Hope you are well and that you have enough writing projects (and ice cream) to get you through the dog days of summer. And books! Don’t forget the books.
We’re continuing on with our talk of Rebecca… and well. It took quite a turn, didn’t it? If you haven’t finished reading, be forewarned, there are major(!) spoilers ahead.
Before we get into the twists and turns, I want to talk a little bit about dialogue. So much of the novel’s “action” occurs in conversation. Du Maurier makes it look so effortless, but dialogue is a tricky thing to get right. It needs to advance the plot and reveal character. And it’s particularly difficult to use dialogue to convey backstory without it coming across as information rather than conversation, but here it seems natural.
We see this best in Chapter 11 when the narrator goes fishing for information about Rebecca’s cottage. She’s walking with Frank, suddenly bold with questions.
“Did she use it a great deal?” I asked
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, she did. Moonlight picnics, and-and one thing and another.”
We see that Frank has caught himself here. He isn’t fully comfortable giving this information and decides to be vague. But the narrator keeps pushing with her questions.
“What sort of size boat was it?” I asked
“What made it capsize?”
“Could not someone have got out to her?”
“Nobody saw the accident, nobody knew she had gone,” he said.
“They must have known up at the house?” I said.
“No,” he said. “She often went out alone like that. She would come back any time of the night and sleep at the cottage on the beach.”
We learn more about Rebecca’s use of the cottage and why Frank is so hesitant to discuss it a few chapters later. But in this moment, we’re with the narrator. We, too, are curious about the accident and about the figure of Rebecca. We want answers.
Du Maurier uses direct dialogue almost exclusively - even when indirect or summary dialogue might suffice. I’m thinking here of the conversation in Chapter 21 about the mechanics of raising the boat or the dinner conversation where the de Winters dine with Frank and Colonel Julyan. Much of their talk is idle - about the weather and the party - and performative. They are keeping up appearances in front of the help.
“He’s grown into a nice looking dog,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“They make nice pets,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
We stood there for a minute. Then he glanced at his watch.
It’s not earth shattering conversation by any means. Our narrator could summarize this for us, and comment on how strained and ridiculous it felt. But no. We are right there with them, feeling the passage of time and the awkwardness.
Likewise, we feel the awkwardness when Beatrice takes the narrator to meet the grandmother. It’s supposed to be a begnin social visit but it quickly becomes awkward.
“You talk too much, all of you. I don’t understand.” Then she looked across at me, a frown on her face, and began shaking her head. “Who are you, my dear, I haven’t seen you before? I don’t know your face. I don’t remember you at Manderley. Bee, who is this child? Why did not Maxim bring Rebecca? I’m so fond of Rebecca. Where is dear Rebecca?”
There was a long pause, a moment of agony. I felt my cheeks grow scarlet. The nurse got to her feet very quickly and went to the bath chair.
“I want Rebecca,” repeated the old lady, “what have you done with Rebecca?” Beatrice rose clumsily from the table, shaking the cups and saucers. She too had turned very red, and her mouth twitched.
Ah. We feel that, don’t we?
I have certainly read my fair share of awkward and overwrought revelations with much scoffing and grimacing and eyebrow arching. Yesterday I saw this kind of scene as passed off as writing advice. No. No. No. It is so comparatively clumsy to what we have here in Rebecca where the reader becomes carried away, as anxious as the narrator to hear the answers, as though we are walking along side them, part of the conversation.
There are also conversations that don’t quite make sense the first time we read them. In Chapter 12, there’s seemingly small event when the narrator accidently smashes a glass cupid in the morning room. Mrs. Danvers accuses Robert of doing it and there’s a small misunderstanding that gets cleared up. In the aftermath, there’s a strange quarrel between Maxim and the narrator.
“I suppose that’s why you married me,” I said, “you knew I was dull and quiet and inexperienced, so that there would never be any gossip about me.”
Maxim threw his paper on the ground and got up from his chair. “What do you mean?” he said.
His face was dark and queer, and his voice was rough, not his voice at all.
“I-I don’t know,” I said, leaning back against the window. “I don’t mean anything. Why do you look like that?”
“What do you know about any gossip down here?” he said.
“I don’t,” I said, scared by the way he looked at me, “I only said it because-because of something to say. Don’t look at me like that. Maxim, what have I said; what’s the matter?”
“Who’s been talking to you?” he said slowly.
“No one. No one at all.”
And then, of course, we have Maxim’s confession at the end of Chapter 19 that clears up his jumpiness about gossip.
“The woman bured in the crypt is not Rebecca,” he said. “It’s the body of some unknown woman, unclaimed, belonging nowhere. There never was an accident. Rebecca was not drowened at all. I killed her. I shot Rebecca in the cottage in the cove. I carried her body to the cabin, and took the boat out that night and sunk it there, where they found it to-day. It’s Rebecca who’s lying dead there on the cabin floor. Will you look into my eyes and tell me that you love me now?”
Reversal of Expectations:
I think most of us might be put off (I hope, oh dear, please don’t tell me if you wouldn’t. I need to sleep tonight) by the revelation that our husband has killed his first wife. Scared. Worried. But our narrator isn’t upset by this news. In fact, she seems to find strength in it.
“You see, I was right,” he said. “It’s too late. You don’t love me now.”
Maxim goes on, suggesting that their marriage won’t work. That she will turn away from him with this confession. Only. She doesn’t. In fact, she begs him to give her a chance!
“We can’t lose each other now,” I said. “We’ve got to be together always, with no secrets, no shadows. Please, darling, please.”
It is an interesting narrative choice. One that the reader can’t quite believe. (I would not even have taken the time to go upstairs to pack my bags.)
But this is a releif for our narrator. Afterall, Rebecca isn’t the perfect person that she has imagined her to be. Maxim has not loved Rebecca at all. It’s a good reminder, I think, to contemplate all the ways that a character might act and what might be gained by having them act in a way that conflicts with the reader’s expectations. We are flipping those pages, murmuring to ourselves about how we can’t believe it.
Ratcheting up the Stakes:
One of the reasons that Maxim’s confession and the narrator’s reaction comes as such a surprise is because we think we’re pretty clever readers. In Chapter 16 we witness Mrs. Danvers sabotage the narrator with her advice on what to wear to the ball. The narrator does not see it coming and we feel a bit smug in our knowledge. But the emotional trajectory of these chapters changes rapidly. The narrator goes from being so happy and satisfied with her ball gown, to being crushed and filled with shame in the matter of a walk down the stairs. She beats herself up. Contemplates not going to the ball. Finally, she decides to put on a brave face, but Maxim does not speak to her. He does not come to bed. She can not find him in the morning. All of this builds tension, until we have the scene where Mrs. Danvers nearly convinces her to jump out the window.
Mrs. Danvers came close to me, she put her face near mine. “It’s no use, is it?” she said. “You’ll never get the better of her. She’s still mistress here, even if she’s dead. Shes the real Mrs. De Winter, not you. It’s you that’s the shadow and the ghost. It’s you that’s forgotten and not wanted and pushed aside. Well, why don’t you leave manderly to her? Why don’t you go?”
I backed away from her towards the window, my old fear and horror rising up in me again. She took my arm and held it like a vice.
“Why don’t you go?” she said. “We none of us want you. He doesn’t want you, he never did. He cant’ forgt her. He wants to be alone in the house again, with her. It’s you that ought to be lying there in the curch crypt, not her. It’s you who ought to be dead, not Mrs. De Winter.”
She pushed me towards the open window. I could see the terrace below me grey and indistinct in the white wall of fog. “Look down there,” she said. “It’s easy, isn’t it? Why don’t you jump? It wouldn’t hurt, not to break your neck. It’s a quick, kind way. It’s not like drowning. Why don’t you try it? Why don’t you go?”
And then the mood is broken by the running of the ship aground. At first this seems like a diversion, but it increases the stakes with Maxim’s confession and the inquiry that follows. It’s a whirlwind of events and a good couple of chapters to study if you have chapters or scenes that seem to hit the same note.
Let’s practice our conversation. Write a scene that’s all dialogue. Maybe it’s someone trying to get information like the narrator from Frank. Maybe it’s someone confessing something terrible that they’ve done.
Revision: How can you use reversal of expectations to bring more energy to your work? Where do the characters make fairly predictable choices? What else could happen?
Granum Foundation is offering $5000 fellowship prizes for writers who are completing “substantive literary works.”
Vancouver Public Library is hosting a first pages challenge on August 18th if you want to submit your first 250 words and get feedback from agents and editors.
I haven’t been on the socials as much this last week and so that’s all the tidbits I have today. Maybe you have something to share with us? If so, drop them in the comments. And let me know if you liked looking at longer works. Maybe we’ll do it again soon.
Alright scribblers. That’s it for now. Pencils up. You’ve got this~