Writing Portfolio


There's something about Rachel

Last year, work took me first to Rotherhithe and then to a farm outside Rickmansworth. By ‘work’, I am in this context referring to being a film extra; Rotherhithe was where I went for the fitting and Rickmansworth for the filming. The fitting was done in under an hour, as is usually the case, and the filming – rather unusually – was over before lunchtime. Such was my very modest contribution to the movie My Cousin Rachel, and for what it’s worth a mere couple of seconds of the scene I was in made the final cut.

[Spoiler alert: if you have neither seen the film My Cousin Rachel nor read the novel of the same name, be prepared to have key plot details (including the ending) revealed to you if you continue reading this blog-post. You have been warned.]

Naturally one feels obliged to go to the cinema to see the films one is in (or in this case the films one might have been in, had the director decided that the flashback scenes required a couple more minutes than they ended up getting), and as My Cousin Rachel is based on a novel I also felt obliged to read said novel. So, for the first time in my life, I sat down and read a Daphne du Maurier novel. I’ve seen and enjoyed film versions of her work before – Rebecca, The Birds, Don’t Look Now – but I’d never read one of her books. Until last month. For the record, My Cousin Rachel was first published in 1951 and this is not the first time it was made into a film (that was in 1952, and I have not seen that version).

“They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though.” 

The opening lines both grab the reader and give the first hint of murder, and hints of murder are what this story is all about. The opener is followed by a description of a decaying body (that of a convicted murderer) encased in a gibbet, and after the first few-dozen pages one of the main characters is dead in what are presented as suspicious circumstances. Ambrose Ashley is central to the plot despite being dead, for it is the manner in which he died that is at the heart of My Cousin Rachel. He is the one who raised Philip – his orphaned cousin, the novel’s narrator – on the family’s Cornish estate in a curiously female-free environment; a man content with avoiding the company of women and yet one who suddenly decided to marry his other cousin, the titular Rachel, when he met her when he went to Italy for his health. His death not long after marrying Rachel is the event that drives the rest of the novel.

It is young Philip who, via a rather alarming letter and an all-too-late trip to Florence, has to come to terms with Ambrose’s death at the same time as coming to terms with the existence of this mysterious female cousin on whom he has never laid eyes. Rachel, of course, comes to Cornwall and Philip’s feelings towards her are confused enough before he receives further communication from the late Ambrose in the form of letters or fragments of letters that surface throughout the novel. Philip’s only friend, Louise (the rather sensible daughter of his rather sensible godfather and the girl who everyone appears to have assumed he would one day marry), can only stand by and occasionally provide the voice of reason as he veers between feelings of hatred and infatuation towards his beguiling, enigmatic cousin Rachel.

It’s one of those books that has stayed with me since, mainly due to the ambiguity over the central question: Did Rachel kill Ambrose? Well, did she? Du Maurier does well to keep the reader guessing even after the end by providing no definitive answer. Even at the end, we do not know for sure. At first I was convinced that she had killed him, then I wasn’t so sure, then I was absolutely certain and then at the end doubts resurfaced once again.

Rachel, of course, is not the type to do something as rash as incriminate herself – assuming, of course, that she has anything to incriminate herself about, she being to all intents and purposes the grieving widow who has come to see her late husband’s estate that he was always talking about. Therefore, all Philip has to go on are the afore-mentioned letters which occasionally appear and his own gut instinct, and neither of these can be considered to be entirely reliable. The reliability of what cousin Ambrose says in his letters about Rachel trying to kill him is brought into question by Rachel herself, who tells Philip about his deteriorating mental state prior to his death; but then, if she did indeed kill Ambrose she would of course have a vested interest in making sure that the content of his letters is discredited as the ravings of a diseased mind. As for Philip’s gut instinct – well, he’s a bit of a fool is Philip, first building Rachel up to be an evil murderer before he meets her, and then making an idiot of himself as he falls for her despite what he thinks about her supposed role in his beloved cousin’s death.

A good farmer and a competent manager of a country estate he may be, but boy is Philip Ashley useless when it comes to interacting with a woman (the shortcomings of Ambrose’s unconventional way of raising him become clear as events take their course). Philip presents a string of pearls (a valuable family heirloom) to her as a Christmas present, only to be forced to take them back. Although Ambrose left the estate to him and not Rachel, he signs everything over to her despite being advised not to. He then becomes convinced that having sex with her equates to a successful proposal of marriage; this turns out to be particularly humiliating as he doesn’t bother to clarify the situation with Rachel before telling everyone that they’re engaged. The involvement of Rainaldi, the shady Italian lawyer who Philip mistrusted on sight in Italy and who over the course of the plot turns up in Cornwall, adds to Philip’s frustration and confusion; rather like Doctor Watson and Bertie Wooster, he is not so much an unreliable narrator as a narrator who doesn’t have all of the facts to hand (but unlike them, he has no Holmes or Jeeves to explain things and put things right).

It’s only when Philip himself falls ill, with symptoms not unlike those that affected Ambrose, that he (on recovering) veers back to his original hypothesis regarding Rachel’s involvement in Ambrose’s death, and for good measure it looks as though she might have been trying to do away with him too. All that tisana that she insists on making for Philip looks rather suspicious (a special brew just for him?), but he and by extension we cannot be sure even though there is strong circumstantial evidence (those laburnum seeds, “poisonous to cattle, and to men”) to suggest that this may have been the method by which she did for Ambrose.

But enough doubt remains. Rest assured, though, that we readers and viewers are not the only ones in the dark. A revealing line in Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall shows that the author herself wasn’t entirely sure about Rachel’s guilt: “I have often been asked whether Rachel was really guilty of murdering Ambrose or whether it was in Philip’s mind. I cannot answer the question. One moment I thought, ‘Well, I wonder if she is?’ and the next moment I was not at all sure. What is certain is that our past will not be buried, for it is alive, with us and within us.”

As My Cousin Rachel nears its climax, one of the characters is on the same wave-length as the author, and it’s not the narrator: “‘If there is no proof,’ said Louise, ‘you cannot condemn her. She may be innocent. She may be guilty. You can do nothing. If she be innocent, and you accused her, you could never forgive yourself. You would be guilty then, and she not at all ... I wish now we had not meddled with her things.’”

This makes Philip’s actions at the end all the more questionable. Although he cannot be sure of Rachel’s guilt, he is nevertheless prepared to send her to her death by encouraging her to go for a walk in the terraced garden without warning her that the newly-installed bridge is merely decorative and not in any way load-bearing (in the movie, he encourages her to take the horse for a ride on the top of a cliff that he knows to be dangerous; the effect is the same). With Rachel dead, the question of her guilt must go unanswered; suspicion is and was always tempered by doubt. But it does raise the issue of Philip being responsible for Rachel’s death; does him sending her out into the garden (or onto the cliff) without warning her of the dangers make him guilty of murder? It’s tantamount to manslaughter at least, and Louise clearly suspects worse (“‘What have you done?’ she said; and apprehension came upon her, conviction too.”).

What is not in doubt is the fact that My Cousin Rachel is a thoroughly engrossing read; the question of whether or not Rachel is a murderer is frustratingly left unanswered, but conversely that is in itself what makes the book so fascinating; had du Maurier provided a definite answer one way or the other, I suspect it would not have remained in my mind some two weeks after I had finished it.

And the film? Well, it was well-acted (especially by Rachel Weisz as Rachel) but it had a predictable feel to it that the novel did not. In addition, I wasn’t overly impressed with the way in which the film-makers contrived to provide Philip with a happy-ish ending (marrying Louise, no less) after the death of Rachel, rather than the ambiguity concerning his fate that du Maurier provided by repeating those haunting first lines at the end; as a reader I was left with a very real sense that, for all the question-marks about Rachel murdering Ambrose, there is much in those last few paragraphs to suggest that Philip’s fate is to be thought of as the murderer of Rachel; why on Earth would Louise or anyone else marry such a man?

So there we have it. Much to my surprise, I find myself at the age of 38 teetering on the brink of becoming a fan of Daphne du Maurier. Naturally I will have to read some more of her books before I can be sure of this new departure in my literary tastes, and following a recent trip to Cornwall which involved stopping at a certain old coaching inn on Bodmin Moor I have an idea about what the next one will be…

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