A Brief Moment of Narcissism : A Review of My Cousin Rachel
(Warning: This review is not going to give plot summary, but instead will analyze the content of the book/author’s meaning. This review assumes that you have already read the book. If you haven’t, instead of reading this, which will surely spoil the book for you, just go read the book! I highly recommend it!)
Although you could probably make an argument that My Cousin Rachel is packed with characters who tend to have narcissistic (good God, what a word to spell) qualities, I am not going to go down that alley with this critique. Instead, the narcissism I refer to in the title of this review is completely my own.
In high school, I was randomly strolling through the very thinly stocked library in our school looking for something to read. I had at this time thoroughly exhausted every L.M. Montgomery book and I was in desperate need of something new. A book cover stood out to me; it was extremely ornate. The title Pride and Prejudice sounded vaguely familiar, but as I was a naive fourteen year old, I had no idea of the content of the actual book. Alas, I checked it out anyway, breaking the old adage and actually literally judging a book by its cover. It paid off. Tremendously.
I have continued to do this to this day. Every library visit, I will pick up my “cover” book – a book that is just aesthetically pleasing. I make sure that the book is one that I have never heard of or, if I have, that I at least have absolutely no idea what it is about. During my last trip to the library, a title, instead of a cover, jumped out at me. The title had my name in it, and I had absolutely no idea what the book was about. There was no way I could pass that up. The cover was a bland red, but the title called to me, and I indulged myself in a brief moment of narcissism. I am very glad I did.
My Cousin Rachel is written by Daphne du Maurier, the same author who penned Rebecca. I have never read Rebecca (please don’t shun me!), but I have a hard time imagining it to be better than My Cousin Rachel… that’s not to say I won’t give it a try some day. This is Gothic writing at its absolute best, and such a refreshing course of action for me, whose recent forays into the literature world have been strictly Fantasy.
The first chapter was simply beautiful as the protagonist, Phillip Ashley, sets up the story in the most angsty manner possible. We are posed with a question from Phillip that will haunt us still after the ending of the novel; was Rachel innocent or guilty? Phillip then makes a statement about how he will never know what she was. I was not too keen on this ‘never knowing’ business and, of course, turned back to the novel itself to find some answers.
Throughout the book, I was entirely convinced that although Rachel was a bad duck, we never had the full story. I kept waiting for more to come to light about her past dealings or perhaps the true nature of her relationship with Rainaldi. I speculated that perhaps they were actually related, as in maybe a brother and a sister; the next was that perhaps they were lovers and broke as a joke, so manipulating rich men out of their fortunes was their last effort to build a life together. Needless to say, I was quite wrong about my speculations. And I feel now, upon a reread, that we do have everything we need from the story, but more importantly, from the characters.
Despite the fact that I was distrusting of Rachel the entire time, I found myself liking her, although definitely not for the reasons Phillip did — I am not weirdly in to small hands. It was instead for the feminism she seemed to elude. One of the characters, I believe it is Mrs. Pascoe’s husband, makes a comment about how she is very feminine. However, I am not sure if Mr. Pascoe would agree with the point I am trying to make. Rachel would often make comments about the restrictions placed upon women in general during the time frame of the novel. She seems to be extremely aware of these limitations and extremely ready to mock them, definitely more so than any other character, especially Phillip. Rachel also seems to be aware of the chauvinistic perceptions that dominated society: “‘You talk,’ I said, ‘as if you were ninety-nine.’
‘For a woman I very nearly am,’ she said. ‘I’m thirty five.’ ”
Phillip is oblivious to her meaning and instead goes back to watching her small hands. He never once considers what she means when she makes remarks of this nature which she does actually quite often. He also only sees shame in her making a living for herself by teaching Italian lessons, and he is absolutely mortified by the mere thought. Of course, different social norms were in place during that time, but it seems as though Phillip never questions them while Rachel is trying to figure out ways to fight them.
Therefore, I think there are two ways one can analyze this novel; through a masculine perspective (Phillip) and through a feminine perspective (Rachel). Phillip’s perspective is obviously much easier to see as he is the narrator. Rachel’s perspective makes the book layered and is much less clear and harder to get at. Rachel is blurred by Phillip’s own judgment of her. In Phillip’s eyes, she is first the whore, the monster who killed his cousin. She then transforms so suddenly to the innocent Madonna, his savior, who he loves and simply can’t live without. There is no middle ground like there should be – there is never the realization that she is a human being, more than just a small body with small, white hands. Phillip’s ideas of her are always being contradicted since they are at such extremes, but he refuses to moderate them or be somewhat realistic with his expectations. He simply toggles between extremes, and in the end, it is the reason that he sends her to her death; the fact that she never lived up to his expectations of her. He, of course, fails to see that her doing so was impossible.
Daphne du Maurier leaves the book open ended quite purposely. It was rumored than she herself never actually knew whether Rachel was innocent or guilty. Putting her in either category seems entirely too simplistic by the end of the novel, and it feels too much like falling in to Phillip’s mistake of categorizing her as either extreme; the monster or the savior.
Was she entirely innocent? Absolutely not. Is anyone? Did she poison Ambrose and begin to poison Phillip? The seeds in the locked drawer and the very similar symptoms of both Ambrose and Phillip seem to suggest that she was. There is also the matter of timing. Ambrose was said to become violent, and although it was suggested that it was due to his illness, there is evidence that it may have happened before he was ill and in fact prompted Rachel to poison him. After Phillip chokes Rachel (again, a misplaced response because she is not living up to his absurd and naive ideals), she makes a comment that she has had it all before. I don’t think that this is something that Maurier meant for the reader to take lightly. Phillip is said again and again to be just like Ambrose and Maurier clearly means this to act as a type of doubling. Ambrose, just like Phillip, also seems to have very extreme views about his wife. In his letters, he never seems to give her the power of reason – everything that she does is because of mere impulse. According to Ambrose, Rachel acts upon instinct only, and is again either the monster or the savior. Ambrose and Phillip label her as a monster when they both think she has begun to poison them. And while I don’t condone poisoning people by any means, both of the men seem to have forgotten how horribly they have just treated her, how they have just used physical violence against her in fits of rage. Of course, we never actually see the scene with Ambrose, but after Rachel’s statement and the mirroring/doubling established between Ambrose and Phillip, it is not a large jump or assumption to make.
Rachel had her reasons to poison both men; definitely not innocent, but not the only guilty party. If Ambrose acted violently, as it has been suggested, poisoning him, although still murder, would have been a good way of getting rid of an abusive husband. She had no money to divorce him, and as he is essentially the same as Phillip, I doubt that he would’ve ever let her divorce him anyway. Money may have also been a factor in the poisoning, though I hardly believe it was the only factor. It was an extreme and carefully thought out act of defense. Phillip may have been just the same reasoning. Rachel was physically assaulted and then told that she could never leave him. Not exactly the way to warm a woman’s heart.
So if this is all true, why did she stay? I think, the same reason she came in the first place. Guilt. She truly loved Ambrose… I think that his name being her last word is all the proof we need, although there is much more. She acted how she did (murdering him) in self defense. She acted to preserve her own life, and instead, took his. That would have to leave an absolute crushing amount of guilt. She is not innocent, but nor is she a monster. She is human and sane, and guilt would’ve gotten to her as it would any of us. Poisoning Phillip would’ve just unleashed more guilt upon her soul, and instead of leaving, she looked after him and corrected her mistake. She chose to forgive, chose to redeem herself for Ambrose’s death, and not act out in self defense.
The one moment in the novel where Rachel doesn’t seem to be on the defensive any more is, of course, when she is sent to her death. It is tragedy at its finest, and suddenly Phillip, who appeared innocent and naive throughout the novel, is thrust into a clearer light. He is certainly not innocent, but he is somewhat guilty. He killed to save himself. But I don’t think he realizes at the end, that Rachel had done the same to Ambrose. Instead, he is heavy with guilt and is a ruined man, but only because he fails to see that Rachel is not fully innocent and not fully guilty. Even as she dies, Phillip still can’t see her as human.
The book is definitely worth the read and reread if you’ve got the time. And I am sure there are a million different theories about innocence and guilt and the characters in this novel… feel free to sure yours in the comments if you feel so inclined.
Written by Rachel B.
Rachel is a co-creator and writer at Definitely Not for the Birds (DNFB). She recently graduated with a degree in English. Presently, she writes, reads, and then reads and writes some more, with a giant and ever-present mug of green tea in her hand. Follow Rachel @rrbindl and DNFB @not4birds