Sunday, 9 November 2008

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you're jealous...



Here's today's Bibliotherapy column. I've also posted a picture taken this summer, of me by the lake at Menabilly, the setting for 'My Cousin Rachel'. Can't believe that was only a few months ago, and I was wearing sandals, though of course, a dark and stormy November evening like this one would be even better as the backdrop for a du Maurier story. (I was, as it happens, feeling rather unsettled when this photograph was taken; but that's another story...)



Everyone knows to beware the green-eyed monster that doth make you sick, but it’s easier said than done, when you are eaten up inside with jealousy. I know – I’ve been there myself, reeling and writhing and troubled of heart – but the best remedy, in my experience, is to re-read Daphne du Maurier’s ‘My Cousin Rachel’, which is a like-for-like cure.

As with her most famous book, ‘Rebecca’, du Maurier sets the story in own home, Menabilly, the Cornish mansion that she called her ‘house of secrets’. Both novels also have a jealous narrator, but ‘My Cousin Rachel’ – first published in 1951, 13 years after ‘Rebecca’ – is seen through the eyes of a man. Anyone expecting the romance that du Maurier is often – wrongly – accused of delivering will be startled by the opening: a decaying corpse of a wife-killer swings from the gallows near the gate to Menabilly. And murder continues to preoccupy the narrator, Philip Ashley, the heir to the estate, whose older cousin and guardian has married their distant cousin Rachel.

I don’t want to give the plot away – it’s a fiendishly clever novel, with an ending that continues to haunt and trouble its readers. But what is made clear is that jealousy is poisonous; a truth that du Maurier knew only too well. By the time she wrote ‘My Cousin Rachel’, she had been married to her husband, Lieutenant General Frederick Browning, for two decades, and with their three beautiful children, they presented a perfect fa├žade to the world. But neither had been faithful, and both were tortured by suspicions about the other’s infidelity. Daphne had had a wartime affair with another man, while her husband was serving abroad, and also an intense relationship with Gertrude Lawrence, an actress who had been one of her father’s lovers. All of which was mixed up into a venomous stew of emotions that later contributed to Browning’s breakdown, and tipped her over the edge into paranoia and delusions. Such was her consummate skill as a writer that out of the chaotic mess of jealousy came a novel that still cuts like a knife, with its sharp warning that this way, madness lies…

8 comments:

oxford-reader said...

I loved this when I read it for book club a few months ago - although it divided the group straight down the middle.
The point of view it's written from is wonderful, because it's so young a persepctive.
And you're right about reading it on a dark and windy night - tonight would be a very atmospheric evening to start on that haunting opening ...

Justine Picardie said...

I think readers are often divided about the ending; is Rachel innocent or evil; victim or villain?

oxford-reader said...

Personally I think she is a manipulative victim, but because we only ever see it from Philip's perspective, it's a really shady area to work out, and I'm not sure I've worked it out after one reading.

Justine Picardie said...

I still can't make my mind up -- it changes each time I read it, which is perhaps a mark of how du Maurier whips the ground from beneath her reader's feet.

Moannie said...

There is something so very 'English' in Du Maurier's writing that I love, especially when abroad.

I wonder if my mother had any idea that the name she gave me would be given to dogs, I know of at least two, well three with yours, many many cats and even, I heard recently, a cow. Ah well, i'm in good company.

Justine Picardie said...

Excellent company! If I'd had a daughter, I'd have called her Molly, but I have two sons, so the name had to go to the dog...

Primrose said...

I loved this book when I read it so many years ago and now this post has made me yearn for it again. Thank you, Justine. It's nearly the witching hour in Sydney but your Blog is always so fascinating that you keep me awake when I come on! I should have long been in bed. Goodnight!

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