They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.
Not any more, though. Now, when a murderer pays the penalty for his crime, he does so up at Bodmin, after fair trial at the Assizes. That is, if the law convicts him, before his own conscience kills him. It is better so. Like a surgical operation. And the body has decent burial, though a nameless grave. When I was a child it was otherwise. I can remember as a little lad seeing a fellow hang in chains where the four roads meet. His face and body were blackened with tar for preservation. He hung there for five weeks before they cut him down, and it was the fourth week that I saw him.
He swung between earth and sky upon his gibbet, or, as my cousin Ambrose told me, betwixt heaven and hell. Heaven he would never achieve, and the hell that he had known was lost to him. Ambrose prodded at the body with his stick. I can see it now, moving with the wind like a weather-vane on a rusty pivot, a poor scarecrow of what had been a man. The rain had rotted his breeches, if not his body, and strips of worsted drooped from his swollen limbs like pulpy paper.
It was winter, and some passing joker had placed a sprig of holly in the torn vest for celebration. Somehow, at seven years old, that seemed to me the final outrage, but I said nothing. Ambrose must have taken me there for a purpose, perhaps to test my nerve, to see if I would run away, or laugh, or cry. As my guardian, father, brother, counsellor, as in fact my whole world, he was forever testing me. We walked around the gibbet, I remember, with Ambrose prodding and poking with his stick; and then he paused and lit his pipe, and laid his hand upon my shoulder.
‘There you are, Philip,’ he said, ‘it’s what we all come to in the end. Some upon a battlefield, some in bed, others according to their destiny. There’s no escape. You can’t learn the lesson too young. But this is how a felon dies. A warning to you and me to lead the sober life.’ We stood there side by side, watching the body swing, as though we were on a jaunt to Bodmin fair, and the corpse was old Sally to be hit for coconuts. ‘See what a moment of passion can bring upon a fellow,’ said Ambrose. ‘Here is Tom Jenkyn, honest and dull, except when he drank too much. It’s true his wife was a scold, but that was no excuse to kill her. If we killed women for their tongues all men would be murderers.’
I wished he had not named the man. Up to that moment the body had been a dead thing, without identity. It would come into my dreams, lifeless and horrible, I knew that very well from the first instant I had set my eyes upon the gibbet. Now it would have connection with reality, and with the man with watery eyes who sold lobsters on the town quay. He used to stand by the steps in the summer months, his basket beside him, and he would set his live lobsters to crawl along the quay in a fantastic race, to make the children laugh. It was not so long ago that I had seen him.
‘Well,’ said Ambrose, watching my face, ‘what do you make of him?’
I shrugged my shoulders, and kicked the base of the gibbet with my foot. Ambrose must never know I cared, that I felt sick at heart, and terrified. He would despise me. Ambrose at twenty-seven was god of all creation, certainly god of my own narrow world, and the whole object of my life was to resemble him.
My Cousin Rachel opens with a lingering glimpse of a gibbet. Formative childhood experience is suffused with fear, even through the comparative safety of retrospect. The reader’s expectations are thus shrouded in death and dread: Du Maurier clearly adored Dickens’ Great Expectations! In both novels the sensitivity of a young narrator is corrupted by disturbed, ‘heartless’ adults. In Du Maurier’s dramatic opening, the ‘old days’ seem all too proximate; all too fervently described. Psychological contamination fascinates Du Maurier, as well as the duality of human beings. Du Maurier’s imagination was voracious, particularly around erotic need arising from repression. Physicality is always haunting: ‘rotting breeches’, and yet life’s absurdities are also darkly comic, ‘a sprig of holly’. We cannot escape the imprinting reality of the world evoked and neither can the young narrator who appears a pawn in Ambrose’s sinister game.
Du Maurier’s imagination anchors her first person narrator to grotesque death from the beginning, so that we know that the narrator’s destiny will be inextricably shrouded in horror. This insinuating horror structures both the extract and the novel. Criminality looms large in the life and imagination of Du Maurier’s narrator, just as with Pip in Great Expectations . This foreshadows the strange, contradictory relationship which forms the main interest of the My Cousin Rachel’s narrative: specifically the narrator’s relationship with Rachel herself, which also shares certain aspects with Estella’s treatment of Pip.
The opening fuses the visual with the psychological and this interfacing generates a sense of the uncanny which never leaves the narrative. The young narrator trusts the choices made by his mentor Ambrose and such trust we feel is dangerously gifted. Even from the beginning, we are ambivalent about Ambrose’s goodness. The apparent benevolence of the ‘pipe’ is at once at war with the nearly sexual callousness of the ‘prodding stick.’ We sense Ambrose enjoys his power over the narrator. He may be exploitative. He wants to make his charge spectate upon something awful so he, Ambrose, can watch. From this opening we find such behaviour voyeuristic, and inappropriate. Ambrose’s curiosity is far from innocent. He seems decadent, toying with his charge, playing at being a guardian, yet all too aware of darker arts.
Sexuality is thus enmeshed with abjection from the opening. Emotional growth is tampered with from the ‘primal scene’ of My Cousin Rachel (as with Dickens), so the reader can expect the narrator’s evolution to be awkward!
Yet Ambrose is a ‘god’ to the young narrator and as such inspires adoration and acquiescence. Ambrose feeds his young charge with unnecessarily disturbing experiences and these affect the narrator’s ability to discriminate between one experience and another. Is the narrator a ‘toy’ or experiment to Ambrose? And where are the female figures in this opening? Nurture is absent. Masculinity here is brutal and unforgiving. Every image has phallic undertones. Women are scolds. Murder is understandable though outside of the law( almost regrettably to Ambrose).
The desire to ‘resemble Ambrose’ seems mentally unhealthy and ill fated. It is also psychologically ironic. The infatuated, obsessive nature of the narrator’s love for Ambrose becomes displaced onto Cousin Rachel, with desperate, morally destructive consequences. Just as in Dickens’ Great Expectations, Du Maurier’s novel explores the question whether we are truly ‘authors’ of our own lives, or whether others hijack our destinies, even from beyond the grave( see Rebecca too!)
Riveting writing. As much about getting things wrong as right. Probably why it’s such a compelling novel to read.
The Woman in Black
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