Friday, October 25, 2019

Tales of Second Wives: Rebecca and Varina

 With such a backlog of books waiting to be read, I am often reluctant to re-read anything, even books I loved. Sometimes, as recently for me, the motivation is external. When my book club decided to choose a classic as we prepared our 2019 reading list, we opted for Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca, a book that had kept me on the D shelf in the fiction section of the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library back in junior high.

I loved the book so much that I read everything I could find by DuMaurier--Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel, and a personal favorite, The House on the Strand.  I knew that Alfred Hitchcock had loved her works too, adapting this novel for the big screen, as
well as her short story "The Birds," which became one of Hitchcock's best-known film. (Who doesn't think of it whenever spying a flock of blackbirds?)

When we decided to read Rebecca, a first read for some members of the group, I wondered if it would hold up. I remembered so many vivid memories--the first glimpse of flames, appearing like the sunset on the wrong side of the sky, the opening line: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again. Every time I approach a majestic house at the end of a long drive, I recite them.

I'm still amused to recall that the narrator was never given a name other than Mrs. deWinter, one already used when she took it over. I still imagine the sight of Rebecca's signature in book dedications and household documents. I remember practicing writing that slanting R myself, even though I didn't have an R in my name.

A more recent re-reading experience brought me back to Charles Frazier's Varina, the fictionalized story of Jefferson Davis's wife. Long a fan of Frazier's writing, particularly his first novel Cold Mountain, I had selected Varina as our book club read when I hosted. Since only two of us are Southerners and several members have origins outside the United States, I was eager to lead a discussion that centered on the complicated history during and after the Civil War.

Frazier's novel, inspired by historical details of the wife of the only president of the Confederacy, took a minor character, a black boy taken in by the Davises and raised along side of their children. Pictures still remain of young Jimmy, and little is known after he was taken from the family upon their arrest after the war. Frazier took the liberties to imagine a grown-up Jimmy, having his own childhood memories reawakened upon reading a book mentioning his existence in the Davis household. He seeks out Varina, called V throughout the novel, and has her recount his life and her own.

My experience reading Frazier for a second time recalled the same experience with Cold Mountain. I read both novels straight through for the story, shortly after publication. A second reading made me more aware of Frazier's use of language and detail, his ability to explore the gray areas and the ambiguities.

Only upon reflection did I realize that both novels centered on the lives of second wives, living in the shadow of their husbands' first wives. Jefferson Davis had been married to Knoxie Taylor, whose father went on to serve as President of the United States. She died quickly of an illness shortly after their marriage and he only relinquished his mourning clothes in time to court Varina, many years his junior. If Frazier's details are accurate, he stopped by her grave with Varina on their honeymoon. In the novel, she speculates on his happy reunion with his first wife in the afterlife.

While the narrator of Rebecca spends much of her early marriage under the mistaken belief that her husband had adored Rebecca as much as everyone else did, only late in the story does she learn how wrong she was. On this second reading, I was particularly struck by her easy acceptance of how Rebecca died. Even Hitchcock had to make some revisions to the screenplay to minimize Max's culpability in his wife's death.

Now I'm happily moving on to my stack of new books, but I'm reminded that a second--or third or fourth--reading of a favorite book is seldom a waste of time.

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