Rebecca is one of my absolute favorite books. For realz and all that. It’s up there, in fact, with My Cousin Rachel, which is a book I haven’t read in a long time but which the mere typing the name of makes me long for. I have very fond memories of a book that I would swear is Du Maurier’s The Loving Spirit, although I can’t be sure; the scene I remember most vividly is not referred to in any book summaries I see online. (Note to self: reread this book.) I even remember Rule, Britannia on my parents’ bookshelf when I was in junior high or high school and read it (right around when I read The Moon Is Down by Steinbeck, neither of which I remember). And then I had the good fortune to end up with a roommate after college who liked reading and always ended up in thrift stores and used book shops, and we both had quite a Du Maurier thing going on for a while (Jamaica Inn!).
A few weeks ago, as friends do, we were talking about this and that and somehow a conversation got onto the topic of medieval England (probably via Game of Thrones, which she hasn’t watched), which led to The House on the Strand, a book we shared as roommates and read at least more than once each. Determined to be wowed all over again, and relive the glory days when we were hip girls about town living on the beach next to some really noisy people who were pathologically uncomfortable being alone (I’m looking at you, Kristen and Jeff from Felspar Street! You’re the one who really liked Dave Matthews and I’m the one with that ceramic candle holder that had two faces on it that were always staring at you…), I borrowed it from the library. When I went to retrieve it, another Du Maurier book I’d missed along the way–Mary Anne–was sitting right next to it on the shelf.
Which was soon replaced by Huh.
And then followed by Really?
And then wrapped up with Ugh.
For a book that I remember being this fantastic historical novel meets time travel tale I was really disappointed. First of all, I was so not very interested at all in the intrigues of the 14th century. I really did not care for the protagonist, Dick Young, and I know the wife was probably written to be obnoxious and a character to despise (as an impediment to Dick and Magnus’s Grand Adventure) but Dick was really intolerable to her face and then even worse in his mind where only the reader could see it. Because I liked him so little, I particularly disliked him spying on the people in the earlier time and all his wink-wink-nudge-nudging with his buddy about medieval Joanna. Magnus seemed like a colossally stupid and irresponsible researcher, but maybe I’m judging the 1960s too harshly from my non-scientific, 2010s perspective. The 14th century story did improve as the book went along, but I was thoroughly disgusted with Dick and the end of the book couldn’t come soon enough. I haven’t made up my mind yet if I recommend against reading the book. It really does draw you in, and the ideas within it are intriguing.
So that dispatched with, I turned to Mary Anne, a book that had only a red library binding and about which I knew absolutely nothing.
It’s exciting to read a book about which I know absolutely nothing. Most books have cover art and jacket descriptions, or a friend recommends them or you have to read summaries in order to choose the best book for book club, or you read a book review or you find out it’s being turned into a television series, et cetera. Stories reveal themselves in advance of you reading them, and that’s not something I really worry about (I reread tons of stuff as it is), but the novelty of an unknown book is, well, exciting. And remember that I had library binding… there was no teaser text on the front of my copy like there is in this picture of the book.
Within the first five or six pages there’s an abbreviated family tree that starts with Mary Anne Clarke and ends in Daphne Du Maurier. That’s pretty awesome; turns out Mary Anne Clarke is an ancestress of hers with a bona fide portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in the UK, and who was once the mistress of a Duke.
Then the first chapter was the reminisces of three different men about the intriguing woman who had affected them all, and that was a little cliche, but they were very different men and I thought it would be cool to learn how this woman–described in such a lovely way by the author as mostly smile and expression, and I’d copy it out for you but it’s already back at the library–have moved between them, and it was, for a while. After that end-of-life remembering by those three old guys, it jumped to start-of-life living with Mary Anne and her family in the crowded alleys of London. It was pretty standard fare gutter-to-glamour by the virtue of wit and charm, and I really, really liked it for a long time, despite that unexpectedly racist and strange page (pg. 115) that may have reflected a realistic 18th century view of black people but that sounded very 2oth century. It was jarring. I mean, she called people “chocolate.” But aside from that…
The novel stays readable but the characters become less believable in the sense that they seem to become more two-dimensional as the plot takes over the story, and the characterization they did get at the beginning of the novel is not sufficient to hold you over through the end of it (at times she reminds me of a dumb version of Scarlett O’Hara). There is a scandal and a court case at the center of the book, and you can see once you arrive at it how everything else was just sort of killing time until you got there, which makes you understand why some not particularly understandable relationships were given so much story time. And then the court case is a snoozer. Fifty pages of barristers asking Mary Anne Clarke questions and her answering them. Honestly, I do not know why this much detail was provided in the book. I do not know. It could be that maybe these words are Actual Historical Dialogue and Du Maurier wanted to be as realistic as possible, but it killed the pace of the story. And then the last chapter was so beautiful and interesting it felt like it had wandered in from another novel. It was almost a short story unto itself.
As far as recommending this book to others, it could go either way. I’ve read better historical romance–even from the 1950s, before the excess of the romance novel of the 1950s–and I don’t have any particular interest in the late 18th century scandals of the British upper class or the comings and goings of the Duke of York. If I did, however, and I wanted to learn more about the people of that time and place, this would probably be a good story to learn about them from. Plus you find out that during her lifetime, Mary Anne Clarke published her own memoirs and was the subject of political satire while she was alive, and suddenly it’s this gem of art meets history for the right student. And that last chapter really is worth reading. It’s just too bad Du Maurier subverted her story to suit the facts. I don’t get the impression that Mary Anne Clarke would have minded terribly to have been embellished and/or edited for drama.