Showing posts with label rachel ashley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rachel ashley. Show all posts

18 May 2020

Notes on My Cousin Rachel (1951)

Rachel Weisz as Rachel Ashley
My Cousin Rachel (2017)


Cousin Rachel: what is she; lamb, witch, or vixen? Possibly all these things: probably none. [1]

That, of course, is the fiendishly frustrating charm of du Maurier's beautifully ambiguous novel; we don't know and can never hope to find out whether Rachel is as liberal with her use of poison as she is extravagant with other people's money. Il n'y a pas de hors-texte - and this text refuses to reveal its secrets.

As Roger Michell, director and screenwriter of the 2017 film adaptation, writes:

"Did she? Didn't she? Was she? Wasn't she? This simple device fuels the novel's spectacular slalom ride of unclarity. It's a brilliant trick played out with smoke and mirrors: candles, fires, moonlight, low light, back-light, characters moving up and out and into the darkness." [2]


When reading of the affair between Philip and Rachel, I was reminded of the pure young fool Arthur Dimmesdale and the beautiful seductress Hester Prynne; though I suppose if Rachel had a scarlet letter 'A' embroidered with golden thread upon her black dress it might stand for avvelenatrice rather than adultress. 

Like Hawthorne, du Maurier writes romance. But neither The Scarlet Letter nor My Cousin Rachel  are pleasant, pretty little tales; they are, as D. H. Lawrence would say, earthly stories with a hellish meaning - although what the meaning of the latter work is remains hidden and uncertain.

Ultimately, perhaps all it tells is beware of beautiful strangers and be careful about drinking too much herbal tea ... Or perhaps it echoes Wilde's great lesson: Each man kills the thing he loves - for it should always be remembered that it's Rachel - not Philip - who lies dead amongst timber and stone at the end of this tragic tale. 


[1] The witch aspect of Rachel's character is certainly played up in the book by du Maurier; her extensive knowledge of herbs and remedies, for example, is enough for Philip to exclaim at one point "'That's witchcraft!'" And she does seem to be a dangerously seductive feminine force, if not an out-and-out malevolent spirit; as Lawrence says of Hester Prynne, her very love is a subtle poison. Thus, if Rachel bolsters Philip up from the outside and helps make a man of him, she destroys him from the inside (with or without the use of laburnum seeds).

In a crucial passage, Lawrence writes:

"Woman is a strange and rather terrible phenomenon, to man. When the subconscious soul of woman recoils from its creative union with man [following a miscarriage, for example, as in Rachel's case], it becomes a destructive force. It exerts, willy nilly, an invisible destructive influence. The woman herself may be as nice as [a cup of tisana], to all appearances [...] But she is sending out waves of silent destruction of the faltering spirit in men, all the same. She doesn't know it. She can't even help it. But she does it. The devil is in her. [...] A woman can use her sex in sheer malevolence and poison, while she is behaving as meek and as good as gold."

This, of course, is very similar to the conclusion reached by Philip: "I saw her [Rachel] as someone not responsible for what she did, besmirched by evil." 


D. H. Lawrence, 'Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter', Studies in Classic American Literature (Final Version), ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 89-90.

Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel, (Virago, 2017). Lines quoted are on pp. 150 and 319.  

[2] Roger Michell, Introduction to My Cousin Rachel, Ibid. p. vi. 

This post is for Ann Willmore in recognition of all the good work she does on the Daphne du Maurier website: click here