My Cousin Rachel: Daphne du Maurier’s take on the sinister power of sex

Julie Myerson in The Guardian:

UntitledAt first sight, the scene could not be more romantic. Philip Ashley, on the verge of coming into his inheritance, intends, in just a few hours, to tip the lot – vast Cornish estate, family jewels and his entire fortune – into the lap of his dead cousin’s widow Rachel, the older woman with whom he is besotted. He takes a euphoric late-night dip in the sea and strides back to the house where – though he does not know it yet – she is about to make him the happiest man alive. As he makes his way through the eerily moonlit woods and chooses the path which will lead him to his lover (and, it turns out, a lot more besides), an odour reaches his nostrils – a “rank vixen smell” which for a moment or two seems to stop him in his tracks.

Rank vixen smell.

I wonder if I even noticed these three brooding little words when I first read My Cousin Rachel as a teenager. Now though, rather like its protagonist, I am also stopped in my tracks. In fact, revisiting this fantastically well-wrought novel of suspicions and betrayals some four decades later – and watching Roger Michell’s startlingly honest new film, starring Rachel Weisz – they might as well be lit in blazing neon. I doubt there’s a phrase in the entire novel which better sums up what Daphne du Maurier is up to. In some ways it is an age-old story, albeit with a trademark Du Maurier twist: sexually inexperienced 25-year-old becomes infatuated with someone 10 years older. Having already lost his heart, he is then (very willingly) initiated into sex, assuming all the time that marriage, or at least everlasting love, is on the cards. But no, he wakes next morning – ecstatic and feeling that “everything in life was now resolved” – to discover that the object of his affections is cool and distant, acting as if nothing much has happened. Nothing new about this; it is after all a position in which women have found themselves for centuries. Only here Du Maurier artfully turns the tables, handing the power and control to the woman. The passionate tryst which Philip took to imply betrothal turns out, for his more experienced and worldly lover, to have been no more than friendship-with-benefits. And though My Cousin Rachel – written in 1951 when Du Maurier was, arguably, at the height of her confidence and powers – might appear to be a simple did-she-didn’t-she thriller about Cornish estates and poisonings, it is absolutely and inescapably a novel about sex. Most specifically female sexuality: its ambiguity, its mystery and its potentially fatal – as perceived by men – power.

More here.