They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.
As a festival steward, you often get some spare time between events to go to talks and explore authors/genres you wouldn’t normally come into contact with. Now I don’t really read biographies, I tend to stick with fiction generally, but there was something so utterly compelling about Jane Dunn and the subject matter of her latest book that led me to discover more of du Maurier.
Now I simultaneously hold my hands up and hang my head in shame that despite being a huge fan of Rebecca it was also the only Daphne du Maurier I had read. So in response to Jane Dunn and her talk on the lives of the du Maurier sisters, I looked through my family bookshelves in the hope of rectifying my Daphne-ignorance and quickly came across My Cousin Rachel.
In My Cousin Rachel du Maurier builds up a feeling of the sinister and its accompanying claustrophobia to create impending tension, reflective of her style in Rebecca. She plays effortlessly with concepts of naivety, infatuation and manipulation and by choosing to narrate her novel in the first person, the audience is given a closed, biased (and ever-changing) view of events which makes the concept of truth unstable. Daphne at her best!
The young Philip Ashley’s narrative voice becomes more malleable by his encounters with his auntie-in-law (and cousin) Rachel and this use of unreliable narration reminded me strongly of another favourite Gothic novel – Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. With emotion and opinion towards other characters constantly evolving, the feeling of certainty is completely absent from the novel. Set in du Maurier’s favourite Cornwall, the atmosphere is comparable to being on a cliff in dense fog – you never quite know where the edge is or even if you want to know!
The intricacies of suspicion fuel the narrative and du Maurier enhances this with her intensely atmospheric settings, switching from serene Cornwall to the beauty of Florence and back again. The psychological game being played throughout the novel is subtle and masterfully laid out, resulting in a haunting finale that will remain with you long after the pages have been shut.
(I would also like to say a BIG thank you to Jane Dunn for reigniting my love of DdM – I can’t wait to get my hands on her book Daphne du Maurier and her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Puffy, Bird and Bing – based on her talk it sounds like the du Maurier sisters had quite a life!)