Rachel, my torment!

“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:

Cherchez la femme : is Rachel pure or impure, is she innocent or guilty? But this question, fascinating though du Maurier makes it, is an authorial sleight of hand: it disguises the far more interesting issue of male culpability-…….So who is doing the poisoning, the corrupting, here? Is it Rachel with her tisanas and witchy herbal pharmacopoeia, or is it the Ashleys, with their conditional gifts of jewels, land, houses, money and status?

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.

    

La Madeleine de Proust

 

Madeleine1

One of the most famous scenes in literature is in Swann’s Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s monumental masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, where the narrator experiences an episode of involuntary memory through the simple act of tasting madeleine crumbs soaked in tea. The madeleine serves as a powerful sensory trigger for a memory about eating a similar madeleine dipped in tea with his aunt in his childhood home in Combray and eventually unleashes a deluge of memories resulting in a seven-volume magnum opus of reminiscences. I have a wonderful recipe for Proust’s madeleines, but first, let’s enjoy reading the beautiful passage along with my translation, which, I hope, will double the pleasure of savoring the madeleines and perhaps evoke our own remembrances of things past.

Il y avait déjà bien des années que, de Combray, tout ce qui n’était pas le théâtre et le drame de mon coucher n’existait plus pour moi, quand un jour d’hiver, comme je rentrais à la maison, ma mère, voyant que j’avais froid, me proposa de me faire prendre, contre mon habitude, un peu de thé. Je refusai d’abord et, je ne sais pourquoi, me ravisai. Elle envoya chercher un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblaient avoir été moulées dans la valve rainurée d’une coquille de Saint-Jacques. Et bientôt, machinalement, accablé par la morne journée et la perspective d’un triste lendemain, je portai à mes lèvres une cuillerée du thé où j’avais laissé s’amollir un morceau de madeleine. Mais à l’instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d’extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause. Il m’avait aussitôt rendu les vicissitudes de la vie indifférentes, ses désastres inoffensifs, sa brièveté illusoire, de la même façon qu’opère l’amour, en me remplissant d’une essence précieuse: ou plutôt cette essence n’était pas en moi, elle était moi. J’avais cessé de me sentir médiocre, contingent, mortel. D’où avait pu me venir cette puissante joie ? Je sentais qu’elle était liée au goût du thé et du gâteau, mais qu’elle le dépassait infiniment, ne devait pas être de même nature. D’où venait-elle ? Que signifiait-elle ? Où l’appréhender ? Je bois une seconde gorgée où je ne trouve rien de plus que dans la première, une troisième qui m’apporte un peu moins que la seconde. Il est temps que je m’arrête, la vertu du breuvage semble diminuer. Il est clair que la vérité que je cherche n’est pas en lui, mais en moi.

Proust, Du côté de chez Swann, A la recherche du temps perdu

And here’s my translation:

Many years had gone by already during which nothing of Combray, except for what constituted the theater and drama of my bedtime, existed for me, when one winter day, as I returned home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, suggested that I take some tea, which was contrary to my habit. I declined at first and, I don’t know why, changed my mind later. She sent for one of those small and plump cakes called “Petites Madeleines” which looked as though they had been molded in the grooved valve of a scallop shell of Saint James*. And soon, overwhelmed by the dreary morning and the prospect of a grim morrow, I mechanically brought to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful mixed with the crumbs of cake touched my palate, I shuddered, attentive to the extraordinary sensation that was passing through me. A delicious pleasure had invaded my senses, it was detached, without any intimation of its origin. It had immediately made the vicissitudes of life irrelevant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, in the same way that love works, filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. From where had this powerful joy come to me? I sensed that it was tied to the taste of the tea and the cake, but it transcended it infinitely, it wasn’t of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it signify? How do I grasp it? I drink a second mouthful in which I don’t find anything more than in the first, a third which brings me even a little less than the second. It’s time I stop, the virtue of the beverage seems to be diminishing. It is clear that the truth that I am looking for is not in it, but in me.

*Madeleine cakes were shaped like scallop shells. These shells were the symbol of St. James and were worn or carried by pilgrims in the Middle Ages on their way to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

This episode of involuntary memory is followed by a conscious effort on the part of the narrator as he painstakingly tries to recapture the fleeting memories triggered by the cake. In that sense, the madeleine episode is as much about voluntary memory as it is about involuntary memory. Eventually, after repeated attempts, the old grey house with its little pavilion opening on to the garden, the town with its square and streets, the flowers in the garden and in Mr. Swann’s park, the water-lilies on the Vivonne, the village residents and their dwellings, the church and the entire town of Combray and its surroundings spring back into life from his little cup of linden blossom tea.

Long before it acquired its great literary reputation, this humble confection was quite the rage in the eighteenth century in a town named Commercy, in the Lorraine region of eastern France. It is believed that the nuns of the St. Mary Magdalene convent made these sweets and sold the prized recipe to the local bakers when their institution was destroyed. Another popular story is about a young servant girl named Madeleine Paulmier who made the delectable sponge cakes for Stanislas Leczinski, the Duke of Lorraine, for a royal banquet when his pastry chef quit unexpectedly. He was so impressed that he named them after her. His daughter who was the wife of Louis the XV, subsequently introduced them to the court in Versailles. Just as there are many versions and variants of the story of the origin of the madeleine, there are many recipes with countless variations. Julia Child has a recipe for ‘Les Madeleines de Commercy’ with lemon juice and vanilla extract added to the batter. My recipe is based on the instructions on the back of my madeleine pan bought at Williams-Sonoma (Williams-Sonoma Foods of the World Series, Paris, by Marlena Spieler) as I believe it results in madeleines that are ‘dodus’ or plump with a dry and crumbly texture as enjoyed by Proust’s narrator. I have modified the recipe to suit my taste by adding more sugar. Yes, I like my madeleines sweet. I’ve also added lemon zest for some zing. I like them spicy too.

Lemon-scented madeleines

Yield- Around 20 madeleines

Specialty equipment- Madeleine pans ( molds with scallop-shaped indentations available in kitchen stores and online at Amazon)

Ingredients

½ cup all-purpose flour

2 eggs at room temperature

½ cup granulated sugar

1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract

¼ tsp. salt

4 tbsps. ( ½ stick ) of unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature)

1 ½ tbsps. lemon zest finely grated

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting (optional)

Directions

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and cool to room temperature.

Combine eggs, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Beat on medium high speed in an electric mixer until the mixture turns pale yellow and fluffy and forms a ribbon pattern. This should take around 5-10 minutes.

Add the vanilla extract and the lemon zest.

Sift the flour gradually over the egg mixture and beat on low speed till it is mixed in.

Gradually fold in the melted butter until blended.

Cool the batter for a few hours in a refrigerator if you want the characteristic hump shape on the madeleines. You could also freeze the baking tray for an hour before filling it with the batter for baking. Heat the oven to 375 F. Using a pastry brush, brush the molds of the madeleine pans with softened butter and dust them with flour. Use an ice-cream scoop to put 1 tablespoon of batter in the middle of each mold. It will spread while baking in the indentation of the pan. Bake 8-12 minutes until the madeleines are golden brown and spring back lightly when gently pressed.

Remove the pan from the oven. Gently loosen the madeleines from their molds by rapping the pan against the counter or prying them loose with a butter knife. Let cool for a few minutes and invert on a plate. Dust the madeleines with confectioners’ sugar before serving, if desired. They are best eaten fresh but can be stored for a day or two in an airtight container.

Variations:

Use orange zest instead of lemon zest.

Almond extract can be substituted for vanilla extract.

Add a teaspoon of ground cardamom for a delicately spiced fragrance and taste.

Melt semi-sweet chocolate chips and dip the tips of the madeleines in the chocolate.

Bake some madeleines, brew some tea or tisane and wait for your olfactory and gustatory senses to help you re-create your own Proustian moment as you embark on the path of nostalgia and recollections! Bon appétit!