Love; it’s one of those high-frequency words that are commonplace in modern culture but one can’t help but wonder if we, the progressive generation, have forgotten the depth of emotion, intimacy and true individuality that lies behind this word. For example, when I speak of my love of doughnuts, it does not conjure up images of mystery, complication, lies, deceit … lust – simply that I enjoy carbs too much. In this world, where everyone loves everything, loving becomes a shallow pleasure; one which is standardised, commercialised and intensely public. My Cousin Rachel is a window into the past; a time when love came into direct conflict with duty, status and was dulled by unromantic ideas of money, infidelity and illness. A secret and shameful kind of love doomed to be confined within the thick walls of country houses and locked away in the minds of repressed aristocratic men held back by pride.
This cautionary tale begins with a young aristocrat, raised by his elder cousin, the confirmed bachelor, Ambrose. Old and prone to sickness, Ambrose takes to the continent to escape the brutal Cornish winter, reluctantly leaving young Phillip behind. Away in Italy, Ambrose meets Rachel. A distant cousin and a widow of an Italian count, they marry. Just months later, Ambrose is dead. Sick with worry and suspicion over his distant cousin, Phillip invites her to England. So begins a complicated love triangle; the living heir and the dead husband. The constant insecurity of the woman-averse Phillip and the gentle manipulative ways of the wise Cousin illustrate the inevitable vulnerability which loves bestows upon us all. Trapped in their twisted enclave of desire, we are able to witness the steep escalation of the plot from romance to death. Du Maurier takes a bleak view of love; the novel itself acting as a clear metaphor for the destructiveness of it all. A clear testament to the fact that loves gives everyone the power to destroy another – spiritually, intellectually and physically.
A master at her craft, Du Maurier has a talent for exposing the raw significance of the everyday. Each encounter, expression, movement, even the chime of a clock or bell tower, holds intense connotations for those that see or hear them. Her focus on the interactionist nature of human communication builds up a whole new world, governed not by science, fact or even any degree of logic, but governed instead by thoughts, feelings, values and social graces. She has been able to deconstruct and examine our social dynamics and our socially constructed ideas of love and manipulate them to the fullest extent in order to create a harrowing tale to which we can relate but which simultaneously has the capacity to shock us to our very core.
Du Maurier makes it painfully clear that love is not one single ideal into which we all subscribe and participate. My Cousin Rachel is one man’s painful soliloquy which exposes us to the broad spectrum of human emotion and its inevitable fragility and susceptibility to manipulation. In his eyes, love is a lot more than passion or feeling – it is a way of life. The indescribable sensation created by the company, personality, and manner of another. The pleasure of defying one’s own station, friends, colleagues, and morals. In this sense, Du Maurier contrasts the revolution that love can trigger with its transience. In life and death, love is fleeting and imperfect … and often we are left alone – Perhaps for the better.
Words by Joe Lewin