Like so many people who have read this book and have never been able to forget it, I was instantly captivated by Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (published in July of 1951) from the first time I read it as a teenager. Since then I have read and re-read this marvelous book several more times, and I think I have finally managed to put my finger on the hook which was from the very start securely lodged in my cheek.
From the opening chapters an image of Rachel emerged in my imagination as a Franco Zeffirrelli heroine – a delicate combined portrait of Madame Bovary and Jane Eyre in looks – but painted in fine Italian chiaroscuro.
In my imagination a streak of light catches Rachel’s very soignèe, very tightly combed and knotted dark hair, and shows off to its best advantage her beautifully shaped head. I see the simple and exceedingly elegant cut of her black dress, and her dark, suggestive beauty offset by her pale and sensitive hands, and the creamy flesh of her slender neck emerging above the modest neckline. I see the dark and fading browns and greens of a renaissance landscape with plane trees and cypresses in the background… I see some of Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ in her as well… I hear a Donizetti aria or two – “Regnava Nel Silenzio” and “Una Furtiva Lagrima” – because of course such passion as she may inspire inevitably compels the headlong rushing in of fools, as well as its predictable aftermath.
But above and beyond all of that, the most insistent, most confusing, and most disorienting sound I hear is Phillip’s voice:
It is a voice that comes out of his mouth without ever being his. I now know that this is because it is in fact a woman’s voice. – or more accurately, the voice of a castrato taken over by a woman, – perhaps like that of Pauline Viardot’s Orpheus singing “J’ai Perdu Mon Eurydice” in a mist of grief and passion. Despite being cast as that epitome of maleness, the English country gentleman, Philips’ voice has the timbre of extreme sexual ambiguity.
As a writer, Daphne du Maurier is a superb ventriloquist, and her throwing of Phillip’s voice quite tricked my cognitive ear, though my intuitive ear was not so easily persuaded. It took me all these many disquieting years to discover that no man could ever speak of a woman in the way Phillip speaks of Rachel, but only a woman who finds others of her own sex a source of confounding fascination, which is to say, a lesbian.
When I construe Phillip as a young dyke, ‘his’ voice, a breaking mezzo/contralto, fits exactly.
The richness of this book is that it is teeming with the unseen ghosts of literary and cultural symbols – the ghosts of the Brontës (during whose lifetimes the novel is set), the noble and tormented ghost of Radclyffe Hall’s Stephen, the ghost of Lucrezia Borgia with the whiff of poison clinging to her reputed ring, and perhaps even the tantalising ghost of the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile – the smile which intimates there is something behind it that we could never see. The atmosphere is filled with the anxious echoes of a past that is persistently insinuating itself into the present.
The chord Du Maurier strikes is rich in resonance and harmonics. It goes on echoing and reverberating, because throughout its long vibration, which in this novel is the tension of a prolonged falling in love, the sound of voice and the image of the speaker appear not to be the same.
Phillip,the first person protagonist, seems completely unable to hear his own voice. Nor does he seem able to grasp the implications of his emotions or his actions. He consistently and unswervingly evinces the bafflement of a young girl who falls in love with another young girl, or a woman, without ever having the slightest inkling that despite everything they are led to believe about what they should expect to encounter within the strictly heterosexual constraints of conventional romances of the common and garden sort, girls do in fact fall hopelessly and irrevocably in love with women.
Rachel captivates Phillip from the start, and the secret of her power over him rests in no small part on his utter lack of preparedness for such an encounter. Long before he meets her he has created an unattractive image of her which he is determined to dislike. He is certain that he will be impervious to her. He has no idea that she is the kind of woman who captivates without effort, and with an inescapable finality. Nor does he know he is exactly the kind of person who always falls fatally in love.
Philip has modeled himself so rigidly upon the template of cousin Ambrose, about twenty years his senior, that he is completely purblind to his own love-struck condition. Like a child in grow-up clothes – or rather like a girl who is determined to do a good job of playing a boy’s part in the school play, he has thrown himself into the role, and plays it whole-heartedy and well: So well indeed that he himself is lost in it.
In fact, the the part of the English country gentleman is very nearly overplayed by him.
The relatively simple and uncomplicated virtues required of him in this part make him an easy read for Rachel, who has behind her the experience of surviving an unstable and precarious childhood and girlhood in the questionable care of her dissolute parents who married her off to a reckless Italian noble by the name of Sangalletti. Now there’s a a name that seems to carry in its sound a bloody (and decidedly un-saintly) harmonic, which turns out to be quite ironically apposite, since he died in a duel. This wealth of experience has endowed her with the strategies she needed to survive in a much more dangerous world than a rambling old country house in peaceful Cornwall could ever be.
When Rachel creates an exotic garden paradise in which she and Eve and the Serpent are one, we readers are at once uneasily aware that Phillip, a young girl in boy’s clothing, could never be her match. Ambrose, Phillip’s older cousin who was Rachel’s husband, like the ghost in Hamlet’s, did not survive his marriage, and has died under mysterious circumstances.
Even though deceased Ambrose and androgynous Phillip are central characters; besides a butler, a guardian, a dog, and a dead man, there is not one convincing living and breathing male in this story. Even Rainaldi, Rachel’s sinister Italian friend and lawyer, with his slight build and waspish manner seems more like a peevish spinster than a real man.
Rachel is the dark lady of Phillip’s sonnets, but she is also the Muse – the Goddess – and as such we know that with her mysterious beauty, her ‘otherness’, elusiveness and unattainability she can never be cast as a wife – at least, not for long. Doom hangs over us all from the start: One imagines that one can hear in Rachel’s and Philip’s dangerous connection the ominous sound of of two tectonic plates dragging against each other on the way to their earth-shattering climax:
I know that reading this book as a young girl, I sensed all of this without ever being able to know or grasp any of it. Like Phillip, without noticing what was happening to me, I too had fallen in love with Rachel right away. Even the very seeds she saved – or hid in her darkly ambiguously sinister manner – had a name suggestive of delicate blossoms and warm lips – Laburnum….
I have also wondered if there was not also a bit of a modulated Hamlet – Hamlet in a minor key – secreted in the manner in which Du Maurier configures Philip in the plot: Ambrose, the much older husband, is already deceased when the story begins, and the reason for his death is suspected poisoning. True the finger points more directly at Rachel than at Rainaldi, who is a somewhat distant stand in for the Claudius figure, but both Rachel and Rainaldi stand side by side in the sinister reputations of duplicitous Italians who tend to disposed of their rivals with undetectable poisons. Philip, for his part loathes and despises the machiavellian Rainaldi, his vaunted rival, in much the same manner that Hamlet despises his step-father Claudius.
As with Hamlet, there is even the slight shadow of incest in Philips’ hopes of supplanting his father-figure. Ambrose is present in his ghostly form throughout the story. Philip is waiting to inherit his kingdom. There is even an English Desdemona in Louise – a young and innocent woman who loves Phillip – and she is the daughter of his guardian, the prudent Nick Kendall, who is of course the Polonius figure. Then of course there is the matter of Rachel’s final accident….
Daphne Du Maurier admitted that her inspiration for Rachel was Ellen Doubleday the wife of her American publisher. We shall never know whether or not this particular passion was fulfilled, as was her affair with the famous actress Gertrude Lawrence.
I am now unable to escape the realisation that the ghost in this book was Du Maurier herself, with her impeccable persona of a very proper and very married English lady who nonetheless possessed the incongruous, undeniable, spot-on, pitch-perfect modulation of a lesbian sensibility.
Last night (September fifth 2011) I came across this quote of Daphne Du Maurier in a 1977 interview, and it finally confirmed for me something I always knew intuitively….
It was the answer to a question asked by (unnamed) the interviewer
“In My Cousin Rachel, was Rachel good or evil?”
“Lots of people have asked that and, to tell the truth, I don’t know. You see, I was Philip when I wrote the book.”
Elaine Dundy in her her wonderful introduction to another Du Maurier book I’ll Never be Young Again, could easily have been referring to the following passage when she described Du Maurier as “One of the great monologists in twentieth-century fiction. This is the passage in which Philip recalls the first and only night he ever spent with Rachel.
“What happened on those first few hours of my birthday will remain. If there was passion, I have forgotten it. If there was tenderness, it is with me still. Wonder is mine forever that a woman accepting love has no defense. Perhaps this is the secret that they hold to bind us to them. Making reserve of it until the last. I would not know, having no other for comparison. She was my first and last.”
One is hard-pressed in this passage to hear even the trace of a man’s voice: Instead one hears a wavering double note, that of a young girl discovering a potent and and revelatory nature of lesbian love. Listen to Propertius expressing the same sentiment in his clear male voice – “ cuncta tuus sepelivit amor, nec femina post te /ulla dedit collo dulcia vincla meo.” – ‘Your love has wedged in the grave all others – nor since you did, has any women placed around my neck as sweet a bond’ – (my translation.)
Compared to Propertius, in Philip’s utterance pessesses, to my ear at least, the travested, but still unmistakably recognisable voice of a woman.