FORGOTTEN GEM: Daphne DuMaurier “My Cousin Rachel”

On my twelfth birthday I was gifted two books from my cousin Rebecca. Wrapped up in wrapping paper were Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and My “Cousin Rachel”. Thirteen years later I read “My Cousin Rachel” (and about time too). I love Du Maurier’s work. After reading “Rebecca” when I was fifteen I went on a Du Maurier buying spree. In between reading an additional five books over the years, “My Cousin Rachel” continued to be bypassed until recently when scanning my bookshelves I realised I needed another Du Maurier fix.

“My Cousin Rachel” does not disappoint. It is as formulaic as a Daphne Du Maurier book can be, while still being its own distinctive narrative. She is famous for her ability to create romantic novels with sinister overtones. While relationships become stronger and characters become more dependent on each other, some other force or person is enmeshing itself into the relationship to disrupt it in some way. The strange and the unexpected appear in the common place. In this way “My Cousin Rachel” develops.

“Every thought and every word uttered by them
is entirely believable.”

Phillip’s cousin Ambrose, who raised him, marries, while convalescing in Italy, a woman called Rachel. Ambrose unexpectedly dies and Rachel travels to England to meet the cousin. Thrown into this very sedate story line are a couple of letters written by Ambrose before his death that cast aspersions on the character of Rachel, claiming that her arrival is driven by a desire for an inheritance from her dead husband, who not having changed his will, left her nothing.

“My Cousin Rachel” as in most of Du Maurier’s books is a study of character. She creates the world and the mind of our narrator so perfectly that every thought and every word uttered by them is entirely believable in the make up of the character.

But the location, the setting of her story is an additional character that cannot be forgotten. The location, the estate on which Phillip has grown up, is as much a part of the story as the characters are. The land provides the wealth and the living thereby shaping the characters. This is the beauty of Du Maurier’s literature. She understands the power of an environment in determining the character and the actions of an individual.

Phillip has never had prolonged contact with women. He has known no mother and therefore the arrival of Rachel at his home is the first time he has lived with a women under his roof. This premise allows Daphne Du Maurier to explore how a woman’s emotions influence a man’s, especially when the man has no previous experience of these manipulations. I was engrossed in the mind-set that she created in Phillip; in each analysis of the words or actions that Rachel performed and how these actions where analysis by a man unused to a women, sometimes accurately and sometimes not. As a woman it made me analyse things I say and actions that I perform and reflect on how these would be interpreted.

“She understands the power of an environment in determining the character and the actions of an individual.”

A fascinating study of human character, although in an outdated age the emotional trajectory that Phillip follows is reminiscent of the emotional upheavals and trials that men and woman have to negotiate together even today. Like a lot of her books not a lot happens during the middle, life slides along with the pages, but they aren’t uninteresting. Her use of language is such that she creates her written images in your imagination.

Published in 1951, made into a film in 1952, earning Richard Burton (as Phillip) a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, which is ludicrous as Phillip is the protagonist, but I’m not analysing the politics of the Oscar’s here, this book has been almost subsequently forgotten. It was remade for television in the 80s but it has not had the pervading remembrance that “Rebecca” has had on our collective consciousness. Whether this is because “Rebecca” was immortalised by Hitchcock or because it was genuinely a better novel I hesitate to guess. Of the books I have so far read, neither of these two take the crown which would be tossed between “The Scapegoat” and “The Parasites” but that does not mean one should not read this book.

It is engaging. It is sinister. It asks questions that it does not always answer. But above all it makes you think about the simple manipulations of the human being, in contrast to the complex creatures that we are.

Words: Rachel Jacobs

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