Did she? Didn't she?
In "My Cousin Rachel," Daphne du Maurier doubles down, to wonderful effect, on the moral ambiguity of her 1938 novel "Rebecca," and creates a SchrÃ¶dinger's cat of a novel: somewhere, in there, an answer is stirring. But our efforts to pin it down probably reveal more about ourselves than any definitive verdict on the guilt or innocence of the lovely Cousin Rachel.
Du Maurier cleverly balances Rachel's slipperiness again the rock-solid dependability of narrator Philip Ashley to misread every situation, to misjudge every clue. As an exercise in the Unreliable Narrator, this is a cracker, because we can't help but hope for the best for the damaged "little boy lost," who has been groomed from an early age to regard 50% of the human race as aliens. Cousin Rachel -- whatever her faults -- is for Philip like a breath of fresh air in a life that, at the ripe old age of 25, has been bogged down in stultifying routine and fossilised attitudes. Rachel breezes in, and upends it all, spending some of that old family money on brightening things, up, and sweeping away the cobwebs that has been steadily accumulating in that creepily all-male household.
OR, Rachel is a manipulator and a murderer, and young Philip is completely justified to be suspicious of every silvery laugh, every delicate teacup of tisane ...
What I loved about this novel is that du Maurier manages to construct a situation that has all the messy, contradictory hallmarks of Real Life. Rachel can, in the course of a single sentence, shift from flawed innocence and victim of circumstance, to arch-manipulator, with a cavernous void where normal human feelings might have been. Speaking of her first husband, she says,
"Cosimo? ... My mother was introduced to him in Florence ... He took nearly a year before he made up his mind between my mother and myself. Then she lost her looks, poor dear, and lost him too ..."
It's the "poor dear" that stopped me in my tracks, and made me sure that this woman is more than capable of anything ... However much we want to believe that Rachel is more sinned against than sinning, again and again, du Maurier slips in the odd fact, the odd phrase that whips the rug right out from under the reader's feet.
On the other hand, however, du Maurier cleverly undermines the case for the Prosecution. What kind of Fiendishly Clever Murderess does what Rachel does? Du Maurier isn't denying that Rachel has her faults, or a chequered past, just asking us to decide whether those faults and that past could include murder.
I love, too, that the secondary characters are as messy and contradictory as the primaries: Is Philip's friend Louise jealous, or the only one who sees Rachel for what she really is? Is Rainaldi Rachel's one true friend, or her co-conspirator? Again the evidence shifts from paragraph to paragraph.
I love the fact that the simple story -- Did she? Didn't she? -- which could have been told, with a bit of tweaking, in a contemporary setting, like "Rebecca," is instead made richer and more complicated by setting it in the early years of Victoria's reign (I guess -- du Maurier keeps things satisfyingly vague). The mystery (and gothic romance) are made more interesting being underpinned by issues about property, family, male/female roles and the presence of a wider world beyond the boundaries of the endless Ashley acres. Philip (and guardian Ambrose before him) are like little gods on their Cornish estate. Rachel is the troubling whisper of some of the forces that will knock those gods off their thrones ...
And finally, du Maurier's writing is gorgeous, throughout, and her great appreciation of the beauty of her home county shines through, but never feels like scenic padding. Just a random example:
"The glory of the day had gone, and it was colder. Clouds had come across the sky. In the distance I could see the cattle coming down from the Lankelly hills to water in the marshes under the woods, and beyond the marshes, in the bay, the sea had lost the sun and was slatey grey. A little wind blew shoreward, rustling the trees below me."