For God’s sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment.
It is a razor blade of a novel: the blade is carefully hidden, but it is there inside the packaging, and, fifty years later, its capacity to draw blood remains unaltered, Sally Beauman, ‘Introduction’, p. vi.
Phillip Ashley has been raised by his wealthy, bachelor cousin Ambrose within the insular all-male world of an unnamed Cornish estate during an unspecified time in the past. Phillip adores his cousin and fully expects to inherit the estate in due course, but the smooth progress of this narrative is interrupted when Ambrose travels to Italy where he meets a distant cousin called Rachel and, much to Phillip’s alarm, suddenly marries her. Phillip waits for the happy couple to return home as promised, but they never appear and Ambrose’s letters become increasingly disturbing – Rachel’s financial affairs are troubled, Ambrose suspects Rachel of something, Ambrose is ill. A final desperate plea spurs Phillip to set out for Florence, but he arrives too late to find that Ambrose is dead, supposedly of a brain tumour. Rachel’s villa has been shut up and the lady herself has disappeared. Angry and grieving Phillip returns to Cornwall where a few weeks later Rachel arrives, claiming to want nothing more than to see the place that her husband loved so much. At first, Phillip’s only intention is to punish Rachel and try to catch her out as a con-artist, perhaps even a black widow, but he quickly finds himself becoming obsessed with her.
As Sally Beauman observes in the introduction to my Virago edition, Du Maurier “writes in the guise of a man, in a novel that explores, inter alia, the full implications of male authority’ (xi). And what horrifying implications they turn out to be, for the plot of My Cousin Rachel turns on the question of how the meaning of women’s behaviour has been mediated through misogynistic patriarchal discourses. The novel takes part in an intertextual conversation about the way in which misogyny functions as a kind of reading lens that’s been ongoing in literature for a long time. Beauman comments that Browning’s poem ‘My Last Duchess’ is a point of reference and, in turn, I would say that Du Maurier’s novel has influenced works such as Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger which employs a similar narrative device.
It is a novel that explores the implications of a world which constructs two genders, defines them in opposition to one another, and puts one in a more privileged position over the other. Du Maurier, quite deliberately I think, creates a sense of separate male and female worlds by gendering places (Beauman, vii). The Cornish estate is Phillip/masculine: patriarchal, conservative, rigid, feudal, and sexually repressed, constructed as ‘normal’; while Florence is Rachel/feminine: mysterious, foreign, fluid, sexually and economically “free and easy”, and constructed as ‘other.’
Phillip Ambrose is a deeply unsympathetic narrator: immature, arrogant, self-centred, and strongly inclined to fear and despise women. Yet it is only through his obviously unreliable (and possibly delusional) voice that we can hear the story of Rachel. Who is Rachel? According to Phillip, she is at different points in the narrative, an ideal woman, a naive innocent, a spendthrift, a con-artist, and a murderer. As the story progresses, Phillip’s narrative becomes increasingly sinister, as he seeks jealously to possess Rachel. Both Ambrose and Phillip refer to Rachel with the possessive ‘my’ and Du Maurier’s use of the phrase ‘My cousin Rachel’ as the title of her novel, draws attention to their feeling that they have a right to possess Rachel, but it’s also an ironic title because Rachel evades all attempts to pin her down to a definite meaning.
The fascination of the narrative lies in the way it incites its readers to try and see through the gaps and inconsistencies in Phillip’s story to get at some kind of truth. Is Rachel only looking out for herself, or is she a much maligned innocent? I’m not sure it matters. To hunt for the real “truth” of Rachel is to miss the larger point that misogyny is a way of seeing the world, a way of seeing that traps men in a maze of paranoid sign-reading and women in impossible double-binds. Neither Phillip nor the reader will ever see Rachel as she really is because Phillip controls the narrative and he cannot see her outside of the misogynistic lens that causes him to interpret women as inherently other, as creatures that can only be idealised or degraded.
All in all, My Cousin Rachel is a compelling read and still has a lot to offer a feminist perspective. I wonder if Daphne Du Maurier’s position, as a woman who was married to men but also bisexual, allowed her to occupy a more critical stance in relation to heteronormativity. The two novels that I’ve read by her (the other being Rebecca) both explore the constructed nature of sex and gender norms and their impact on women.*
Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel, with an Introduction by Sally Beauman (London: Virago, 2003).
* I’m sure scholars have written about this, but I’m being a bit lazy and haven’t done any research.