Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca - the story of the second Mrs de Winter, whose marriage is overshadowed by the lingering influence of her glamorous, doomed predecessor at the great estate of Manderley - has had a lasting appeal in the popular imagination since its publication in the late 1930s. There was Hitchcock's famous film in 1940, starring Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter; the husband tormented to breaking point by his promiscuous first wife. There have been multiple TV and stage adaptations, and in 1993 Susan Hill produced a sequel, Mrs de Winter (Sinclair-Stevenson).
Now Sally Beauman, author of Dark Angel and Destiny, is returning once again to the novel, but from a new perspective. Rebecca's Tale (Little, Brown, September, £16.99, 0316858129) is set 20 years after the original book, and is told by four voices: Colonel Julyan, a minor character in the original novel; his daughter Ellie; a mysterious investigator named Terence Grey: and, through some scraps of diaries, by Rebecca herself.
Grey is seeking to piece together what really happened to Rebecca all those years ago, and as the novel proceeds, ambivalent evidence and shifting perspectives cast doubt on the second Mrs de Winter's interpretation of events.
Beauman says she does not like to think of the book as a sequel but as in some way presenting a mirror to du Maurier's text, reflecting more directly a perspective Beauman believes to be subtly but distinctly implicit in the original novel.
"I think there's a clear assumption that the first readers of Rebecca must have made which is a very dangerous and strange one. I've never read a single thing that was written about the book at the time of publication which pointed out that the second wife is prepared completely to accept what her husband tells her about her predecessor, and to assume that because he says his first wife was promiscuous, the murder was justified and it is all right for her to give him her support.
"Nobody questioned it. The book was marketed by Gollancz as 'an exquisite love story', and in a way it is. But du Maurier is a dark author. There are elements of Bluebeard here, and if you reread the novel, you can see that du Maurier is pointing it up."
Beauman suggests that Mrs de Winter is in fact "the first unreliable narrator in popular fiction", and that Daphne du Maurier had a far more complex relationship to the character of Rebecca than the surface narrative of the novel might suggest.
"She was a very secretive woman. Whenever she was asked about the book, she used to say she had identified strongly with the second Mrs de Winter because she was also very shy and rather socially inept and would have been intimidated by a grand household like Manderley.
"I think this disguises the fact that she deliberately put into the character of Rebecca many aspects of herself: she makes Rebecca a keen yachtswoman, as she herself was; Rebecca has a boathouse by the sea and du Maurier worked in a little hut in the woods at Menabilly. Later in her life, she did write an extraordinary letter in which she said, 'I now can see how Rebecca could have been me."'
Rebecca, Beauman believes, always intended to raise questions surrounding the role of women and their relationship to property. After all, the estate of Manderley itself is a hugely important force in the novel. "What does Manderley represent? It needs a male heir, it is the absolute acme of a patriarchal system. There is no question but that in the original novel, Rebecca dies because she questions that system, and Maxim kills her because of the idea that her illegitimate child will inherit."
Of course Rebecca's Tale requires Beauman to make du Maurier's story her own, although her guideline was never to write anything that contradicted the author's own creation. So Beauman fills in the details of Rebecca's early life, including a childhood in the theatre, a youthful rape, and a mother already mixed up with the de Winter clan long before Rebecca's first meetirig with Maxim.
At the other end of the spectrum, various characters from the original novel also reappear 20 years later in Rebecca's Tale, including Rebecca's caddish cousin Jack Favell, going downhill fast by this time, and the housekeeper Mrs Danvers - try to forget that dramatic Hitchcock sequence; in the novel she did not die in the fire that burns down Manderley - who is a physical and psychological wreck in later life, still in thrall to her obsession with Rebecca.
Did Beauman have any hesitations about creating a back story for Rebecca, or of giving her a voice, given that famously Rebecca dominates du Maurier's novel while never actually making an appearance?
"I had a lot of anxieties about that, because I think the essence of Rebecca is mystery, and the last thing I wanted to do was to destroy that. That is the reason why I have left some aspects of her life unexplored and ambivalent.
"I thought of her section In my novel as a woman's cri de coeur. What matters in that section is that femrle voice which has been silenced, which is questioning all the assumptions about women which were prevalent at the time and still pertain today. She doesn't have any of the characteristics that even today are regarded as admirable in a woman: she's not gentle, she's not modest, she's not quiet, she's not sexually pure. She's truthful, angry, very direct. I knew that if I could find the right voice for her, I could make the book work."
The Bookseller, 15 June 2001