Saturday, 26 November 2011
My Cousin Rachel
My Cousin Rachel - Daphne Du Maurier
My Cousin Rachel's opening, with a dead body swinging on a gibbet, reminded me somewhat of Great Expectations. That the narrator is also an orphan called Philip cemented the connection. In some ways you can look at it as a version of Great Expectations PULPed and reconstituted. It is also unmistakably from the same hand as Rebecca, using a similar structure and setting.
Philip, aged seven (one year older than Pip when he meets Magwitch) has been taken to see the hanged man by his cousin and guardian Ambrose, who feels that it will teach him a lesson. (Let's not go into whether this is an appropriate teaching method for seven year olds. Du Maurier's supposedly inappropriate relationship with her father finds an echo here.) The body as thing is difficult for Philip to accept but when the connection is made to a person he knew this becomes even more so. "I wished he had not named the man. Up to that moment the body had been a dead thing, without identity. It would come into my dreams, lifeless and horrible. I knew that very well from the first instant I had set my eyes upon the gibbet. Now it would have connexion with reality..." The difference between judging someone you don't know and someone you do will play a major part in the novel.
That Philip himself may be a guilty man, and Rachel a guilty woman, is introduced early on, before Rachel herself: "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? Maybe I shall learn that too, in purgatory.
How soft and gentle her name sounds when I whisper it. It lingers on the tongue, insidious and slow, almost like poison."
Philip is raised by confirmed bachelor Ambrose in a house without women, to be his heir, heir to a house that seems once again based on Menabilly House the same source as Manderley in Rebecca. Ambrose starts spending time in hotter climes for his health where he meets a distant cousin who lives in Florence and shares his interest in gardens. Then to general shock they get married.
At first all seems happy but then Philip receives a few strange letters which suggest that all is not right in Florence. Without knowing Rachel, Philip is quick to jump to conclusions about her. At this time it is as well to drop the plot precis before I have given too much away.
Du Maurier creates a world that draws on melodrama and even fairytales, with places seeming to be imbued with some form of magic. Rachel can be seen as a stepmother figure for Philip, her 'gift' as poisonous to him as Snow White's apple. He rejects the sensible world of his godfather to give himself up to rapture. "People who mattered not could take the humdrum world. But this was not the world, it was enchantment, and all of it was mine. I did not want it for myself alone." - "'If this is madness,' I said, 'then I would want to stay that way for always. I did not know lunacy could give such delight.'"
The natural world echoes the feeling of the main character and Du Maurier writes many wonderful descriptions of nature reflecting the emotions of the moment, heightening them, but also adding an element of unreality to them. This world of gothic melodrama is not the real world. "The March wind made a fool of me; I would have sung aloud, but I could not for the life of me keep to a single tune. The hedgerows were green, and the willows were in bud, and all the honeyed mass of golden gorse in bloom. It was a day of folly and high fever."
There is a wonderful scene where Philip describes all the characters sitting around in the tortured contortions of social duty. "The four of us sat like strangers in the drawing-room. My godfather, I thought, is ill at ease, and wishing he had not come, but feels it to be his duty to call upon me; while Louise, with some odd instinct possessed by women, knows what has happened here and shrinks at the thought of it. Rachel, as always, was in command of the situation, and kept the tenor of the conversation on the level that was required. The county Show, the betrothal of the second Pascoe daughter, the warmth of the present weather, the prospect of a change in Government - all these were easy matters. But what if we spoke the things we really thought?" And then he imagines what that would sound like.
Her characters may be from the stock rooms of literary tradition but Du Maurier is an author I will return to again because of the vitality with which she manipulates these characters, and the hectic vividness of her descriptions.