My Cousin Rachel commences with the mouldering corpse of a murderer swinging from a gibbet and although, I don’t think I would call it cheerful, I would certainly call it brilliant. I am weighing up whether it may even be better than Du Maurier’s acknowledged masterpiece Rebecca. Who can say? I certainly reckon that it is as good, and you don’t need a PhD to see that they are of the same pen.
The novel is narrated by Philip Ashley, a young old man, a reclusive Cornish landowner with a past, and a distruster of women and society. His tale is retrospectively told, and of course, the story of his life explains his rather sour demeanour at the beginning of the book. He is an orphan who has been brought up by his wealthy cousin Ambrose. There are no women in their world and they seem quite pleased about it. Philip is a capable man and I took away the impression that he is good looking in a beefy English sort of way. For all of this, he is not really interested in the world beyond his gates. As he grows older, his cousin-father-friend Ambrose becomes unable to cope with the bitter Cornish winter and like so many people in literature begins “wintering” in warmer climes. One such winter takes him to Florence and there he does the unthinkable – meets his cousin Rachel for the first time, and marries her.
Poor Ambrose goes from Bridegroom to dead man with staggering speed and before the distraught Philip knows where he is, his cousin Rachel is knocking on the door of his remote Cornish home. It is the strange clash of loyalties and the nature of the bond between Philip and Rachel that invigorates this book: they are what it is about. I suspect that I have stated this too confidently, because, My Cousin Rachel is mysterious in every way. It is dark and atmospheric and what it is really about seems to shift and change shape throughout. It is love story, feminist fable and morality tale, all in one and Du Maurier manages all of this through the ingenious voice of Philip Ashley.
Some people find Philip annoying. I have to say that I rather loved him and wanted him to be happy, although I suspected that that was not possible. Maybe I am drawn to cranks, or even worse, misogynists. He is a hopelessly flawed narrator of his own story. He fears Rachel and hates her, he loves her unreservedly, he lusts for her and is utterly beguiled. He ricochets between being uncritical and being paranoid. Is she an angel who has had a hard life? Is she a loyal widow or a scheming money grabbing manipulator? Is she an ordinary woman with a little charm and a weakness for wealth? Is she worse than any of these things and even if she is, does she deserve the fate that awaits her?
Thinking about it long and hard, I have decided that the two main things I love about Daphne Du Maurier are her treatment of names and sex.
Firstly, I have always been fascinated by names. I look up what they mean, I ask people what their middle initials stand for when they give me cheques; I will be a nightmare if I ever have a child. There is something of the same going on in the novels of Daphne Du Maurier. Her most famous book takes a woman’s name as its title, but of course that woman is an off stage character, whilst the narrator herself is left nameless. Here the opposite is almost true. The eponymous Rachel is named but never explained. Her character is shrouded in mystery and we can only see her through Philip’s eyes. Readers may well put down the finished book and think that they never really knew Rachel at all.
And then of course there is the thorny issue of sex. Du Maurier writes about sex with power and subtlety and considerable beauty. By way of contrast, I almost died of embarrassment reading the sex scenes in The Children’s Book recently. The problem with bad sex is that it seems to capture so little of what it describes and I can’t be doing with that. Of course, I would not wish to bring back the censorship laws and cultural mores which meant that in 1951 authors like Du Maurier had to be “subtle” if they did not want their books to be banned. As my mother would say, I guess that it is a case of swings and roundabouts
There are other lovely reviews of this book at Coffee Stained Pages, She Reads Novels and the wonderful Harriet Devine’s Blog. I cannot recommend them or it enough. Here you see a picture of the Virago edition that I read, a photograph of the author and the poster of the 1952 film.