My entry to the "My Favorite Book Contest" was published in Philippine Star's Sunday Life section yesterday. I am happy to share it here.
What we do in life defines us...or doesn’t it?
If you have been calling yourself, say, a lawyer or a writer for years and suddenly lost your job, have you in effect lost your identity? As a new bride who just quit a 10-year career in marketing to start a family, I had been been asking myself this question for some time. And when I read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, I found a woman facing the same struggle that I did — one that many working women in the Philippines and around the world might be facing, too.
Rebecca starts off with a nameless narrator talking about her experience as a paid companion. While accompanying her employer on a vacation in the French Reviera, she meets a rich man, Max de Winter. After a brief courtship, Max offers her marriage and takes her to his estate in England. It seems like a fairy tale but that is just the beginning. In her new home, our narrator learns about her husband’s former wife Rebecca who died suddenly and whose spirit still lives on at Manderley.
Who was Rebecca? And what really happened to her? A woman of great beauty and conviction, Rebecca seemed to be adored by everyone who knew her — much to the disappointment of the new Mrs. de Winter. She tries in vain to find her place in the new household but the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, was deeply devoted to Rebecca and does her best to psychologically crush the new wife’s confidence. While reading, I found some similarities with the book Jane Eyre where the first Mrs. Rochester was hidden deep within the house alive. But unlike in Brontë’s novel, the Rebecca here is very much dead. Yet she still holds a vise-like grip on the living.
As a love story shrouded in mystery, the book is beautifully written and gripping. Du Maurier creates an atmosphere that is taut and bordering on Gothic. She describes the book herself as “psychological and rather macabre.” Rebecca is included on BBCs list of Top 100 Books. It also has one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “Last night I dreamt I was in Manderley again.”
Rebecca is also the story of Manderley, which was actually based on Du Maurier’s home, Menabilly. By making it the setting of the novel, Du Maurier was able to weave suspense into a great fiction novel while at the same time setting Max de Winter’s living standards in stark contrast with that of his new wife.
Aside from the bizarre characters and the writing style, what really struck me was the fact that our narrator stays nameless throughout the novel. Have you ever heard of a love story where the heroine doesn’t have a name?
So I did some research about Daphne du Maurier and discovered that she wrote Rebecca in 1938 while accompanying her husband on duty in Egypt. At the time, she was actually struggling between her two roles as a writer and as a wife. Because she was married to an army general, she was required to perform certain obligations. At the same time she also had her writing career. Rebecca, who was beautiful and free-spirited, was meant to portray Du Maurier’s writer persona, while the nameless Mrs. de Winter, complacent and insecure, was the army general’s wife. Du Maurier was torn between her career and her marriage, a struggle that is becoming common today as more women are joining the workforce. In this sense, I felt Rebecca was rather ahead of its time.
On my last day at work, my colleagues threw me a despedida party. It included a video of my achievements, which were things I had always been proud of and things that defined me. But after two unsuccessful pregnancies, I knew that nothing else mattered except starting a family. The decision to quit was by no means an easy one, and I couldn’t help but feel that somehow I had lost a part of myself.
That’s when I started thinking whether or not it is what we do in life that defines us. It was also then that I realized Rebecca’s deeper significance. I didn’t think Du Maurier had the answer at the time because she was not ready to give up her writing career. This was proven by the fact that the nameless Mrs. de Winter never found her identity except as the obedient wife of Max de Winter. It was Rebecca who possessed the true character and triumphed eventually. The solution did come to Du Maurier only after Rebecca became successful. In the end, she was able to keep both roles, as a world-renowned writer and a dutiful wife.
But for someone like me who had to choose only one, the answer required a bit more reflection. Nevertheless, I am thankful that Daphne du Maurier wrote about her struggle because it made me realize what I was worried about. With this awareness came acceptance and a decision to move forward.
For me, the answer to the question lay in our ability to accept the circumstances that come our way, learn to adapt, and move on with our lives. Yes, it is true that I can no longer call myself a marketer but I will always love marketing and believe in what it can do (when done responsibly) for business and for the public.