The English curriculum was a priggish collection of Hector Hugh Munro, Oscar Wilde, William Wordsworth. But the library of the convent school I attended in New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri was remarkably well-stocked with historical romances more extravagant in plot and prose than their modern, pedestrian counterpart, the Mills and Boon series.

There was Georgette Heyer, with her fare of Regency love affairs: Capricious heiresses in silk and taffeta courted by frock-coated and sideburned suitors with an inheritance. There was Eleanor Alice Hibbert, whose gothic romances were written under the nom de plume Victoria Holt, who also vied for the attention of fifteen-year-old girls whose days passed in the unjuicy tedium of classes, tuition, and examinations.

Their books were racier imitations of Jane Austen. For they were crafty and wise in the ways of men and women, these authors, who lived and worked in the early years of the twentieth century, and recreated an Austenian era with the type of sexual undercurrents (and delightfully furtive kissing) that Austen would have disapproved of.

Discovering Daphne

It was while searching these shelves for Holt’s The Pride of the Peacock or The Shivering Sands that I chanced upon Daphne du Maurier. The well-worn cover of Rebecca, du Maurier’s 1938 bestseller, drew my attention simply because it lay a little apart from the hotchpotch of romances and detective mysteries, as though the book had been recently pulled out of its assigned place on the shelf.

The beguiling title, which hinted at blistering love, prompted me to borrow the book. I had spent many weekends unravelling the perplexities of differential calculus with my Maths tutor, for I was preparing in earnest for the impending class ten CBSE board exams. My nerves were frazzled; Calculus was a curious jumble of numbers and symbols in my head, and a flighty heroine in lovely gowns was just the distraction I needed to approach Maths, refreshed.

Reading Rebecca was a turning point. Mousy and unnamed, the second Mrs de Winter was an unlikely heroine. And, there was an irresistible dead woman in the novel. That the dead could make their presence felt as compelling characters and not apparitions, was fascinatingly new. Who was this Daphne du Maurier? She was quite unlike Heyer or Holt. I wanted to know all her heroines.

Meeting Rachel

I went back to the school library for more of du Maurier; the shelves revealed Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, and My Cousin Rachel. I’m not sure why I picked My Cousin Rachel – perhaps I was drawn to feminine titles. Having just read Rebecca, I was expecting more beautiful dead people, more escapades at sea, more of the macabre.

Since that first, excited reading of My Cousin Rachel several years ago, I have returned to this narrative of infatuation, of yearning, of thwarted passions many times, and more frequently than I have sought my favourite passages in Rebecca. My schoolgirl experience of My Cousin Rachel, a book first published in 1951, and my first reaction to Rachel, was very similar to that of Philip Ashley, the twenty-five-year-old lovesick narrator. Before meeting her, he imagines her as either large and shrewish, or sickly and petulant:

“One moment middle-aged and forceful, the next simpering and younger than Louise, my cousin Rachel had a dozen personalities or more and each one more hateful than the last.”

I colluded with Philip in hating her, for marrying Ambrose, his older cousin and the man who has brought him up on their vast Cornish estate. Like Philip, I suspected Rachel of murder, when Ambrose dies of a mysterious illness in Florence. His letters to Philip, and in particular, the final one before his death, confirm that Rachel is a middle-aged, conniving vixen:

“For god’s sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay, it may be too late. Ambrose.”

Is this revenge?

Rachel my torment. Like Philip, I hadn’t met her yet, but had decided that his story, and the book’s purpose was one of grand revenge. When Philip first encounters her, she is sitting on a window seat with her back turned towards him. She is dressed in black, and cuts a fine figure in her mourning gown; Philip notices her lace-fringed neck and wrists. “My first feeling was one of shock, almost of stupefaction, that she should be so small. She barely reached my shoulder.”

I too, shared Philip’s bewilderment; I was thrilled when both Rachel and he spoke at once, and when their early fumbling turns to repartee charged with what convent-school girls called “sweet chemistry”, I was in a swoon, much like wide-eyed Philip. But this is no archetype romantic heroine – she is a dark foreigner of mixed blood; her mother was Italian, while her father, the English Alexander Coryn, “was one of those men who find it difficult to settle anywhere”. He moved to Rome but died when she was sixteen.

She has been married more than once – when she meets Ambrose, she is the widow of one Cosimo Sangalletti, who has been killed in a duel. Nothing about her is certain; she is known to act on impulse, and is an extravagant spender even though she has debts to clear. I remember feeling alarmed when Philip, crazy, smitten Philip, withdraws all the family jewels from the vault in the bank on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday, and makes a gift of them to her (he makes a gift of the family estate too).

My Cousin Rachel

Rereading Rachel

In the foreword to the 2017 edition of My Cousin Rachel, Roger Michell, director and screenwriter of the film that was released in the same year, mentions this lack of surety, this ambiguity that shrouds Rachel like the gossamer veil that covers her face:

“Is Rachel bad or good? Innocent or guilty, carnal or ‘pure’? Or does the truth lie somewhere else? Is she an anachronism, full of life, possessed of sound mind and spirit, enjoying her sexuality as and where and with whomsoever she might wish, a woman in a man’s world, determined to escape from the limitations of both the period when the book is ostensibly set and those of when it was written?”

Rachel my torment. Rereading the book in the years spent outside the convent school, as “a woman in a man’s world”, I was convinced that my schoolgirl fascination with My Cousin Rachel had been for all the wrong reasons. This wasn’t a romantic novel about a torrid affair with the widow of one’s cousin. This wasn’t the tale of a younger man’s obsessive love for an older woman, which ends in tragedy. In fact, this wasn’t a love story at all. Or even a thriller about poisoning by laburnum seeds.

For, isn’t Philip Ashley an entitled misogynist threatened by Rachel’s presence in his house, a nineteenth-century (approximately) bachelor pad? Isn’t he boorish in her company, returning her quick wit with dull observations, or petulance and shyness: “I looked away. I had smiled at her once, I was damned if I would smile at her again.” Doesn’t he try to buy her love and fidelity with expensive presents?

And isn’t Rachel dispossessed of family, of property, of reputation? Isn’t she tender and attentive to first Ambrose, nursing him through his illness till he dies, and then to Philip, never leaving his side through five weeks of what is presumably meningitis? Hasn’t she known the cruelty and tyranny of men?

Julie Myerson’s 2017 article in The Guardian, revisits the novel and juxtaposes it with Michelle’s film adaptation. She mentions “three brooding little words” from the book that she hadn’t noticed, when she first read it as a teenager, words that appear with such potent force now, “...they might as well be lit in blazing neon.” These words are: “rank vixen smell”.

While Rachel’s rank vixen smell does permeate the Cornish countryside, whether she is as maleficent as Philip, and before him, Ambrose imagine her to be, will always remain hauntingly vague. It is believed that du Maurier, who was bisexual, modelled Rachel after Ellen Doubleday, the wife of her American publisher. Fittingly then, a different set of three words suggests itself, as a tribute, not only to du Maurier’s craft, but to her many passionate loves:

Rachel my torment.