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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