The male gaze and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin Rachel is my third Daphne du Maurier, and the first I’ve read told from a masculine perspective. It’s told by Phillip Ashley, an orphan brought up by his older cousin Ambrose Ashley, as his heir. The narrator Phillip is older and looking back on events past knowing there is no altering them now. He opens his story by recounting a time that as a young boy he was goaded by Ambrose into throwing a rock at the hanging corpse of a man who was strung up for murdering his wife. As he recalls the episode, he ponders how to endure his life: “No one will ever guess the burden of blame a carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I still cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty? Maybe I shall learn that too, in purgatory.” We learn of Phillip’s intense desire as a young boy to be just like Ambrose. We read his thoughts that “The boy who stood under her window on his birthday eve, the boy who stood within the doorway of her room the evening that she came, he has gone, just as the child has gone who threw a stone at a dead man on a giblet to give himself false courage. Tom Jenkyn, battered specimen of humanity, unrecognisable and unlamented, did you, all those years ago, stare at me in pity as I went running down the woods into the future? Had I looked back at you, over my shoulder, I should not have seen you swinging in your chains but my own shadow.” And so the first chapter concludes, and in just a few pages du Maurier has foreshadowed the events of the novel and set an intensely gothic and dramatic tone.

Then the plot commences with Phillip as a young man in his twenties, who gets left behind at the estate as Ambrose leaves for Florence due to his poor health. Before long Phillip learns that Ambrose has married Phillip’s cousin Rachel, whom Phillip has never met, and he feels overcome with an intense jealousy and hatred. He imagines Rachel as a hundred different women, all completely detestable. Before long Phillip receives a worrying letter from Ambrose which indicates that he is unwell and expresses concerns about his doctors and suspicion of Rachel. Phillip leaves for Florence, but by the time he arrives Ambrose is dead and Rachel has left. He returns to Cornwall and eventually receives word that Rachel is coming and, believing her responsible for his cousin’s death, he intends to make her pay. But once she arrives he becomes completely obsessed and infatuated by her. But what are her motives? What happened in Florence? Is she Phillip’s evil seductress, or is she a victim? Is Phillip naive? Paranoid? A victim? Mentally ill? As Phillip indicates in the first chapter, the reader will never completely know the answer.

My Cousin Rachel is a novel of considerable technical skill. I think the most accurate analysis of Phillip’s character was given by Sally Beaumont in the novel’s introduction “Phillip Ashley is twenty-three, but old before his time, willingly imprisoned by the reactionary, chauvinistic, anti-intellectual and misogynistic beliefs of the older cousin-guardian he worships.” This aspect of the character and Phillip’s male gaze that both imprisons and obscures Rachel’s true character from the reader were the most interesting aspects of the novel for me. Beaumont described this aptly when she said “We see Rachel, and hear her speak yet she remains essentially unreadable, her features distorted by the male gaze of the possessive, jealous and infatuated man describing her. We can never see her because Phillip Ashley, blind to his own Oedipal impulses, obscures her – in which context, the semiotics of the possessive pronoun used in the title is not, one feels, accidental. As that “My” signals, an act of appropriation takes place in this narrative, one that denies Rachel autonomy. Forced to fit inside the fictive prison Phillip Ashley constructs around her, she cannot be herself; she has to be his belonging, his adjunct and chattel – and she is merely another item on a long privileged Ashley list: my house, my estate, my money, my family jewels… my cousin Rachel.”

All this takes place in the subtext of the novel, in the foreground the reader analyses whether Rachel is corruptive or pure. But who is really doing the poisoning? It seems the whole story is poisoned by Phillip’s point of view. And how much can the reader trust Phillip as a narrator anyway? He is, after all, no objective bystander. And so in a novel seemingly about a mysterious, dangerous woman and a naive boy, du Maurier explores the concept of male authority.

I think I preferred the My Cousin Rachel from an analytical perspective to the reading experience, partially because Phillip was so damn annoying and his voice permeates the novel. It was such an interesting read though and so different to Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. I think it’s the most interesting examination of male authority I have ever read in a fictional novel.

Other Reviews:

Lydia at The Literary Lollipop

13 responses

  1. I still haven’t read the du Maurier on my pile- oops. I really need to bump it up!

    1. You really should! I would start with Rebecca, and follow it up by watching the Hitchcock film adaptation, both the book and the film are brilliant!

  2. I read and reviewed this last month. I am in agreement with you completely. You can’t trust Phillip and he was very, very annoying. And, there were times when I thought he was just as manipulative (if not more than) as he accused Rachel of being. Also, I could not, for the life of me, understand his attraction to Rachel. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that he so wanted to be like Ambrose. So, if Ambrose could be seduced by Rachel, so could Phillip. Only, because he was such an unreliable narrator, the reader could never truly make a decision about his motivations and intentions.

    Great review. I’ll have to try Rebecca next.

    1. Oh he was so annoying! It’s funny how it was necessary for him to be like that and be the narrator to make the book work and be so interesting and yet it created such an argh! this guy is so annoying! reaction. He’s an interesting character because he’s very manipulative, yet at times comes across as infuriatingly nieve. The two character traits were an interesting combination.

  3. An examination of male authority? Now I want this more than ever. The more I read Du Maurier, the more I love her. And to think that before blogging I was guilty of dismissing her as a writer of romances on the trashy side :S

    1. I know I’m pretty addicted to her now too. :)
      I think you would find this one interesting.

    2. I know some people who still think that, even though they have never read a single book of hers! I’m reading “My Cousin Rachel” for the third time. The first time she was definitely guilty, the second time it was a case of, what on earth was I thinking. She’s innocent. This time, without a doubt she’s guilty. A brilliantly written book. I’ve read a lot of du Maurier’s work and without fail she delivers a brilliant story and so well written too. I’m glad you’ve discovered how great she is.

  4. Interesting review, Dominique! I haven’t read any of Daphne du Maurier’s works yet, but I have ‘Rebecca’ which one of my friends gifted to me. Hoping to read that soon.

    Philip does look like a very unreliable narrator. I really enjoyed reading the excerpts that you have given from the introduction.

    By the way, is it Sally Beaumont or Sally Beauman, who has written the introduction :) Because I remember seeing an edition of ‘Rebecca’ in the bookstore, where the introduction was by Sally Beauman. I was surprised at that time, because I read one of Sally Beauman’s book many years back called ‘Destiny’ when I was in school, but have never heard of her after that. I used to get up early in the morning or stay awake late at night to read that book because it was a chunkster at around 1000 pages – one of the first chunksters that I have ever read!

  5. [...] 1. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier. [...]

  6. Interesting reviews. I gave My Cousin Rachel to my wife because of the opening page. With the various comments posted here, now I HAVE to read it the whole thing. Is there anything more beautiful than a well-written, realistic, suspenseful book, novel or nonfiction?

  7. I just stumbled across this after writing my own review. Great look at how the male narrator distorts the novel – I was overwhelmed by the sense of masculine control when Philip gives Rachel his inheritance, which seems like a grand gift but is really a means of controlling her and trying to possess her. I especially appreciate the point about how we can’t ever really know Rachel because we only see what Philip shows up – so true, and the reason that it’s impossible to ever really know the truth. I did like it though – I could empathize with Philip to a certain extent even while despising him.

  8. This has been in my reading list since a long time…I am waiting for somebody to gift it to me ! Interesting review! :-P

  9. […] Opinions: Coffee-Stained Pages, bookgirl’s nightstand, Savidge Reads, Shelf Love, She Reads Novels, Book Chatter, The […]

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