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My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier: DID SHE OR DIDN'T SHE

Daphne Du Maurier's 1951 My Cousin Rachel prompts the age-old question: what if you were a young dumb dumb with an estate in Cornwall who is convinced your charming, thoughtful, and recently-widowed cousin Rachel wants to abandon her native Italy forever and live with you, your dogs, and your elderly butler in a damp house by the sea. AFTER ALL WHO WOULDN'T.

Also she's a widow because she'd married your uncle who raised you who then recently died, so also this has just become the MOST oedipal and makes everyone feel gross thinking about it.

Said dumb dumb is Philip Ashley, who is 24 and aptly referred to in the recent film version as a "glorious puppy." He is so excited about some things. And so sulky about so many other things. He's our narrator, which here means he is our misogynistic, xenophobic lens through which to view all events. His uncle died in Italy soon after marrying Rachel. Said uncle suspected he was being poisoned. He also probably had a brain tumor. OR WAS IT THOSE CRAFTY ITALIAN DOCTORS LYING LIKE ITALIAN DOCTOR LIARS. 

The book keeps you wavering between thinking Rachel is a nefarious mastermind or a grieving widow with no money and no agency who is just trying to survive. She's so impulsive!...say the men in the book. She spends so much money!...say the men in the book. She's maybe a poisoner!...say the men in the book. 

The Italian + poison angle is almost too stereotypical, but exactly right if you're an idiot 24-year-old Englishman in the 1830s. And who knows, maybe she was. If she did it, I think there was an excuse for it, but you would have to read the book or see the recent excellent movie to get why.

My Cousin Rachel is tense and suspenseful and great and makes me want to read Frenchman's Creek straightaway. The film has a much clearer feminist interpretation, although My Cousin Rachel HAS been called the most feminist of Du Maurier's work. It's just a little less obvious in the novel.

As a final note -- have we all noticed how bookstores seem to be a little side-eye about Du Maurier? Yes, good, let's talk more about that immediately: Rebecca is frequently shelved in Romance, and not knocking Romance, but that's not what Rebecca is. Du Maurier is all about constant unease and the feeling Something Is Up, not unlike Shirley Jackson, but in a less creepy way than Jackson. If anything, put her in Suspense/Thrillers or just damn Fiction. 

This to say that it feels she has not been as legitimized as an author as she SHOULD be. She isn't quite in the canon, which I primarily blame on the White Male Hegemonic Conspiracy that's still prompting us to read Philip Roth and John Updike when NO I DON'T WANT TO YOU CANNOT MAKE ME.

My Cousin Rachel is a complex look at the unfortunate position women were in in the 19th century or maybe about a murdering lady who knows.


  1. I came out of blogernation to say, YES!!! Such a great book and, yes, feminist, I think. Like, ladies got to be shady in those times to survive.

    And I agree bookstores don't know what to do with Du Maurier. I don't think those terrible covers she gets help the situation. But, come on people, she wrote The Birds!

  2. I demand to know who has been shelving Rebecca in romance. That is the worst idea in the whole world, and I say that as someone who at age sixteen believed it would be romantic to marry Max de Winter.

  3. There is absolutely Zero Way that Rebecca should be relegated to the Romance section. Just because a book features an occasional romantic feeling (not there's much of that in Rebecca anyway) does not mean that it is Romance. Ugh. Just put it in General Fiction and have done with it.

  4. I have never read any Du Maurier, I assume in large part cos of the cover font and also shelving location.

    ALSO, I was reading a review of this movie on is not good. It does have some funny lines like how it is an "impossibly turgid film" and that Philip is "a kind of period bro". And now it seems kind of mean to bring this up, but I still like the idea of a "period bro" so I'm going to leave it. But know I do not mean anything mean by it


      "The character’s ingenuousness is meant as a kind of virtue, at least I think it is, but Claflin’s sneering, furniture-smashing, and banality make Philip impossible to care about."

      Um. Claflin played Philip EXACTLY as he's written. I can't tell you the number of times I texted Raych saying "what an IDIOT." THAT IS THE WHOLE POINT. I'm sorry there's not a dude you can immediately relate to onscreen; welcome to the joys of watching a movie while female. FEMINIST HULK SMASH.

  5. FWIW, I read Portnoy's Complaint as a teen and loved it.

    I only know Daphne's work through the film versions (Rebecca, The Birds, and Don't Look Now, which was especially brilliant). That is about to change, because I recently bought the NYRB collection which contains those last two stories.

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