I picked up the baton of my Gothic literature reading challenge again and went running down the track with one of my favorite novels My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier. I was inspired by a Goodreads reading group to join in even though this is probably my third time reading going at it. Three’s a charm because I’m loving it once again. There are so many reasons why this story works, one being that it’s essentially a Victorian novel written as a 1950’s pulp romance. Love the cover above, especially considering Rachel wears nothing but mourning through the entire novel, albeit seductively so.
What separates du Maurier’s book from the legions of these…
…is she is master of the form (mistress? She claims male energy was the key to her creativity, so I’ll keep it master). Her liquid prose runs off the page like mercury, and I chase it to the very end. This is what reading for pleasure is all about! There’s humor, vivid characters, strong symbolism, and heartbreak all wrapped up in a very proper English package of wealth and privilege with settings of expansive estates, verdant rolling hills, the sea, the quaint village, gardens, savory meals and tea times, and of course, a mansion. The author lived in one too. Granddaughter to the great George du Maurier of Svengali fame, and daughter to a matinee idol, Du Maurier had an interesting and productive life as a writer. It was not without its controversies–she was charged with both plagiarism, lesbianism and “inappropriate intimacies” with her own father (shocking!)–but somehow despite all that, she seemed to straddle the life of the society wife and mother with a prolific and honored writing career. Rebecca is of course Du Maurier’s best known work, but she also brought us by way of short stories The Birds, and Don’t Look Now.
My Cousin Rachel is a classic. A Victorian novel written with the modernity and wit, and subtle sexuality, of the post-war era. Its theme is tortured love, only this time it is the male character who is doing all the suffering. Du Maurier had to have known, perhaps on an unconscious level, how much we women (I’m guessing her main readers) would devour it gleefully. Like Rebecca, the femme fatale is clouded in mystery. Similar to E.M. Forster’s novels, there is the healthy, horsey straightforward and a bit daft English character butting up against the ancient mysteries of the exotic (subtextual vulgar and sensual) Italian, and he is way out of his league. This theme is beautifully illustrated in Phillip’s visit to Florence, where the heat drains him of his essence and the eyes of young Italian beggar haunts him. Rachel is an enigma to both Phillip and the reader, and we find ourselves vacillating with the narrator’s emotions: both suffering his torment and chiding him for a fool in equal measure. This is good writing. I also appreciate the author’s subtle literally symbolism: the dead dog in the Arno is highly affecting image that has stayed with me in the decades since I first picked this up.
I didn’t even realize there was a new film coming out till I was looking for the old Olivia de Havilland one. This looks amazing (Rachel Weisz is a good choice). I can’t wait to see it!
The lovely damsel fleeing stormy castle began with Castle of Otranto; the Brontes made it better. I am saddened that these romances fell out of the favor to become Fifty Shades of Gray. Give me back Fabio at least! Looking at these covers makes me want to read them all. My Aunt Rita was an avid reader and had piles of these in her home. I know I read a bunch of them, but it was the covers that mesmerized me.
These dark shadows that traumatized me as a child have infiltrated into my own work. I love it! Time to reboot this lost genre.