Sunday, April 18, 2021

Daphne du Maurier: My Cousin Rachel

Daphne du Maurier in 1931. Image source: The Telegraph

All books seem better when I'm not supposed to be reading them. I never should read Daphne du Maurier, but I regularly do.
—Nina Auerbach [1]

Auerbach's joke that she "never should" read Daphne du Maurier is only a slight exaggeration. Certainly at the time her critical study was published (2000) Du Maurier was still not considered a major writer by many critics and literary gatekeepers. None of her books appear on The Telegraph's 100 greatest novels of all time, the BBC's 100 greatest British novels, The Guardian's 100 best novels written in English, or the Modern Library's 100 best novels. Even writers who might appear to be sympathetic to her work overlook her: she does not appear on horror-novel enthusiast Jane Smiley's list of "A Hundred Novels" (in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, Knopf, 2005), or on crime-fiction fan Wendy Lesser's list of "A Hundred Books to Read for Pleasure" (in Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). Perhaps for some the problem is her audience (too female), her chosen genres (mystery, suspense, paranormal horror, and historical fiction), or her enduring popularity (many of her books were best-sellers and several have been adapted for movies and television, some more than once). Du Maurier herself once said that "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. . .I have no illusions to that." [2]

For many years I, too, uncritically dismissed du Maurier's fiction (without, of course, bothering to read any of it). But my reading of Tania Modleski's discussion of Alfred Hitchcock's film version of Rebecca in her brilliant The Women Who Knew Too Much helped me to better understand, for example, the significance of the "young woman trapped in an isolated manor" plot. [3] And when I read the novels of Jane Austen (especially Northanger Abbey, which affectionately satirizes the conventions of the Gothic novel) and began to explore the women writers who preceded and followed Austen, I decided that the time had come to read Rebecca.

I discovered, as have many readers since its publication in 1938, that Rebecca should be considered for any list of the best 20th century fiction in English. Together with du Maurier's great short story "The Birds" (1952), Rebecca made abundantly clear "the injustice of her label as a writer of escapist women's romance." [4] Indeed, her writing is far from escapist; instead, often for the women in her fiction there is no escape.

Cover of the first British edition of My Cousin Rachel (Gollancz, 1951). Image source:

My Cousin Rachel (1951) is another of du Maurier's under-celebrated works. The novel is set sometime in the first half of the 19th century (there are no trains or telegrams, only carriages and letters) and is narrated by Philip Ashley, the ward and heir of his much older cousin Ambrose. Ambrose (which means "immortal") is the owner of a large estate on the Cornish coast; Philip (which means "horse-lover") was orphaned as a young boy and sent to live with Ambrose. Now Philip is 24 years old, and has long idolized his guardian; in the novel's first pages he tells us that "the whole object of my life was to resemble him." [5] As we will learn, he succeeds all too well.

Ambrose has recently begun to travel to warmer climes in the winter for his health, leaving Philip behind. One spring he doesn't return, and Philip receives a letter announcing Ambrose's marriage to their cousin (another cousin!) Rachel, the widow of an Italian count. Ambrose remains in Italy, and his letters grow gradually more disturbing: he complains of illness and blinding headaches, and his belief that Rachel is watching him constantly. Philip, already resentful of Rachel for keeping Ambrose in Italy, begins to suspect that something sinister is going on. On the other hand, the headaches, disorientation and paranoia may be symptoms, not of poisoning, but of a brain tumor, the disease which killed Ambrose's father Philip (another Philip!).

Ambrose does indeed die—of a brain tumor, according to the report of the Italian doctor Rachel brings in—and Rachel is made a widow for the second time. Philip, though, inherits all of the estate; Ambrose has made no provision for Rachel in his will. When Rachel comes to England, Philip discovers that she is younger and more beautiful than he had imagined. He finds himself torn between his suspicions and his increasingly ardent feelings.

. . .every day, haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty?. . .How soft and gentle her name sounds when I whisper it. It lingers on the tongue, insidious and slow, almost like poison, which is apt indeed. It passes from the tongue to the parched lips, and from the lips back to the heart. And the heart controls the body, and the mind also. Shall I be free of it one day?. . .Perhaps, when all is said and done, I shall have no wish to be free. [6]

In 1947 du Maurier met Ellen Doubleday, the wife of her American publisher Nelson Doubleday. For du Maurier, unhappily married and mother of three children, it was passionate love at first sight.

Ellen Doubleday in an undated photo. Image source: This Recording

But Ellen could not reciprocate her love. Du Maurier drew on her unrequited feelings for Ellen in the scenes between the impetuous, impassioned Philip and the cool, self-possessed, enigmatic Rachel:

She did not answer. She went on looking at me, incredulous, baffled, like someone listening to words in a foreign language that cannot be translated or comprehended, and I realised suddenly, with anguish and despair, that so it was, in fact, between us both; all that had passed had been in error. . . [7]

Philip is tortured by his inability to understand Rachel's feelings: do her gestures of affection merely express her gratitude for Philip's increasingly extravagant gifts and financial support, or is she manipulating him to try to gain control over the estate? In du Maurier's world, love often spells disaster for at least one member of a couple, and soon Philip starts to experience blinding headaches. . .

I have become so like (Ambrose) that I could be his ghost. . .I have wondered lately if, when he died, his mind clouded and tortured by doubt and fear, feeling himself forsaken and alone in that damned villa where I could not reach him, whether his spirit left his body and came home here to mine, taking possession, so that he lived again in me, repeating his own mistakes, caught the disease once more and perished twice. It may be so. All I know is that my likeness to him, of which I was so proud, proved my undoing. [8]

As this brief summary suggests, My Cousin Rachel is a novel of doublings, recapitulations, and the haunting of the living by the dead. These are recurrent themes in du Maurier's fiction, along with the unbridgeable gulf of understanding between men and women and the misapprehensions and jealousies which that gulf inspires. As she wrote in her book about her father Gerald, published three years after her marriage, "no true harmony can exist between a man and a woman." [9] This is hardly the stance of a writer of "escapist women's romance"; as Auerbach writes, "I was, and remain, enthralled by Daphne du Maurier because of her antiromantic refusal to satisfy predictable desires." [10]

And the critical tide seems to be turning. Margaret Forster's groundbreaking biography, which first revealed Daphne's love for Ellen Doubleday, her affair with actress Gertrude Lawrence and their connections to her work, was published in the mid-1990s. Since then du Maurier's work has begun to receive more sustained and serious attention. [11] In 2000 Auerbach could write that du Maurier is "pigeonholed, and dismissed." That is less true today, thanks not only to Forster's biography but to Auerbach's study. It is still the case, though, that while ordinary readers have long recognized how compelling du Maurier's best work is, she still has not received enough recognition as "a complex, powerful, unique writer, so unorthodox that no critical tradition, from formalism to feminism, can digest her." [12]

For more on Daphne du Maurier, please see my thoughts about the novel and the Hitchcock film Rebecca.

  1. Nina Auerbach, Daphne du Maurier, Haunted Heiress, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, p. 1.
  2. Quoted in Hazel McHaffie, "Patrick Branwell Bront[ë]," 11 July 2019,
  3. Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory, Methuen, 1988.
  4. Auerbach, p. 2. If you have only seen the Hitchcock film of "The Birds" you owe it to yourself to read du Maurier's original story, which is even more chilling.
  5. Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel, Gollancz, 1951, Chapter One.
  6. My Cousin Rachel, Chapter One.
  7. My Cousin Rachel, Chapter Twenty-two.
  8. My Cousin Rachel, Chapter One. 
  9. Quoted in Auerbach, p. 132.
  10. Auerbach, p. 14. 
  11. Margaret Forster, Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, Doubleday, 1993. Notice that the subtitle names du Maurier as a "renowned storyteller" rather than a brilliant writer.
  12. Auerbach, pp. 9-10. As an example of a critic who continues to "pigeonhole and dismiss" du Maurier, in The Novel: A Biography (Harvard, 2014) Michael Schmidt groups her in the Genre chapter with romance writers Barbara Cartland and Catherine Cookson, spends a third of his discussion of her work on her grandfather George, and quotes only those great contemporary feminist scholars Gore Vidal and P.G. Wodehouse on her work. He himself is condescending to the "passionate absurdity of her fiction," and also offers this astonishing sentence: "Details about her romantic life, which included intense relationships with other women, came out after her death, to be set in the balance against her well-mannered married life and motherhood." (Quotes taken from pp. 853-854.)

Saturday, April 3, 2021

In memoriam: Mills College, 1852-2023

El Campanil, The Oval, and Mills Hall on the Mills College campus. Image source: Mills College.

In late March I learned of the decision by the Board of Trustees of Mills College to "no longer enroll new first-year undergraduate students" and to confer its final degrees in 2023. [1]

This is devastating news. The primary mission of Mills College since its founding in 1852 has been the education of women. Although some may believe that we have reached such a perfected state of gender equality that there is no longer a role for women's colleges, from personal experience I can assert the contrary. In the 1980s I taught science at Mills, and saw first-hand the benefits of women-only classrooms and labs. Many of my students had been discouraged from pursuing courses of study in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). Such discouragement was common; even someone as talented as Jennifer Doudna, the 2020 co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was told by her high school guidance counselor around the time I started teaching at Mills that "girls don't do science." [2]

Despite the many strides that have been made since then, we have not yet achieved an educational system in which young women are treated as fully the equals of young men in STEM fields. One-third of undergraduate women who declare STEM majors switch to non-STEM majors, as opposed to only a quarter of men. STEM attrition has been linked "to such attitudinal factors as motivation, confidence, and beliefs about one's capacity to learn STEM subjects," as well as to "several course-related factors. . .including negative experiences encountered in gatekeeper or introductory math and science courses." [3]

In the science courses I taught at Mills I saw students grow in confidence and capability over the course of each semester. I sought to supply support and encouragement, and to provide my students with the tools to analyze and understand the problems we worked on together, and to apply those skills to solve new problems on their own. Mills has a highly diverse student body: more than half of Mills undergraduates identify as people of color, and half identify as LGBTQ. Many in my classes were first-generation college students, and some were single mothers returning to earn a degree after spending time in the workforce. I tried to create a culture of learning in my classes that was welcoming and supportive of everyone.

At institutions at which I had been a teaching assistant before coming to Mills, introductory science courses were graded by policy on a strict curve that allowed only 15% of the students to receive an A. Grading on a curve pits student against student in a struggle for an artificially limited number of good grades. At my first grading conference as a TA I watched the lead instructor draw a line through a cluster of scores; those above the line got As, and those below the line (whose total scores over the course of the semester differed from some in the A group by as little as one point) got Bs. Then another line was drawn to separate the 20% of the students who would receive Bs from the majority who would receive Cs, Ds, or Fs. We could argue for individual students just below the lines who had some extraordinary circumstance that we were aware of (lengthy illness, family emergency, etc.), but not against the patent injustice of the system.

At Mills I had the freedom to grade my courses on an absolute scale announced at the beginning of the semester, and the flexibility at the end of the semester to adjust that scale (always in favor of the students) so that those who had demonstrated similar levels of understanding would receive similar grades. I also dropped each student's lowest score so that they weren't penalized for needing to deal with a crisis at work or care for a sick child. Letting the students know at the start that they were not competing against one another for grades, but instead that the object of the course was for everyone to succeed in understanding the material, fostered cooperation and peer-to-peer learning.

Over the decades the Mills College administration has shown itself to be drastically out of step with its own community. In the mid- to late-1980s the Board of Trustees resisted calls by faculty and students to divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. You might think that an institution located in East Oakland would be especially sensitive to the injustices of racism, but it took six years before the Board finally made the right decision. [4] In 1990 the Board, acting without input from students and faculty, voted to end the identity of Mills as a women's college and admit men as undergraduates; after a two-week student strike garnering strong alumnae and faculty support, the Board rescinded its decision. [5] And in 2017 the Board declared a financial emergency (while apparently paying fees of $2.5 million annually for portfolio management providing below-market returns) and, again without consulting the Mills community, approved a plan eliminating academic programs and terminating tenured faculty. After an outpouring of support for the affected faculty and programs the Board scaled back but did not eliminate the planned cuts. [6]

Mills students during the 1990 strike. Image source: No Bad Language

Mills students, faculty and alumnae are now mobilizing on Facebook (Save Mills), Twitter (@save_mills), and Instagram (#savemills) to keep Mills a women's college. Plans have been announced by the Board and administration to create a Mills Institute to foster women's leadership. But every class at Mills College fosters women's leadership, and there's no reason that a Mills Institute can't coexist with the college. The Board of Trustees should listen to the Mills community once more and reverse the short-sighted decision to close the college. Institutions dedicated to the education and empowerment of women are needed now more than ever.

Update 20 June 2021: The president of Northeastern University has announced that he is currently in negotiations for Mills College to become a part of Northeastern. This is sweetbitter news: sweet because undergraduate programs would continue on the Mills campus, but bitter because Mills would lose its historic focus on women's education. You can read the announcement on the News@Northeastern blog.

  1. Elizabeth L. Hillman, "Mills Announces New Path for the College," March 17, 2021.
  2. Jennifer Doudna, quoted in Tor Haugen, "Life, gene editing, and rock ’n’ roll: 5 things we learned from Jennifer Doudna’s talk," Berkeley Library Update, November 15, 2017.
  3. Xianglei Chen and Matthew Soldner, "STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields: Statistical Analysis Report." National Center for Education Statistics, 2013.
  4. Olivia Ensign, "Mills College students win divestment from South African apartheid government, 1984-1988," Global Nonviolent Action Database, 2009.
  5. Mary Lou Santovec, "Mills College Celebrates 20 Years After Student Strike." Women in Higher Education, 2014.
  6. Jeanita Lyman, "Mills proposes faculty, department cuts amid community outcry," The Campanil, June 15, 2017.