Novel Readings

“Haunted still by doubt”: Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel

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.

My Cousin Rachel is more understated than Jamaica Inn but, in its own way, it is just as perfect. It’s not just Philip Ashley, our narrator, who will never be able to answer his question about Rachel, but all of us, left by du Maurier suspended in uncertainty and thus in our judgment of Philip himself. Has he heroically resisted and survived one of the women his godfather warns him about, those who “impel disaster”? Or has his own suspicious misogyny made him not a hero, not a victim, but a villain himself? “She was my first, and last,” he tells us, but has his inexperience made him vulnerable to her wiles or liable to fevered obsession and delusions?

Jamaica Inn is romantic suspense: is there a name for this genre of not-knowing? And what other novels besides The Turn of the Screw belong to it? For a long time I felt sure that the verdict would go against Rachel, both because the circumstances of Ambrose’s death certainly seemed suspicious and because the novel seemed tilted against women’s power to disrupt men’s bluff tranquility. Then it dawned on me, rather belatedly, that I was taking Philip too much at his word, or at least taking his point of view too much for granted, something he had, after all, warned me about right at the beginning! It wasn’t until he had his hands around Rachel’s throat, though, that I really saw how du Maurier had suckered me into complacency with the familiar trope of the femme fatale. I just assumed I knew who — or rather what — she really was. But it’s a much more clever game du Maurier’s playing than, say, Braddon’s in Lady Audley’s Secret: there, we figure out quite soon that Lucy is not as she seems, and the suspense comes from seeing who wins the cat-and-mouse game between her and Robert Audley. That’s what I thought would happen here too — that Rachel’s malevolence would become clear and Philip would somehow have to fight and expose it — but how much less fun and original that would have been than what du Maurier does instead. “She may be innocent,” says Philip’s friend and ally Louise; “she may be guilty. You can do nothing.”

And du Maurier really does a lot of things well, provided you don’t mind a little melodrama along with your foreshadowing. I did think (if it’s not heresy to say so about a writer as skillful as du Maurier) that the balance was a little off: it seemed to take a very long time for Philip to emerge from his initial infatuation and thus for things to get really interesting. In the end, I still like Jamaica Inn better, mostly for Mary Yellan but also for its greater plottiness (is that a word?) and its more expansive descriptions, especially of the landscape. But the opening and closing are particularly shivery and splendid here, and frame the story perfectly:

They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.

Not any more, though.