My Cousin Rachel Foreword

My Cousin Rachel is a novel of great technical assurance. As the Guardian reviewer wrote at the time of first publication in 1951, it is “a consummate piece of storytelling.”

A double-edged remark, perhaps, the ability to plot well being regarded with suspicion outside the confines of “popular literature,” but for Daphne du Maurier, even such backhanded compliments represented an advance. At least My Cousin Rachel, unlike earlier successes such as Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, was not entirely consigned to that critical netherworld reserved for “romance” or “women’s fiction” or (to use George Eliot’s sexist terms) “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Its ingenuity of construction, if not its darkness and complexity, was acknowledged from the first.

Du Maurier was forty-four when My Cousin Rachel was published, and, although she would continue writing novels for another twenty years, this would be the last of her great best-sellers. It marked a watershed in her creative abilities too: only one of her subsequent novels (The Scapegoat, 1957) and some of the short stories (particularly the collection The Apple Tree, 1952) show her writing at full imaginative power, and these, rich, strange, and perturbing as they are, never found great popularity with readers. So My Cousin Rachel marks a crucial divide, a kind of climacteric: it comes exactly at the midpoint of her novel-writing career; it crowned her earlier successes, and it is, in many ways, a last throwing-down of the novelistic gauntlet. Here, for the last time, du Maurier applies the full battery of skills that made her a bestselling author. The result is dazzling.

Using one of her favorite devices, a male narrator, du Maurier, en travestie, shuffles the cards of plot, theme and character, and makes them dance. Each chapter teases our understanding of what has gone before; each revelation undermines or seems to contradict the one that preceded it. The novel is an object lesson in the difficult art of dovetailing timescheme and plot to lethal effect. Like Rebecca, it perfectly demonstrates du Maurier’s ability to conceal unpalatable social truths within a page-turning format. It is a razorblade 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.

The novel begins conventionally enough. Clearly, this will be an historical novel, and its location will be familiar du Maurier territory—Cornwall, at du Maurier’s own home, Menabilly (fictionalized in other novels, most notably in Rebecca). But from the first, there is a sense of displacement. We never learn the exact era in which the novel’s events take place, which gives it a curious, dreamlike air of timelessness. And this Cornish estate, unnamed in the novel, has had all fictional allure ruthlessly scraped away: anyone expecting another Manderley (and many readers will expect just that: du Maurier plays with such expectations throughout) is in for a shock. We first approach it via a gallows, on which the decaying corpse of a wife-killer swings; then, passing down the drive (the same drive that features so memorably in Rebecca), we discover a house from which women have been banished. There, two men, served entirely by male staff, lead an isolated, philistine, inward-looking existence. The older man, Ambrose Ashley, is in poor health; he is only in his forties, but the damp Cornish climate is, literally, crippling him. The younger, his cousin, surrogate son, protégé and heir, Philip Ashley, is twenty-three, but old before his time, willingly imprisoned by the reactionary, chauvinistic, anti-intellectual and misogynistic beliefs of the older cousin-guardian he worships.

No sooner has the reader adjusted to this masculine redoubt, than he is whisked away to a very different world, to Florence. There, Ambrose travels in search of plants for his garden, and an improvement in his health. Philip Ashley, left behind, learns of events in Italy only intermittently by letter, and these gaps in communication, characteristic of a novel in which “truth” is always elusive for characters and readers, will have profound and lasting effects. Within months of his departure, Ambrose meets and—astonishingly—marries the eponymous Rachel (a distant cousin, half Cornish, half Italian, impoverished widow of the Count Sangalletti). Marriage does not suit him, however: the early rapture of his first letters rapidly gives way to reports of worsening health, and veiled accusations against his new bride—accusations that may have substance, or may merely be paranoid. An incoherent plea for help finally arrives: Philip leaves Cornwall immediately. On arrival in Florence, he finds the villa Sangalletti closed up, Cousin Rachel absent, and Ambrose dead. But is it true, as Philip is informed, that Ambrose died of a brain tumor—or could his death have another, more sinister, explanation?

From that moment onwards, two worlds collide and for the remainder of the novel, those two worlds, and their two sensibilities, will struggle for dominance. On the one hand, we have England and the Ashley estates, a dour, feudal enclave fiercely resistant to social or political change, a world in which women are marginalized, their influence regarded with a distaste bordering on revulsion. On the other, we have a Florence redolent of such Browning monologues as My Last Duchess, a place of profligacy, deadly intrigue and sexual sophistication. In England, we found ourselves on a man’s estates; in Florence, crucially, we are on female territory, for the villa Sangalletti belongs to that black widow who gives the novel its title. This is Cousin Rachel’s domain, and once in it, or under its Circean influence, first Ambrose then Philip will be unmanned—with fatal consequences for both of them.

To the jingoistic, arrogant and inexperienced Philip, the Florentines he encounters exhibit slippery un-English characteristics: unlike the Ashleys, they resist easy definition by social class, occupation, or beliefs. Their gender roles shift; their sexual orientation and their motivation is uncertain—but, as he will learn, they seem to enjoy a stereotypic Borgia-style taste for murder, their chosen method being equally stereotypic: poisoning.

So far, so clear—and, possibly, so melodramatic—one might think. But is that the case? This story wears layers of disguises, and no sooner does one mask come off, than another is revealed beneath it. The central mystery of My Cousin Rachel is usually perceived as relating to its female protagonist. It is a question of poisoning. Did Rachel first murder Ambrose, and then set out to murder his heir, Philip? 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—as the title, with its deliberate echoes of Browning, suggests. Both Ambrose and Philip exercise a financial stranglehold on Rachel: in turn, they seek to own and control her, their weapons being money and marriage. This male hegemony (in a novel deeply concerned with wills, testaments, and inheritance) continues after death, and much of the novel explores, with great subtlety, Rachel’s efforts to resist it. 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?

Rachel, shimmering, enigmatic and elusive, does not appear in the opening chapters; she is absent when, after Ambrose’s death, Philip goes to Florence in search of her, though he encounters her double, or alter ego, in the shape of a young beggar-woman by the Arno, a ghostly figure, glimpsed then gone, who will haunt the rest of the novel. When Rachel finally does appear, on a prolonged visit to Cornwall, Philip is predisposed to hate her, but once they meet, is bewitched by her. We watch Rachel make an assault on a charmless uncomfortable house; we watch her tame and feminize it, winning over the servants, civilizing its routines, introducing guests, good meals, good wines and Italianate luxuries. We watch her adapt at will to a range of male-determined female roles, so she is mother and seductress, widow and waif, chatelaine and—possibly—charlatan. As we do so, our male narrator invites us to share his uncertainties: is Rachel grieving, or deceiving? Is she a visitor, or a usurper? Could she love Philip—or is she merely using him?

Du Maurier withholds the answer. We see Rachel, and hear her speak (as we never do that other female chimera, Rebecca de Winter) yet she remains essentially unreadable, her features distorted by the male gaze of the possessive, jealous and infatuated man describing her. We can never see her because Philip Ashley, blind to his own Oedipal impulses, obscures her—in which context, the semiotics of the possessive pronoun used in the title is not, one feels, accidental. As that “My” signals, an act of appropriation takes place in this narrative, one that denies Rachel autonomy. Forced to fit inside the fictive prison Philip Ashley constructs around her, she cannot be herself; she has to be his belonging, his adjunct and chattel—and she is merely another item on a long privileged Ashley list: my house, my estate, my money, my family jewels… my cousin Rachel.

How much can the reader trust Philip Ashley, in any case? It is almost always a mistake to pay too much credence to du Maurier’s narrators. Her skill renders them plausible but to read du Maurier properly, and understand just how heretical a novelist she is, it is necessary to watch for the correctives, the destabilizing devices she builds into her narratives. And, in My Cousin Rachel, they are there: Philip Ashley is no objective observer of these events, after all; he is deeply enmeshed in them—it is he who will propel events to their tragic conclusion, influenced to the last by the claims of his cousin Ambrose. But Philip and Ambrose are doubles. The cousins’ physical resemblance is strong; their mind-set is near identical; Philip’s character may have been warped by his upbringing, but insanity and paranoia run in the male Ashley line, so an ugly genetic inheritance may also link the two men. What we are reading is certainly a confession—but is it sane or mad, truthful or profoundly manipulative?

Such questions undermine the entire text, yet the unbalanced suspicion and disregard for women that both men exhibit are scarcely peculiar to them: they are shared, to varying degrees, by every male character in the novel, regardless of age, class or nationality. Misogyny is not a British disease, it seems: it infects even Rachel’s worldly-wise advisor, the Italian, Rainaldi; and it affects, adversely, every female character in the book. The damage inflicted here is not confined to one woman, Rachel; it extends to an entire sex, and it poisons a society. It is this poison that is the central concern of du Maurier’s novel. At a plot level, she will tease the reader with the question of laburnum seeds, and whether or not Rachel brews them up in her tisanas to rid herself of a husband or a lover; but in counterpoint, at a thematic level, she examines male-administered poisons that are equally deadly, and whose victims are more numerous. Yet this, the central mirroring device of the novel, has scarcely been noticed, let alone examined.

Du Maurier’s cunning as a writer is very evident here: such was her sleight of hand she could disguise the true nature of her work. My Cousin Rachel, with its cool contempt for romantic conventions, is the most overtly feminist of her books, yet it is rarely perceived as such. But then, as its author had every reason to understand, the male misreadings she satirizes throughout her text would be mirrored by the misreadings of prejudiced, misogynistic critics, male and female. It is typical of du Maurier’s approach that she should write in the guise of a man, in a novel that explores, inter alia, the full implications of male authority. And it is typical of du Maurier’s bitter venomous wit that she should use poison (famously a female weapon) as the central metaphor for a novel that is clever, cold-eyed, prescient—and unputdownable.

Sally Beauman

London, 2003