Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Book Review - Daphen Du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier
Published by: Virago Press
Publication Date: 1951
Format: Paperback, 335 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Philip Ashley is raised in the all male environs of his cousin Ambrose Ashley's estate. He grows up the consummate bachelor, the two of them reveling in the fact that they have no women to answer to or scold their slovenly ways. For his health Ambrose reluctantly leaves his Cornish home and Philip and goes to the continent to winter. On his second winter abroad he goes to Italy and meets a distant cousin of theirs, Rachel. Philip is shocked when he gets a letter that the two have married. He cannot believe that Ambrose has given up his bachelor lifestyle to chain himself to a woman, who while having similar interests, is still a weight around his neck. Philip and Ambrose's correspondence suffers and Philip starts to worry for his cousin. The most recent missive hinting at Rachel poisoning him arrives too late, as Philip arrives in Florence to find Ambrose dead and Rachel gone. Returning home Philip finds that Rachel has arrived in Cornwall. He begrudgingly allows his enemy shelter. But will his vow to avenge Ambrose be thwarted by his own heart?

One day I'm going to write a companion book for My Cousin Rachel and it's going to be called Just Rachel. Because if I read one more time "my cousin" before Rachel's name I'm going to scream. I know Du Maurier is showing the possessiveness of Philip in regards to Rachel, but there's making a point and belaboring a point. This is belaboring. By these two simple words Du Maurier is able to repeatedly bring home the fact that culturally, and very specifically in Philip's case, women are not worth anything, they are at best possessions, at worst objects of hate and derision. These two words are what is wrong with this book. It's not that Du Maurier does a bad job showing human frailties and prejudices, it's that Philip is so unlikable that I couldn't stand to read his thoughts.

Philip is problematic in many ways. He's an unreliable narrator, a trope that can be fun, but in this instance just leads to a few omissions that make him an even bigger douche. The main issue though is that he is an unlikable narrator. He was raised by Ambrose to be the consummate bachelor, able to cuss his way through the alphabet but unable to treat a lady right. But it's not just that Philip doesn't know how to treat a woman, I think he has an underlying fear of them. Women are a foreign concept to him, and a foreign woman, well, he has know idea what to do with this. So he mistrusts anything he doesn't understand. He is xenophobic in the extreme, besides being misogynistic. This rears it's head when he decides that Rachel must have poisoned Ambrose and is now poisoning himself, through her tisanes. Any reader of Agatha Christie knows the continental love of tisanes. But to Philip this must be viewed as the vehicle through which she promotes death because it is foreign to him.

Oh, Philip. You know nothing Philip Ashley. Why would Rachel try to kill you when if you die she looses everything? It's Philip's motives, not Rachel's, that should be what is in question here. While it seems he's being nice to his cousin, look closer, he's just trying to possess her. Never once does he see how precarious her situation is or how their relationship might be viewed by outsiders. He is oblivious to everything but his own needs and desires. With so many books being written exploring Du Maurier's other mysterious woman, Rebecca, I wonder why more hasn't been written about Rachel. She's far more sympathetic, and as for her ambiguous pastime of perhaps poisoning people with her tisanes... well, Philip could use a good dose of poison.

Yet beyond the narrative issues, so much of My Cousin Rachel just feels as if it's a retread of something Du Maurier has written before. The review pull quote on the back of my edition says "From the first page... the reader is back in the moody, brooding atmosphere of Rebecca." Well duh. Du Maurier had an obsession with Cornwall, and in particular a house there called Menabilly. This house, which she was lucky enough to life in for a few years, became Manderley in Rebecca. But it also became the Ashley estate, and was also used in her book The King's General. By using this place so much you just start comparing it to the other times she's used it. It's Menabilly in all it's forms. I know she loved this place, but seriously, another book set here? It looses the magic of the place by being able to be the home of so many stories. She immortalized it with Rebecca, and then she overstayed her welcome.

But we must never discount the timelessness Du Maurier was able to evoke with Rebecca and some of her other novels, they are today as fresh as the day they were written. Now I don't know if Du Maurier was aiming for the timelessness with My Cousin Rachel as the introduction by Sally Beauman attests, but if so, I feel it really failed in this instance. Timelessness to me means that a book taps into something universally human and can reach across time and still be relevant. So while some of Du Maurier's books, like Jamaica Inn and The Scapegoat, have a time period, they still have a timelessness. But not here. Not My Cousin Rachel. It doesn't work here.

By trying to be ambiguous it makes the time period somehow more relevant. Sure, Du Maurier doesn't come flat out and tell us when this was set, but from what happens in the book it's obviously early Victorian, when Albert helped bring in Germanic Christmas traditions and moved festivities away from Twelfth Night, but prior to his death because the mourning customs weren't as strict. So yes, this was just another mystery that Du Maurier threw in, and in fact was the only one that could be solved to some extent. She does like her ambiguity... but perhaps with everything in this book she took it a little too far?


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