This summer we are graced with a movie version of My Cousin Rachel, which delights me no end. The question is, what version of the story will we see? It would be completely possible to make multiple different versions of this story, all faithful to the original book, and yet all very different, because this is a story about how the stories we tell ourselves and the characters we create take over our heads and leave us unable to really know each other.
The 1959 novel by Daphne Du Maurier is narrated by Philip Ashley. Philip, who is twenty-four years old, was raised by Ambrose, his much older cousin. Ambrose distills a love of the bachelor life in Philip, along with a hefty dose of misogyny. Ambrose was a happy bachelor and although everyone assumes that Philip will eventually marry Louise, his neighbor, Philip wants to remain a bachelor as well. He and Ambrose spend a lot of time on their estate in Cornwall, smoking pipes and putting their feet on furniture and talking about how great life is with no jabbering women around.
Ambrose is ordered to go to Italy for his health and Philip is astounded to learn that Ambrose falls in love and marries while in Florence. Ambrose marries a woman he is distantly related to who he likes to call ‘Cousin Rachel.’ Shortly after Philip gets a series of letters from Ambrose referring to bad health. The letters become more and more ominous, culminating with:
“For God’s sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay, it may be too late.”
By the time Philip gets to Florence, Ambrose is dead, which, if you are counting, means we have had at least four major plot twists in the space of thirty-nine pages (page count will vary by edition, of course).
Page forty reveals that Rachel left for England immediately after Ambrose died (forty-one plot twists and we are still only on chapter five). Philip heads back to England as well, where he is finally able to confront Rachel, only to discover that she is not the woman he constructed in his mind at all. The rest of the book concerns whether or not Rachel is guilty or innocent. In Philip’s mind, she can only be one of two people, a good one or a bad one (a metaphorical virgin or a literal whore). So which one is she?
There may be a person equipped to figure Rachel out, but poor Philip is not that person. Philip and Ambrose describe Rachel as “impulsive” and “driven by emotion,” but it’s Philip who flounders around at the mercy of his impulses, his emotions, and his hormones. He sees her as a killer, then as a friend who has “his highest respect” and who is somewhat maternal towards him, then as a woman who is too pure and perfect to ever love him back romantically but who clearly deserves his protection, then as an object of desire that must be controlled. He does a few clever things and a lot of very stupid ones. He’s the equivalent of the person who splits up the group to explore the basement with a malfunctioning flashlight and a dead cell phone in a slasher movie. He’d be unbelievable were it not for the fact that his upbringing has left him with some very weird ideas about women, and the fact that he’s very young.
We only know Rachel through Phillip’s eyes, which is a problem because Philip has a difficult time thinking of women as actual people. She’s clearly smart and funny. The servants love her, the tenants love her, and most of the gentry love her save those who regard her with suspicion. She has evidently had a difficult past life and experienced abuse. Various characters debate the following topics: is she pretty or not? Seductive or virtuous? Guilty or innocent? What was the source of the rift between her and Ambrose?
All the characters in the novel are unreliable narrators because all of them are operating out of their own preconceptions. Philip picks different versions of Rachel to obsess over and sticks to them fanatically until he suddenly changes his mind. Rachel has plenty to say about herself, but neither the reader nor Philip ever knows whether she’s telling the truth. The people who advise Philip (most notably his godfather and Louise) have their own preconceptions.
Du Maurier is a sublime writer of gothic mystery and sexual obsession, and her use of language never fails to thrill my ear even when she’s describing something very mundane. Here’s a sample:
Even from the high road, I could hear the sea. To the west, where it ran shallow over the sands, it was short and steep, turned backwards on itself and curling into foam, but to the east, before the estuary, the great long rollers came, spending themselves on the rock at the harbor entrance, and the roar of the breakers mingled with the biting wind that swept the hedgerows and forced back the budding trees.
Because Rachel is a mysterious character, the reader must decide how to feel about her. One thing is indisputable and that is her talent at survival. Whether Rachel has a natural charm and warmth that helps her through life, or whether she’s a manipulative actress, she endures despite having led a life of considerable abuse, loss, and isolation.
My personal theory is that she’s both innocent and guilty (in ways I can’t explain without spoilers), but any number of theories could be true. The ending approaches as methodically and inevitably as a Greek tragedy. We know from the outset of the book that it won’t be a happy one. However, in my head, all Du Maurier’s wicked (or ambiguous) women, from Rachel to Rebecca, are laying waste to the men of Paris, breaking hearts and drinking too much and rolling around in money.
This book has long passages in which not much happens, but the very mundanity of life is important to the story. The pace goes from fast to slow to fast again but in ways that make sense for the story. This book earns an A for its beautiful use of language, its contrast between gothic and pastoral scenes and moods, (much takes place outdoors, and Rachel loves gardening), and its exploration of character and self-delusion. Love her or hate her, Rachel is an unforgettable person.
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