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Monday, 22 September 2014

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

I've never read Daphne du Maurier before. In fact, I've hardly ever read psychological/ Gothic thrillers before - with the exception of Jane Eyre (and Northanger Abbey, if you count a satire of the Gothic romance - it didn't work for me, because obviously you need to be familiar with what the author is satirizing). This is really not my cup of tea - I suppose I could occasionally read, even enjoy psychological thrillers, but the Gothic romance is not for me. It always, for me, conjures up images of howling wind and rain, and gloomy marshes (or moors). Not for me. I prefer to laugh.

My Cousin Rachel reminded me constantly of Jane Eyre. I read later that Jane Eyre and the Bröntes were a great influence on du Maurier - it certainly shows. The evocation of atmosphere, the friendless, dependent woman, the unequal romance (age and otherwise), all bring to mind Jane Eyre. But My Cousin Rachel is a very different book from Jane Eyre.

Others have said that du Maurier has a way with words. I was too engrossed to particularly notice, which means she certainly does. The brilliance of My Cousin Rachel is neither plot nor suspense - it is atmosphere, even more than character. In fact, I'd say the atmosphere was a character in itself, playing strongly in shaping the reader's feelings and mindset. The amazing ability to conjure up mood is what makes My Cousin Rachel more harrowing than the plot might suggest.

I would say that the plot is not extraordinary or very suspenseful. With the heavy doses of foreshadowing, and Ambrose's letters, it becomes rather obvious what has probably happened, and is happening. The narrator, Philip, is an orphan adopted by his older cousin Ambrose (he is also a stupid, obtuse dolt). Philip is Ambrose's heir. Ambrose, who suffers from bad health in the winter, travels to warmer climes every winter. This winter, he travels to Italy, where he meets the titular 'Cousin Rachel', who is constantly referred to as such, and is half-Italian. He enjoys her company, and, as you can probably guess, he falls in love with her and they marry. Rachel is the widow of Count Sangaletti, who, on his death left a large number of debts behind. She is quite impoverished when she meets, although not too impoverished to be able to reside in a large villa, in the best English fashion, where impoverished means that they live in a large house instead of a mansion, and employ only a few servants instead of an entire retinue. Anyway, the only one surprised (and unhappy) at the marriage is Philip, the poor dolt. The reason that I keep referring to him as such will become obvious as I progress.

Now, I did not start out hating Philip. He is sympathetic enough in the beginning. Even when he failed to foresee Ambrose and Rachel's marriage, I was still sympathetic. After all, we are sometimes most blind about those closest to us. I didn't even hate him when he is extremely jealous of Rachel, because it makes perfect sense for the orphaned, unsociable person with only one true friend and relative in all the world to be jealous of someone who could potentially take that one friend away. And of course, there is the new uncertainty about his rights, and whether he will still inherit the estate. Philip hates Rachel, and with good reason. This hatred grows stronger when Ambrose dies in Italy, before he can return home. Ambrose has sent home ambiguous, mysterious letters hinting at something dark and terrible. "She watches me constantly." - he writes in one letter. And in his last - "She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment." Now anyone with half a brain would infer that there is a high probability that Rachel either killed Ambrose or caused his death somehow. At this point, still possessing half a brain, this is exactly what he believes (actually not exactly - the character don't yet know that Ambrose is dead here, but Philip is extremely worried), despite the strong opposition and disapprobation of his godfather, who believe that these are the delusions of a sick man (they say he died of a brain tumour). On receipt of this letter, he leaves immediately to see Ambrose. I was still with him. Of course Rachel killed Ambrose. It seems obvious.

Where things start to change is when Rachel arrives at the estate. Almost overnight Philip's attitude towards Rachel changes. He throws caution to the winds and allows himself to like her. Even here things made sense. I was surprised myself at how likeable Rachel turned out to be. But of course, she cannot be a complete shrew if Ambrose fell in love with her. The genius of du Maurier here is that we are not shocked at Philips 180 degrees change in attitude, because we experience the same thing. I was conscious of wanting her to turn out to be completely innocent. du Maurier even succeeded in convincing me, along with Philip, that those letters truly were delusions.

SPOILERS ahead. Read at your own risk.

When, however, Philip, discovers further letters (and letter fragments) from Ambrose insinuating the same (and more) things about Rachel, I was bought back to Earth with a jolt. At around the halfway point of the book, Philip finds a coherent, logical, fully conscious letter from Ambrose explaining that Rachel is an extravagant spendthrift who does not seem to have quite the same moral outlook as they do. He writes that she is constantly with Rainaldi (an Italian who is Rachel's man of business), and they seem to have secrets from him. Oh, also, he thinks that he is being slowly poisoned by Rachel. Surely this is explicit enough to make anyone suspicious.

Not Philip, though. He buries the letter. He dismisses it out of hand. He denies it. You'd think the love and care and respect of decades of affection would outweigh a recent infatuation. Yes, Philip, who is twenty-four to Rachel's thirty-five, is totally besotted. He plans to make over the estate to Rachel when he turns twenty five, when it comes fully into his possession from his godfather. He plans to continue to reside on the estate as Rachel's man of business. Yes, he is that foolish and besotted. He continuously ignores every scrap of evidence that Rachel is not what she seems, as well as the good-natured, sound advice of his godfather and his daughter Louise, who is Philip's childhood friend. He grows angry at her when she talks sense. Again, you'd think long-term ties would outweigh short-term infatuations, but no. Not so, my friends. The world is a traitorous place. Expect a lifelong friend to choose the older, sophisticated vampire over you.

When Philip begins to show doltish signs, you hope he will snap out of it, because he was quite promising in the beginning. He even had a semblance of intelligence and sense. This hope is steadily defeated, with Philip's moronic-ness just growing with the passing of the pages. It is not just that Philip ignores caution about the woman he loves. That makes sense. It is that he outright ignores and defies strong evidence that Rachel is a manipulative witch who murdered Ambrose. Loyalty to the friend who bought him up with such affection and love does not trump infatuation, when it should. That is what made me hate him more than anything else. This betrayal of the father figure in his life, after his death.

My annoyance with Philip fought with my liking of du Maurier's writing and hampered my enjoyment of the book. I do not know if he was meant to be exceedingly unlikeable. I looked it up on Goodreads, and it looks like I'm not the only person who thought Philip was an ass. I do know that I spent a majority of the book wanting to hit Philip, or throw something at him. I'm lucky I was able to rein in these violent impulses, because my book is from the library.

Anyway, towards the end of the book, when Philip finally realizes that he cannot deny Rachel's villainy any longer (after he finds poison seeds in her belongings - she begins poisoning him as well, after he leaves the estate to her - that is what it takes), he still has Louise (his childhood friend) to rely on, despite his egregious mistreatment of her (I might have left him to suffer the consequences of his actions). Surprisingly, though, Philip, after discovering that Rachel is a murderess (although he cannot find concrete evidence), deliberately allows her to walk on what he knows is a dangerously unstable bridge, and she dies. This amounts to manslaughter. This surprising violent tendency actually makes an appearance earlier in the book, when Rachel refuses to marry Philip after leading him on, and his fingers close around her throat. That is the first indication that Philip is not quite a reliable narrator, and that he, also, might not be what he seems. Although (again from Goodreads) most people seem to believe that Rachel did murder Ambrose and was about to murder Philip (including me), the ending is supposed to be ambiguous. Philip himself is unsure about her guilt, and is therefore racked with guilt at his retribution. The question we are supposed to ask ourselves is: was Rachel guilty, or was she the victim of the suspicions of two jealous and possessive men?

I quite firmly believe that Rachel is guilty. However, when I think about Philip's unreliability as a narrator, I begin to feel a little doubtful. I would personally have preferred an ending where Philip took her to court after finding evidence that she is guilty. I would have liked to see the interaction between the two in a drawn out court battle, and I would have liked to see how Rachel changed. What would Philip's feelings be at having to accuse the only woman he ever loved of murder? At the end of the book, strangely enough, Philip still loves her in a twisted way, even having murdered her.

Part of what is amazing about this book, apart from the atmospheric detail, is how du Maurier changes our mind two, three times about Rachel. I was quite as firmly convinced as Philip at one point of her innocence. I liked Rachel. I wanted her to be innocent.

At the same time, while Rachel is the subject of the books, and of Philip's obsession, by the end, we still don't really know her. We don't know anything of her past, of how she was with Sangaletti, her first husband. We don't know how she became the way she was. We don't know who she is - murderess, or twisted victim of circumstances, or person with fatal flaw, like a Shakespearean protagonist. There are inconsistencies in her character - kindnesses, nice touches that don't fit in with what we know and believe. But then Captain Hook liked flowers and wanted a mother.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading My Cousin Rachel. When I was done, I thought that I hadn't really been frightened by it, or shaken by it. But I woke up three times yesterday night, and each time I was thinking about Rachel and Philip. Obviously I was more affected than I realized. A story that does not leave you is the mark of a master storyteller. While I still don't think that Gothic romances are my cup of tea, I do want to read more of du Maurier, particularly her famous Rebecca.

I read My Cousin Rachel for an online book club at and
Do check it out.