Sunday, August 22, 2010

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

Shakespeare had Hamlet and Othello and the legend of Faust has been worked and reworked through modern literature, but Daphne Du Maurier’s tragic heroes will stick just as long in the memory.

Du Maurier was ahead of her time. Her gothic settings in rural Cornwall may look back to the Victorians, but her strong female characters and rich, sometimes shocking plots belies an author writing as early as the mid 20th century. Du Maurier loves to holds her readers in suspense and her characters are full of unsettling ambiguity and anxiety.

My Cousin Rachel is a sinister love triangle between the bachelor Ambrose, his adopted ‘son’ Philip and the beguiling jet-setting Rachel. The centre of the story concerns Rachel’s motives. Is she devoted and vulnerable wife or devilish deceiver and fiend? It is to the credit of the author, but apparently missed by most of the reviews I’ve read, that the answer is both. As Mr. Kendall, the straight laced godfather of Philip states
‘There are some women, Philip, good women very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster.’

Du Maurier unravels the tragically flawed personality of a woman shaped by the harsh male dominated world of the 19th Century. Seeking to protect herself after a failed first marriage at a young age she learns to manipulate and control those around her using her intelligence and beauty. She pursues security and enjoyment in financial wealth and will go to great ends to achieve this. However she desires company and needs to love and be loved deeply, if on her own terms.

In Ambrose and Phillip she finds two men who offer her the love she craves, but because of their naivety do not threaten the dominance and control she needs. Power unbridled is badly used and does indeed ‘impel disaster’. Her ‘will to power’ is sometimes viciously victorious over her caring love for her men, but at other times touchingly checked, often with the help of the one man she truly respects – the hard headed Italian, Rainaldi.

Daphne Du Maurier captures the contradictions so often inherent in the human condition and her mystery detective style make My Cousin Rachel a page turning, but provoking read.

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