“She has done for me at last, Rachel, my torment.”
Did she or did she not poison her husband? This question lies at the heart of the suspenseful and unsettling novel, My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier but the reader is no wiser at the end. No one does ambiguous endings like du Maurier. There are many possibilities and the mind of the reader is manipulated too along with the twists and turns of the plot. Yet, you don’t feel frustrated or cheated of an ending for as a reader you are called to actively engage with the text and draw your own conclusions. In fact, du Maurier’s books are meant to be re- read as our reading personalities develop and evolve too with time. In an earlier blog post, I had written about how my impression of Rebecca changed over the years. I recently re-read My Cousin Rachel and it almost felt like I were reading another story from the one I read in my youth.
The orphaned Philip Ashley has lived since childhood with his older bachelor cousin Ambrose on a grand estate in Cornwall, England in a male only environment where even all the servants are men. He idolizes his cousin and looks up to him as a father figure. On a long sojourn in Italy, to improve his health, Ambrose falls in love with an enigmatic half- English half -Italian woman who happens to be a distant relative and marries her in haste. Philip receives happy letters from him at first, but the tone shifts rapidly from fascination to mistrust and finally to panic implying that his wife Rachel might be trying to harm him. He begs Philip to come rescue him but by the time Philip lands up in Florence, Ambrose has been declared dead from a brain tumor and Rachel has left town with his belongings. Philip is determined to uncover the mysterious circumstances of the death and to take revenge on Rachel but when she unexpectedly turns up later on his doorstep in Cornwall, things take a different turn.
He is disarmed completely by the petite and elegant woman and in no time falls head over heels in love with her. In fact, no one is immune to Cousin Rachel’s charms- neither the servants nor the farmers and not even the dogs. She infiltrates the male bastion with her delightful feminine presence and introduces Continental habits in the mansion like her tisanas or home brewed herbal infusions that she gives as medicinal remedies to the people on the estate. Strangely, Ambrose did not rewrite his will after his marriage which means that Philip will inherit everything when he turns 25. Till then the estate is controlled by Nick Kendall, his godfather and guardian. The lovesick 24 year is anxiously awaiting his birthday so he can bequeath his entire property and the family jewels to the alluring lady in spite of discovering incriminating letters from Ambrose about her financial troubles and his fear that she might be trying to poison him. Well, it could hardly be a coincidence that the boy was born on April Fools’ Day!
Other than Louise, his guardian’s daughter whom he has known since childhood and is expected to marry, Philip has never been close to any woman in his life. Will Philip suffer the same fate as Ambrose? Is Rachel a manipulative gold digger and a murderess or is she an innocent woman who is the victim of the mental instability of her men? Why does she have to be either a demon or an angel? Couldn’t she just be a complex flawed human who had nothing to do with the death of her husband? And what role does the sinister Signor Rainaldi, her close friend and advisor play in her life? Does Philip have reason to be jealous of him?
The story is told through Philip’s point of view in flashback. It is easy to identify with a first person homodiegetic narrator. I remember when I read the book in my youth, I was sympathetic to Philip’s plight and could relate to his obsessive infatuation and impulsiveness. At times I wanted to strangle him for his blind folly as I was on his side and didn’t want him to be ensnared in her trap. I was seeing Rachel through his eyes. But re- reading the book in my middle years, I had a completely different take on the story. How reliable of a narrator is Philip? Aren’t the readers looking at Rachel through the male gaze? This book is about the perceptions or rather misperceptions men create about women.
We could view Rachel as a scheming temptress or as a strong and independent woman who has faced many tragedies in life- she has had an unstable childhood, she has been married twice and has been a victim of domestic violence, she has miscarried a baby and is unable to conceive again, she has lost her husband and has been left with nothing for her in his will. Besides, can we trust Ambrose? His paranoia and delusions could very well be explained by his brain disorder that seems to run on the male side of the family. Philip himself shows the same symptoms which makes him even less of a reliable narrator. Philip has an uncanny resemblance to Ambrose. They are besotted with the same woman and suffer from the same illness in a characteristic Gothic trope of doubling or mirroring.
It is interesting that the book deals with wills, property, transactions, belongings and inheritance. The theme of ownership extends to the control of women too for just as property changes hands, so does Rachel with both men claiming her at different times. Philip refers to her as ” My Cousin Rachel” which is also the title of the book. The possessive adjective reinforces the idea that Rachel is akin to property too. For me this title is as fascinating as that of Rebecca where we have an unnamed narrator who lives in Rebecca’s shadow. Here the protagonist has a name but she is only relevant as belonging to a man. Philip feels that he can own her by giving her things. He is the immature boy who ignores every piece of advice he gets from his well wishers and assumes that handing over the property to her and being intimate with her would seal the relationship.
Yes, things start steaming up soon in Aunt Phoebe’s boudoir and I am not just referring to the tisane.
Philip misinterprets Rachel agreeing to have sex with him as a tacit acceptance of a marriage proposal. Rachel declares that she had sex just to thank him for his generous gift and has no intention of marrying him. When my younger self read the book, my heart broke for the rejected Philip. Historically women have been turned down by men after a sexual encounter. Here it is not a virginal woman but a sheltered and sexually inexperienced man who is initiated into sex and assumes that it would lead to marriage. It is a subversive novel as the tables have been turned completely. Rachel wants to be her own person in a man’s world. She is saying no to the patriarchy by refusing to marry him. She is not evil but a woman who is sexually liberal and revels in the power of her sexuality. Philip chokes her as he is shocked by the rejection and repeats the marriage proposal but Rachel sticks to her guns. The 2018 Roger Michell movie based on the novel and starring Rachel Weisz as Cousin Rachel explores this feminist layer which is only hinted at in the novel.
There are oedipal undertones which add another layer of complexity to the plot. Philip was raised without a mother and as Ambrose’s widowed wife, Rachel is a mother figure to him. The woman who is ten years his senior, nurses him back to health when he is sick and chides him for his silliness. On one occasion, he even thinks that she will hit him. It is a brilliant tour de force on the part of du Maurier to make the reader view Rachel as a femme fatale. Are we not possibly identifying with the narrator and his misogynistic views? Sally Beauman, in the foreword to the Virago edition, makes a profound observation:
“Is Rachel pure or impure, is she innocent or guilty? This question, fascinating though du Maurier makes it, is an authorial sleight of hand: it disguises the far more interesting issue of male culpability.” In other words, while the question of whether or not Rachel has been poisoning men is certainly a driving force of the book, by the end you realize there’s another, more important question that’s been there all along: who is actually doing the “poisoning?”
Will Rachel’s sexual power become her undoing?I am not giving away the ending for those who haven’t read the book but as soon as I finished the last chapter, I went back and read the first. The haunting and ominous first line of the novel is also the last line: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though.” We have come full circle as Philip is still tormented by the same question. “No one will ever guess the burden of blame I carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty?”
What a fascinating psychological thriller where in true Gothic style, the emotions of the characters mirror the landscape…the emotionally charged atmosphere indoors reflects the menacing and mercurial English weather outside. Every gesture haunts be it the seductive sweep of a gown, the slow pinning up of hair or a teary averted gaze. The book is a slow burn suspense with excellent foreshadowing and a sense of impending doom- it simmers like the tisane Rachel brews. It is no coincidence that tea brewing is associated with witches and feminine power. Rachel is the bewitching woman who casts a spell on those around her and concocts strange potions or er.. poison. I just had to brew my own tisana to recreate the mood as I was reading. My blend had rosehips, hibiscus, lemongrass, peppermint and orange peel. And no, there were no laburnum seeds in it.