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Innocent or Guilty: An unanswerable question in “My Cousin Rachel”

For those who enjoy the gothic literary style, murder mysteries or historical fiction, “My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne Du Maurier is an intriguing read. It is a book that proficiently combines these three genres.

The objective of gothic literature is to evoke a sense of something chilling just beneath the surface – a palpable feeling of unease that the reader cannot quite define but nonetheless knows is there. Novels that have been written in the gothic style encompass a variety of literary conventions: nature being life-like, settings such as decayed homes or castles, romance that is intertwined with horror or something claustrophobic about the atmosphere in general that keeps the reader on edge.

Notable novels exemplifying this style include those from the Victorian period such as Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Dracula. My Cousin Rachel makes use of these literary designs. It is eerily beautiful and its imagery navigates us through the secluded Cornwall and stifling Florence.

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The plot revolves around a character named Phillip and his relationship with a lady called Rachel. Philip grows up with an English gentleman called Ambrose (his older guardian) in Cornwall. Later, Ambrose decides to move to Florence due to a bad reaction from the weather in England. He writes letters to his dear son, eventually informing him that he has married an Italian lady named Rachel – a distant relative with a questionable background with whom he has fallen in love.

Having come to terms with this, Phillip becomes alarmed by the dangerous tone that Ambrose’s letters now adopt, which refer to Rachel as his “torment,” and speak of how he has become extremely ill. When Phillip arrives in Florence, Ambrose has passed away, and he starts to hate Rachel being convinced that she killed him. After meeting with her “advisor”, an Italian man who looks after her interests, he is informed that Rachel was left with no money in his cousin’s final will and that she has left the country.

 

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To Phillip’s alarm Rachel arrives in England. Phillip is determined to continue hating her yet reluctantly accepts that the widow should be homed for a few days. His rage against Rachel dissipates slowly as she appears to be the opposite of what he had imagined the “murderess” to be; and is gradually replaced by infatuation with this mysterious woman, so much that he burns the alarming letters his cousin wrote.

Will Phillip share the fate of his guardian? Is Rachel guilty, or is she an innocent victim of unfortunate life circumstances.  The author does not make judgement on these matters; she leaves it to the reader to decide.

 

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A modern film adaptation of the book is currently being made second to the original of 1952, with Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin playing the lead roles. Although it may not shed light on the accountability of the central character – which is probably not necessary – it will surely illuminate the themes of infatuation/obsession and self destruction.

Credit: Nicola Dove

Credit: Nicola Dove

 

 

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About Judith Brown

I did an MA in English literature at Kings College London where I wrote a dissertation on representations of characters with learning difficulties. I am very imaginative and write on a range of topics. I like to read, listen to music and draw.

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