Roger Michell’s new film My Cousin Rachel – starring Rachel Weisz in the title role and Sam Claflin as Philip, the young man torn between falling for her seductive charms and suspecting her of evil deeds – is notably faithful to Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel of the same name. Even so, and despite excellent performances, striking cinematography and historical accuracy, I still found myself somewhat disappointed.
This take on sexual allure is tinged with a frisson of danger and threat
Missing is the menace of the original, and I use this word thoughtfully. “The Menace,” du Maurier explains in her short story of the same title, “in movie language, and especially among women, means a heart-throb, a lover, someone with wide shoulders and no hips.” It’s a term that, for her, referred to sexual attraction – “being ‘menaced,’” du Maurier’s biographer Margaret Forster explains, “was being attracted by another person.” This take on sexual allure, as something tinged with a frisson of danger and threat, lies at the heart of Philip’s attraction to Rachel: evidence suggests Rachel murdered her husband Ambrose, Philip’s beloved uncle. Are his suspicions justified? Is she guilty or innocent? The reader, like Philip, is never quite sure.
Du Maurier excelled at evoking a sense of menace. Darkness comes to the fore in her macabre and chilling short stories, but also twists through each of her novels. However, all too often she’s dismissed as a writer of benign historical romances. Michell’s struggle to capture the terror embedded in My Cousin Rachel – and his inability to reach beyond the obvious period drama angle – is indicative of a widespread misreading of du Maurier’s work. As the film critic David Thomson acknowledges, “the romance often veers towards something more like horror” – though the latter element is all too often overlooked.
A prolific writer, du Maurier’s career spanned from the beginning of the 1930s to her death, at the age of 81, in 1989. As well as novels – 16 in total – she also wrote short stories, plays, biographies, a memoir, and books about her beloved Cornwall, where she made her home for many years and where many of her books are set.
Unfortunately, much of her work remains under-appreciated. Many will recognise du Maurier as the author of Rebecca – the unsettling psychological thriller narrated by an unnamed young woman who, after her marriage to the older, wealthy Maxim de Winter, finds herself living under the suffocating shadow cast by his beautiful, dead wife.
Du Maurier’s historical romances Frenchman’s Creek and Jamaica Inn might also ring a bell – swashbuckling tales of adventures at sea with pirates, and smuggling on the Cornish moors. But how many people, I wonder, know that du Maurier also dabbled in sci-fi?
Time travel, via means of a scientist’s strange “bio-physical” research, plays a central role in her 1969 novel The House on the Strand; the horrors of medical experimentation also appear in her short stories The Blue Lenses and The Breakthrough. In the former a woman wakes from eye surgery to discover every human she now sees has the head of an animal, while in the latter attempts are made to harness the soul of a dying boy.
Even The Menace features futuristic technology in the form of a new type of cinema experience called “the feelies”, which projects the actors’ sex appeal directly into the viewer – it’s a concept also found in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
In 1972 she wrote a speculative fiction novel that sort of predicted Brexit
Perhaps even less well known is the fact that back in 1972, du Maurier wrote a speculative fiction novel that, in a way, predicted Brexit. Rule Britannia is set in a UK that’s joined, and then (following a referendum) leaves the Common Market (the EU’s predecessor, which Britain actually joined the following year in 1973). The ensuing chaos – rising prices and high unemployment which leads to social unrest, combined with a breakdown of relations with Europe – resulting in the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency. In sweeps the US, in the form of “friendly” invading Marines landing on the beaches of Cornwall, and a new superpower, known as USUK, is formed; the Cornish people, however, rise up in resistance.
In the shadows
Du Maurier’s most famous works are probably two of her short stories – however, you’re more likely to recognise their film adaptations. The first is Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic The Birds, in which flocks of birds lay terrifying siege to the inhabitants of northern California.
The second is Nicolas Roeg’s cult horror movie Don’t Look Now, a creepy, supernatural tale about a married couple grieving the death of their daughter that’s set in Venice, famous in part for a notoriously graphic sex scene between the film’s leads, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland.
Unless you know her work well, it’s easy to miss the connection between these two chilling tales and the historical romances for which she somehow remains best known, something du Maurier herself lamented: “My novels are what is known as popular and sell very well, but I am not a critic’s favourite, indeed I am generally dismissed with a sneer as a bestseller and not reviewed at all.”
Rebecca was a bestseller upon publication in 1938 but the Times Literary Supplement’s reviewer derided it as “a lowbrow story with a middlebrow finish” and romantic “dope.” A quarter of a century later, an article in the same publication finally admitted that, as well as being “immensely popular,” du Maurier’s fiction also “provides great literary interest;” her “demonic heroes” – those “menaces” – continuing a rich English literary tradition that can be traced all the way back to Milton’s Satan. It placed at number 14 in the BBC Big Read poll to determine the “nation’s best loved novel” in 2003.
An article in the Spectator in the same year of the TLS reappraisal, 1962, made what I think is the first connection between Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece and du Maurier’s own, describing Rebecca as “a Cornish Gothic resetting of Jane Eyre.” It’s a comparison that, in more recent years, has seen Rebecca finally claimed by the literary establishment, thus metamorphosing a novel once blurbed as the “world-famous bestseller of love and suspense” into a key 20th-Century feminist gothic text: Brontë’s madwoman in the attic transformed into Rebecca’s ghostly presence, each woman a dirty little secret their husbands have to take care of, one way or another.
Given her sexually charged take on the Gothic, it’s easy to see why Hitchcock would have been drawn to du Maurier’s work. As well as The Birds, he directed adaptations of Jamaica Inn (1939) and Rebecca (1940) – not that du Maurier herself was universally pleased with the results. While she apparently liked his take on Rebecca, according to Forster she “hated” The Birds, “and couldn’t understand why Hitchcock had so distorted her story”. When asked by Francois Truffaut how many times he’d read the original while working on his screenplay, Hitchcock admitted it was only the once. “If I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema,” he explained. She was, however, more admiring of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, writing to the director that he had “succeeded admirably”, praising him for actually adding “more depth to unconscious thoughts that might have been my own!” It’s in the unconscious, of course, that du Maurier’s horror takes root. As Thomson so accurately describes the source of her talent, she “could take ordinary nervousness and build it into…dread.”
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