“As Long as We Both Should Live”: Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (Review)

This year I read three novels by Daphne Du Maurier. They’re all terrific. The Scapegoat, which I wrote briefly about, is the best of the lot—a completely satisfying book likely to feature in my year-end list. I also enjoyed her final novel, Rule Britannia (1972), a strange and compelling little book that I suspect was greeted with bemusement or even hostility at the time but that is uncannily prescient now: England has left the EEC and is on the brink of financial ruin (sound familiar?) and is taken over by the US. A once-famous actress features prominently; she turns out to have one more great role in her. Rule Britannia is a late work, with more than a touch of The Tempest in it. A bit ramshackle, no question, no one’s going to say it’s her best, but it’s absolutely worth reading.

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Anyway, I recently spent a few pleasant evenings reading My Cousin Rachel, an earlier novel (1951) that is often reckoned as one of her best. The narrator is Philip Ashley, who at the beginning of the novel lives alone on the Cornish coast on the estate of his guardian Ambrose. Some twenty years earlier, Ambrose had taken the orphaned Philip in and raised him in his idiosyncratic fashion. But now he has left the young man, who is recently down from Oxford, to his own devices, in order to travel in Italy in search of relief from his rheumatism.

In Florence Ambrose meets a cousin of theirs, a young widow. Some months later he writes Philip to say they have married and have no plans to return to England. But the idyll doesn’t last: Ambrose’s increasingly scarce letters are filled with complaints of poor health and grievances with the Italy he had previously extolled. Eventually Philip is alarmed enough to travel to Italy himself, but he finds only a grave: Ambrose has died, his wife has closed up their villa and gone away, and no one seems to want to tell him anything. An otherwise unsatisfactory meeting with her lawyer reveals that Ambrose never changed his will: Philip remains heir to the estate.

Shortly after returning to England, Philip learns that Rachel has arrived in Cornwall for a visit, and here the novel really begins. An intricate dance between the two follows. Philip, who has learned that Ambrose believed he was being poisoned, is initially suspicious and hostile to Rachel. But Rachel is charming and his attitude to her changes so much that he eventually decides to sign over the estate to her, even to marry her. A lot happens in the last third of the book, as Du Maurier forces us to wonder whether Rachel is a murderer who has insinuated herself into an inheritance that should never have been hers or a victim of two generations of the Ashley family’s misogyny and paranoia.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I read the novel, and I’m trying to keep these posts shorter, so I encourage you to read Rohan’s review; she articulates many of my feelings about the novel clearly and elegantly.

Like her, I was ensnared by Du Maurier’s clever narration: not until late in the novel did I realize how adroitly she had controlled my responses, from my initial disparagement of Rachel, through rising frustration at what I took to be the novel’s misogyny, to my final realization that I had taken aligned myself much too closely with Philip’s perspective. For even as I struggled with the novel’s portrayal of Rachel—it seemed so vindictive towards her—I was still assuming that she was in fact up to no good, a real femme fatale. I was, in other words, far too beholden to Philip’s point of view. At the end we are left unsure less about who did what to whom but about our own complacency as readers. Philip is no obviously untrustworthy narrator—he’s no Humbert Humbert, no Stevens—but he ends up being more disturbing for that.

Every time we think we’re ahead of the book we’re made to learn the error of our thinking. Apparent deficiencies reveal themselves to be carefully constructed traps. For example, if we find ourselves frustrated by the lengthy scenes in which Philip falls for Rachel without realizing it—why is it taking him so long to figure out what’s happening to him?—we are only thinking what the novel wants us to think. We have to feel superior to the narrator so that our later realization that we’ve been blind to his delusion and violence is that much more painful and powerful.

So we get a passage like this one, typical of the novel’s play with tone:

I went indoors and up to my room, and dragging a chair beside the open window sat down in it, and looked towards the sea. My mind was empty, without thought. My body calm and still. No problems came swimming to the surface, no anxieties itched their way through from the hidden depths to ruffle the blessed peace. It was as though everything in life was now resolved, and the way before me plain. The years behind me counted for nothing. The years to come were no more than a continuation of all I now knew and held, possessing; it would be so, forever and ever, like the amen to a litany. In the future only this: Rachel and I. A man and his wife living within themselves, the house containing us, the world outside our doors passing unheeded. Day after day, night after night, as long as we both should live. That much I remembered from the prayer-book.

Ostensibly a moment of calm and happy anticipation, this passage in fact reveals the narrator to be deluded, and more than that, creepy in his unearned confidence. (Look at the way he equates his present state of knowing and holding with “possessing”: recall the title, My Cousin Rachel.) Instead of seeming relieved and at rest, the narrator is empty, almost vacuous. This is a passage not just about the surfaces it references but also about superficiality. I simply don’t buy the narrator’s description of “blessed peace.” His responses seem to be governed by the half-remembered phrases of the Anglican wedding service; he’s a kind of automaton, and so it’s fitting that a few pages later he finds himself putting his hands around her throat without a clear sense of how he got there. We can take him at his words, but what do those words actually mean? And how is it that we could have been so sympathetic to him for so long?

 

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It’s quite a trick Du Maurier pulls off here in forcing us to ask questions of this sort. (And I don’t mean that disparagingly: the trick’s magic, not dirty.) But even her masterful manipulation of our response isn’t the best part of that book. That would have to be the portrayal of Louise, the daughter of Philip’s godfather, a woman everyone, even sometimes she herself, seems to think is destined for Philip. Louise is unexpectedly steely and resourceful. I loved that Du Maurier didn’t feel the need to pair her with Philip at the end. She suffers at his hands, but she’s no victim. I wouldn’t have minded a novel all about her.

In the end, though, as in all Du Maurier novels, as best I can tell, the real love affair isn’t with a person but with a property. No one loves anyone in this book as much as the book itself loves the estate. (Surprisingly, it is unnamed. No Manderley here. Or maybe that’s the point: we’re supposed to think of Du Maurier’s most famous novel and lay it over this one. Could this lack of definition be connected to the novel’s refusal to tell us when it is set? It’s presumably Regency, but it would have been so easy to make clear. Why didn’t Du Maurier do so?) Philip even acknowledges the power of houses—he tells Rachel soon after he meets her, “If it’s warmth and comfort a man wants, and something beautiful to look upon, he can get all that from his own house, if he loves it well”—but where he is mocking the novel is serious: it loves the house and its demesne well indeed. No real estate porn here, though. Rather, a completely unsentimental belief—which, based on my limited sample size, is one that Du Maurier held dear—that places are better than the people who merely pass through them.

 

A Pattern of Magical Balances: Doris Lessing’s In Pursuit of the English

I just read In Pursuit of the English, a wonderful memoir-of-sorts by Doris Lessing. I think I liked it more than almost any of her books (and I’ve read quite a few, though by no means all, even most). I wonder why it’s not better known.

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It’s about Lessing’s first year or so in England, where she arrived in 1950 with her little boy Peter from her home in Rhodesia. The English, we soon learn, are a fantasy or mirage that differs depending on one’s perspective. The English in Africa are one thing entirely—a unified presence with mores that puzzle Lessing even before she arrives—but the English in England are something else altogether. Especially since Lessing arrives in London, and Londoners, she learns, at least the East End Londoners she lives among, don’t consider themselves English.

Most of the book is about the boarding house she finds a room in. Which isn’t an easy to do in bombed-out London—even some of the floors in the place she ends up in are closed off and filled with rubble. Lessing becomes involved with the people who live in the house, especially the couple who own it. Although the welcome is for the most part warm, she finds she has to learn what the English novelist Henry Green once called “the half-tones of class.” As a colonial subject, she doesn’t quite know how to navigate in this new world

Throughout I kept thinking about the Maison Vauquer from Balzac’s Le Pere Goriot. Especially because perhaps even more than in Balzac the physical qualities of the building itself are important to Lessing—almost as much as the people who live in it.

All of which made me think about what kind of a book this is. For the most part it’s written in a realist mode, almost ethnographic. Calling it a memoir doesn’t really seem right, since Lessing is so reticent about herself. But at times it slips into a different mode, something more fantastic or magical. Here’s a passage that really struck me. Lessing has taken a cramped room in the attic—only later does she realize it’s really a garret—and she has her eye on a much better room three floors below. She enters into a tense war of nerves with the landlady. In the midst of these negotiations comes this surprising and beautiful description:

Under the roof it was like sitting on top of an anthill, a tall sharp peak of baked earth that seems abandoned, but which sounds, when one puts one’s ear to it, with a continuous vibrant humming. Even with the door shut, it was not long before the silence grew into an orchestra of sound. Beneath my floor a tap dripped softly all day, in a blithe duet with the dripping of the tap on the landing. Two floors down, there the Skeffingtons lived, was a radio. Sometimes she forgot it when she went to work, and, as the hours passed, the wavelength slipped, so that melodies and voices flowed upwards, blurring and mingling. This sound had for accompaniment the splashing water, like conversation heard through music and dripping rain. In the darkening afternoons I was taken back to a time when I lay alone at night and listened to people talking through several walls, while the rain streamed from the eaves. Sometimes it was as if the walls had dissolved, and I was left sitting under a tree, listening to birds talking from branch to branch, while the last fat drops of a shower spattered on the leaves, and a ploughman yelled encouragement to his beasts in the field over the hill. Sometimes I put my ear to the wall and heard how, as the trains went past and the buses rocked their weight along the street, shock after shock came up through brick and plaster, so that the solid wall had the fluidity of dancing atoms, and I felt the house, the street, the pavement, and all the miles and miles of houses and streets as a pattern of magical balances, a weight-less structure, as if this city hung on water, or on sound. Being alone in that little box of ceiling board and laths frightened me.

I love the way this passage slips between dream and reality, between present and past, between Africa and London, between gentleness and fear. Sometimes Lessing is a gruff writer, so matter of fact that her prose can be boring. But she’s so smart and sometimes that acuity is transferred to her prose. Everybody in London at this time knew only too well how solid building could dissolve, become as fluid as dancing atoms. The sociological despair of a very slowly rebuilding London is here transmuted into a psychological or private fear. I don’t know if that’s progress, but I like the way Lessing keeps things unsettled in this book. Houses, places to live in, are important in many of works, now that I think about it: The Fifth Child, The Good Terrorist, even her wonderful first novel, The Grass is Singing.