We are not sure who is actually poisoning whom in the text and the possible toxicity of the point of view gives her no chance to speak for herself. She is always seen through the eyes of the speaker. Is she bad , mad or just very dangerous to know? Or is she trapped in a world governed by male figures bent upon ownership and sexual government.
It is deeply unsettling because we cannot decide who is to blame for the novel’s tragic conclusion, and our lingering uncertainty provides much of the pleasure of the book and its aftermath. Our uncertainty is to a large extent dependent upon the method of narration deployed by Du Maurier. She uses a first person narrator whose viewpoint dominates everything, yet who shrouds the world in such jealous doubt and even perhaps feverish mental imbalance that we have to keep reassessing the narrative as to its truth.
Unlike Du Maurier’s most famous novel Rebecca, where we only ever hear about the ‘Rebecca’ of the novel’s title because she is dead, we do get to see the femme fatale of the My Cousin Rachel. In fact we actually hear her voice and see her move, albeit through the eyes of young Philip Ambrose a narrator whose reliability we do come to question, as the narrative becomes more and more obsessive and possibly insane.
My Cousin Rachel explores the passionate attraction of Philip Ambrose for his ‘Cousin Rachel’ , an attraction that leads to murder and is heavily mixed up with jealousy and revenge. The novel keeps the reader guessing as to the location of ‘truth’ and the deliberately imprecise historical and chronological setting adds to the intensity of the twists and turns of this sexually charged narrative.
Interestingly Philip’s attraction to Rachel, repeats his guardian’s infatuation with the same woman, and this use of mirroring provides much of the novel’s psychological power as well as its disturbance. The brilliance of the chosen viewpoint is that we cannot be sure of anything. We begin the novel accompanying the young narrator’s thoughts, supporting his anxieties and sharing his terrible suspicions that Rachel has poisoned Philip’s beloved guardian, Ambrose in Italy, after an initial period of erotically charged happiness.Yet as we read further and further into the novel our trust becomes more tense and the economic excesses of Philip seem less indications of generosity and more signs of sexual consumerism; ‘Rachel’ is thus a very desirable commodity strangely ‘exchanged’ between all the male protagonists in the text.
The Ambrose pair too share a relationship that does not quite seem that of father and son and this too generates a creeping anxiety as we suspect that Philip’s adoration of his guardian may disguise even from himself, unresolved romantic longing and sexual ambiguity. If this is so, then Philip’s repression of his real feelings for his guardian may add to the distortion of truth in the novel and fuel his misshapen anxieties over Ambrose’s sudden death. Why after all did Ambrose take off for Florence with the excuse of ill health, knowing that Philip would pine in such a marked way?
Second part to Follow.
Carol Ann Duffy 15 ideas!
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