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Monday, October 11, 2010

More Du Maurier: this time My Cousin Rachel

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.

17 comments:

  1. There is there a film of this? I've never ever come across it! I'd love to see it. I think you're right, this one could possibly even beat Rebecca - such an excelletn work. It's years since I've read it so I must read it again.

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  2. thanks for the plug! yes I totally loved this book. glad you did too.

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  3. Hannah, what a brilliant review. I am a huge Du Maurier fan and I'm slowly making my way through her books. I recently went to a workshop about her work and was fascinated by her life and sexuality - she actually had affairs with women while being married, as well as having a strange incestuous relationship (although no sex took place) with her father which really intrigued me. Anyway, I haven't yet read My Cousin Rachel, but it is now next on my list, so thanks for that, and on the issue of Rebecca, I have heard from other ardent DDM fans that My Cousin Rachel is better than Rebecca. I did like Rebecca, but Jamaica Inn is my favourite, being a Cornwalliphile, she describes the land in the way I love to imagine it. Cheers again, Karen.

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  4. Cracking review Hannah! I have been meaning to buy My Cousin Rachel for a while and your review has made me bump it up my list. I think Du Maurier does the "mystery element" best. It is up to the reader to take or not take what is obvious and to dig up or not dig up what is beneath the surface. Again, lovely review!

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  5. My Cousin Rachel is an absolute favourite: the narrator's twisted, flawed view of proceedings bought into sharp contrast when the fresh eyes of his neighbours are allowed to gaze in. Think I may even like it slightly more than Rebecca (such an insipid 2nd Mrs. de Winter).
    Oh, don't say any more about The Children's Book - still wading through its shallows, haven't reached those parts yet!

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  6. I have never read anything by Du Maurier, but do have a copy of this book and Rebecca on my shelves that have been patiently waiting on me. It sounds like I should not let them linger much longer! I loved your review and will have to let you know what I think of the books after I have read them.

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  7. I loved My Cousin Rachel (even more than Rebecca). I'm off to Netflix to see if I can locate the film!

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  8. Let me be honest and say up front that I don't care for DDM's books much. But I love your review. It really captures the feel of the book, as well as conveying plenty of info without giving everything away -- and that's not easy too do. I'm just not a fan of dark, atmospheric books myself. But I am a fan of good writing, and you caught me with your opening words of "the mouldering corpse of a murderer swinging from a gibbet".
    Thanks for writing.

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  9. I think you've really got to the heart of the book and du Maurier's skill as a writer:
    >He fears Rachel and hates her, he loves her unreservedly, he lusts for her and is utterly beguiled.

    I read this quite awhile ago and want to reread it soon.

    Excellent review.

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  10. I loved Rebecca and really enjoyed this one too. I look forward to rereading it again one day.

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  11. Great review! I just read this one and had a similar reaction. I loved that we only knew Rachel through the narrator's eyes. It makes you question her motives so much more. Rebecca remains my favorite, but maybe only because I read it first.

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  12. Very good review-I found Phillip very annoying-I really liked the atmosphere of the novel a lot

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  13. I like all the Du Maurier books. Frenchman's Creek was I think my favorite but its been ages since I read them. I think I'll go backt to them now.

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  14. I really loved this book. Especially the part where the doctor explains that Englishmen eat too much pastry and that is why he is getting ill. Genius.

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  15. Hannah,
    Of course we can rely on you to spotlight what is (in my and Miss Lemon's humble opinions) the absolute best of all best DdM novels. I shall never forget that opener. And once I'd read it, I was hooked.

    Am reading Jamaica Inn now. Not quite as good, but still du Maurier through and through.
    Thanks for the great review!

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  16. I have not read this one yet, although I've been meaning to. That's quite an insight about Du Maurier's treatment of names, which bothered me about Rebecca until I realized it was a deliberate omission.

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  17. I loved "Rebecca" so much; can't imagine why I've never picked up any more du Maurier.

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