Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier is considered a classic of modern gothic fiction, and was voted Britain’s favorite book written since 1800, but I hadn’t read it until late 2022, having felt guilty that I had never picked it up. I should not have felt guilty, as I had a near-instant strong dislike of it, that did not wane as I read it, because the author kept giving me more and more things to be annoyed with.

The protagonist is an unnamed young woman of little means, with not much of a backstory. She is in the south of France working as a companion to an older woman when she meets a wealthy widower, Max de Winter, who is the owner of Manderley, a manor home set back in the woods and within a short walk of the sea. Our protagonist and Mr. de Winter begin having outings while her employer is sick with the flu, and after a couple of weeks, she has fallen for him and he proposes. So she has become the mistress of Manderley. After arriving, she quickly realizes that Rebecca, Max’s deceased wife, is still everywhere in the house, not least because the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, has maintained her room and doesn’t accept her as Mrs. de Winter. The protagonist becomes obsessed with Rebecca–where she would have gone, what choices she would have made, and how she and Max would have been together.

I continued to read because the plotting was well done. I wanted to find out what happened and why this book has been so popular for so long. The broody, creepy atmosphere was done superbly. I do enjoy books where it’s difficult to determine whether the creepy events arise from a supernatural source or just plain human evil.

But. The anti-fat bias is frequent and jarring. The author uses anti-fat tropes most often in her descriptions of the protagonist’s employer, Mrs. Van Hopper. I won’t repeat them here, but it is possible to convey that a character is loathsome, snobbish, and gluttonous without connecting those characteristics and describing her in various ways as a fat woman. Mrs. Van Hopper is a truly terrible person, but du Maurier explicitly ties those characteristics together with the fact she is fat, which is unacceptable and uncalled-for.

Mrs. Van Hopper isn’t the only character described as fat; two other characters, both male, are also fat, and their fatness is used as a character shorthand. One character’s fatness appears to be used as an attempt to describe him as a good-natured, simple-minded person without much depth. The second fat character is portrayed as a drunkard and blackmailer, with few scruples.

And there were no examples of emotionally-healthy relationships. While I took some satisfaction in the twist, I was annoyed by the main character’s passivity, Max de Winter’s past and current actions, and, her continued acceptance of him after he admits to those past actions. A good friend has a similar opinion and review here.

I can see why Rebecca‘s popularity has been so long-lasting. But it comes with many caveats. Read at the risk of normalizing and perpetuating anti-fatness, unhealthy relationship expectations, and gender roles.

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