca? Not so much.
What do you think, dear reader, about Rebecca or any other classic novel that doesn’t follow our hard and fast rules?

8 comments:

PamelaTracy said...

I think I need to read Rebecca.
Gone with the Wind is the classic romance I read the most, although as for rule breaking.

Flashbacks... not so many

Strong heroine...definitely, but then we have to debate totally selfish heroine.

Meet on page one... nope, not even close.

Happy ending... nope, and the sequel doesn't count since it wasn't written by Margaret Mitchell.

Regina Merrick said...

In writing, I've noticed a lot off "rules" that are broken in the classics that I'm not allowed to break - but then these are authors that have paid their dues, aren't they? Also, think about the difference in sheer volume of publication now, compared to 1938!

I read "Rebecca" first as a teenager, and several times since. DuMarier is one of my favorite authors, and I actually thought the movie version of the book had the heroine pegged pretty well - simpering, frustratingly weak-kneed, etc. Even Sir Laurence Olivier as Maxim was weak, I thought. In both book and movie, it was the painfully absent Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers that were the strong characters, even if Mrs. Danvers WAS crazy. I guess that's the thing. You have to have at least ONE strong character to play off the weak ones.

P.S. If you haven't read "Frenchman's Creek" by duMarier, read it! It almost has an element of fantasy in it!

Vince said...

I think there are different rules for ‘category’ romances, where readers have strong expectations as to the product they are buying, than there are for more mainstream romances.

If I am reading a ‘romance’ romance, I want the romance to start as soon as possible. If I am reading a mystery with a romance in it, then I am more focused on the mystery. My expectations are far different.

I think rules are very much a guide for meeting reader expectations. If an author is in tune with these expectations, she could write the rules for whatever genre she is writing from this information alone.

Vince

Dana Mentink said...

The funny thing is duMaurier was apparantly astounded that folks liked her novel as much as they did. I just love the fact that she doesn't wrap it up all neat and tidy at the end. I REALLY love to read books that don't follow rules. Those are the real gems!

Kaye Dacus said...

Ah, but you see, Rebecca isn't a romance novel. It isn't even romantic suspense. The true definition of the romance genre is that it's about the developing relationship between the hero and the heroine. In Rebecca, the story takes place after they're already married, therefore removing it from being a true romance.

If you read Rebecca with an eye toward the rules of the Gothic genre, though, it does tend to fit quite neatly into the rules. A somewhat weak heroine--check. A dark and foreboding residence--check. At least one strong, menacing character who exerts his/her will over the heroine--check. Suspicion and misdirection--check. A satisfying but less-than-happy ending--check.

PamelaTracy said...

Kaye,
I love your gothic rules. Except for the house, I'm trying to figure how to incorporate them into my wip.

Debby Giusti said...

Rebecca is one of my all time favorite reads. Now I want to read it again!!!

Vince, nice to see you visiting the Craftie Ladies. BTW, I visited your blog and loved it!

Vince said...

Hi Debby:

I’m reading the large print hardbound Killer Headline right now and it’s so nice to read it in this format. It’s like driving a luxury car. I hope you’ve seen and held the hardbound version. I also hope this is just the first of many more!

Vince