Book review: Daphne Du Maurier

This month I will be reviewing two classical books by Daphne Du Maurier. My Cousin Rachel and Rebecca


In many ways these two books are very similar to one another:-

An Innocent narrator

In my cousin Rachel the story is told from the point of view of the young and innocent Philip Ashley. A young man who admits who knows nothing of the world beyond his time in Cambridge and an emotional visit to Europe (both of which he hated and longed to return to his home). Virginal, with little knowledge of woman, due to growing up in a male only household. The fact that Ashley is so young is emphasised throughout the novel, in fact it is one of the plot lines -that he can not inherit until his 25 birthday-being seen as too inexperienced to make good decision until this age.

In Rebecca we are never given the name of the young female narrator (she is unworthy of a name in comparison to the all powerful Rebecca).  Like Philip she too is an orphan and her childhood is spent being raised by her school. As an young adult she takes the job as companion to a vulgar woman (who is often embarrassingly mistake as her mother). The lack of a normal and strong family makes the narrator of both books easy victims for the stronger more worldly and complicated characters in the books. In Rebecca the second Mrs De Winters young age is also often emphasised throughout the book, with her husband and others commenting how she is young enough to be her husbands daughter. Also despite the fact Mrs De Winter has travelled she too has gained no knowledge of the world and the human race, due to her crippling shyness.

I find the problem with these two characters is they are difficult to believe or even like them. The virgin Philip who shows no interest in sex (other then with the woman he wishes to marry) and as a modern reader I often see him as a wet blanket. No spunk or spirt he longs to be home when traveling the world and looks down on his fun loving Cambridge students. Loving only his home and land he is so boring and I can easily see why the worldly fun loving Rachel would be frustrated by him. He is possessive in his love for her, wanting to cage her in his home with no visitors and is fiercely jalousie of any man who shows any interest in her, even claiming the reason he tries to strangle her is to scare her into staying with him-this is not a hero!

The same is true of the second Mrs De Winter. Throughout most of the novel I wanted to slap her. She lets herself be bullied by Mrs Danvers, is incapably of running a home, runs away when she is suppose to meet Bea and Giles, is constantly on the cusp of nearly fainting throughout the novel, she lacks so little self love she is nearly talked into killing herself! She finally only gets some confidence when she finds out her husband never loved his first wife and therefore really loves her (happily overlooking the fact he killed his first wife!)

The title ‘BAD’ woman

In Rebecca, Rebecca is Mr De Winters first wife. In life she was beautiful, talented, knowledgeable and loved by all. A great sports woman she rode and sailed and played golf. She had an eye for art and furniture and furnished the house and landscaped the grounds to perfection. She was organised and gave wonderful parties as well as running an gorgeous home. However she dies in mysterious circumstances and her spirt haunts her husband, her maid and the new Mrs De Winter. However towards the end of the novel we find out she was manipulative, mean and sex mad, going so far as to have her first cousin as her long term lover. Her husband also says she confesses to him a string of other unspeakable things as well, including trying to seduce every man she met, partying at her London flat and probably getting drunk and high.

In My cousin Rachel, Rachel is a distant cousin of Ambrose Ashley (Philips uncle and guardian). Rachal lives in Italy and meets Ambrose when he come to visit Italy for his health. While there he falls in love with her and marries her. Less then two years later he has died of a supposed brain tumour and Rachal come to see Philip in England ‘apparently’ to see the house and people her dead husband loved. However her motives are never clear and she is misunderstood and ‘possibly’ miss-judged throughout. Seen in her worst light she was raised by greedy lustful parents who passed on there vices to their daughter, as an adult she uses her beauty and lust to marry a local count, during her married life she flirts and takes on many lovers. When her first husband dies in a duel fought over her, she struggles financially seeking help from her rich and powerful friends, selling everything she can until she seduces Ambrose-a man who has no knowledge of her past or true character. Once married she quickly starts poisoning him hoping to inherit all his wealth and land. However when he dies before signing his will she comes to England to play the same game on Philip, seducing him and manipulating him with ease.

Again the difficulty with these two characters is reading them with a modern mind. Daphne Du Maurier wrote these novels in the 30s and 50s and set Rebecca in the 30s and My Cousin Rachel in 1800s. At the time these women would have been seen as loose and shocking with the second Mrs De Winter and Louise seen as better examples of femininity-soft, sweet and innocent, happy to be loved like a best friend of favourite pet dog, with no sexual impulse. But as a modern reader it is hard not to like or at least sympathise with the title women in these novel. They are interesting, fierce saviours, in a time when they were told not to be and if nothing else are really fun to read about.

An important house and garden

Throughout both books the house and gardens are seen as being very important and there location and surroundings help run the plotline. In My Cousin Rachel, at the beginning of the novel Philip says he never needs the love of a wife as he loves his house and home just as much as he could love any woman. After he has sex with Rachel she reminds him of this statement and laughs at how anyone could think of loving a house like a woman. While in the first chapter of Rebecca the second Mrs De Winter laments of how they can never go back to there home, like they have been kicked out of paradise. In fact Mr De Winter is mainly known by his beautiful home Manderley and puts up with his awful wife as she gives him a beautiful home.

However both homes are also seen as dark and old, with the second Mrs De Winter seeing it as a nightmare in the opening scene, and Rebecca being murdered there, haunting the house and land throughout. While Ashley buries Ambrose letter in his woods and also kills Rachel using his knowledge of the land.

Nature is also given a lot of description in the novel, with Ambrose and Rachel being keen gardeners and knowledge of all plants and seeds (with Rachel using this knowledge to possibly poison both Ashley’s). While in Rebecca the overpopulation of flowers is often compared to suffocating of senses in sight and smells, the scary dark enclosing drive to the house and the dark brooding dangerous coastline where Rebecca’s body is found.

Justified/Sympathetic Murderers

Rebecca is killed by Max and from the description of the circumstances leading up to her death we are suppose to believe that Rebecca wanted Max to kill her. She had been diagnosed with a deadly disease and instead of dying a long and painful death she goaded Max into killing her quickly, so that she would not have to face the long, painful and degrading ending, but also as a final act of evil, hoping he would be convicted of her murder. However before the reader is even given this fact we are suppose to still feel he was justified in killing her. That because she had lied her way into marriage, she was unfaithful wife and was blackmailing him into staying married to her (otherwise she would tell the world what she was really like and he could not handle the shame) he was therefore a victim of a evil and bullying wife and was justified in killing her. The fact he felt incredible guilt and is haunted by his actions also shows he was a good man and is justly punished in life (if not in court) by being haunted by his actions and his eventual loss of Manderley.

Rachel is killed by Philip and similarly we as the reader are suppose to feel some sympathy for him. Again we are suppose to believe he has been justly driven to it. That Rachel was trying to kill him through slowly poisoning him, that through her manipulation she had took his land and money and that she was going to make them go broke and his tenants would loose there livelihood and property. Like Max he also killed his woman in a way so as to make it look like an accident, so that he will not go to prison, but that he will also be haunted by his actions for the rest of his life as he will not know for certain if she was bad or if his jealousy and mistrust had made him believe she was bad or if it was a possible brain tumour-the same as what killed his uncle and his father.






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