The 1951 Club: My Cousin Rachel

Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel (1951)

The 1951 Club is the latest in a series of events put together by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, which encourages us to read books published in a particular year. Please visit Simon’s blog for links to other 1951 books — this builds up a wonderful picture of a particular moment in time, through the combination of famous and obscure choices.

My Cousin Rachel is a masterfully ambiguous novel of psychological suspense, one that begins with the question “Was Rachel innocent or guilty?” It ends with the same question, but adds to it the question of the narrator’s own guilt and complicity in the final tragedy. Much more than a simple “who done it” in the external sense, this is a story that delves into the secrets of the human heart and that may make us think about the complex sources of our own motivations and actions.

That narrator is Philip Astley, who has been raised by his much older cousin Ambrose on their family estate in 19th century Cornwall. When the seemingly contented bachelor Ambrose ventures abroad and there marries another cousin, the half-Italian widow Rachel, Philip immediately is consumed with jealousy; later, upon receiving some cryptic notes from Ambrose, he becomes suspicious. He journeys to Florence but finds that Ambrose has suddenly died and his widow vanished.

Philip is determined to seek revenge upon Rachel, but before he can do so, she arrives in Cornwall and turns out to be nothing like the demon of his imaginings. In fact, he is soon completely entranced by her himself. As he descends further into passion, Rachel becomes even more of an enigma. What are her true intentions and feelings? Who is she?

Rachel may indeed be a manipulative and greedy woman; but what the first-person narration masks, and the reader slowly comes to realize, is that Philip may be more than a match for her. Having grown up without a mother, and even without a nurse — Ambrose sent the last one packing when Philip was three years old — and apparently never having recognized sexual love or desire, he has remained stunted in his own emotional life. (As a sign of this, he is incredibly callous and insensitive toward the neighbor girl who obviously is in love with him.) When Rachel bursts upon Philip with all her feminine wiles he is utterly unable to cope with them in a mature way, and the worst kind of unrecognized feminine qualities rise up within him: jealousy, possessiveness, pettiness, impulsiveness, and finally violence.

The result is to shatter them both, and leave Rachel a question forever, an image seen through Philip’s fractured mind. Who is the villain of this piece? Perhaps both, or neither. The Gothic shadows are never dispelled.

Back to the Classics Challenge: A Gothic or horror classic
Classics Club List
The 1951 Club


Top Ten Halloween Books


I’m not a fan of the grisly or the gruesome in literature, so I was surprised at how many books I’ve enjoyed that fit into this week’s Top Ten Tuesday category. I had narrow my list down to ten, in fact! What these books have in common is that they are not about gratuitous thrills or violence — they have some of the best development of character, setting and atmosphere out there. Exploring what’s on the edge of our human experience, letting in elements of the unexpected and dangerous, can lead to some very interesting fiction, it seems. I’m looking forward to revisiting some of these during Witch Week — will you be joining us?



JenHecate  GraveyardBook  DrownedMaid  FireHemlockPB  WeHaveCastle

Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg
When I reread this childhood favorite not so long ago I was newly impressed by its subtly subversive message.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Out of our childish fascination with ghosts and graveyards, Gaiman weaves a magical tale of love, belonging, and connection.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
I loved this debut novel (subtitled A Melodrama) about spiritualism and deception in early 20th century New England.

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
Probably my very favorite Halloween book, and one of my favorite books of all time. From last year’s Witch Week, this guest post by Ana of Things Mean a Lot helps explain what it means to one of its many fans.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
I discovered this deliciously creepy tale of a reclusive family back in high school, when I perhaps tended to identify a little too closely with the protagonist. Don’t worry, I’ve gotten over that now…I think.

FinePrivate  AllHallowsEve  WorldWonders  LollyWillowes  TamLin2

A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle
A love story beyond the grave? Peter S. Beagle can make us believe it’s possible.

All Hallows Eve by Charles Williams
Another variation on the love-after-death theme, with Williams’s strange and mystical touch.

World of Wonders by Robertson Davies
This story of how a neglected small-town Canadian boy becomes a world-famous wizard is truly mesmerizing.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Warner’s tale of an ageing English spinster who becomes a witch is a sly modern fable that’s become an underground classic.

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
I had to put in a plug for the book I’ll be blogging about on Halloween! Come back here on October 31 for a tour of the real sites behind “Blackstock College,” Dean’s setting for a modern retelling of the sixteenth century ballad.

Shiny New Books


The fall issue of Shiny New Books came out this week, and as usual there are so many tempting titles to explore…it’s going to keep me busy for some time. In the blowing my own horn department, I had two pieces included:

Suspense with Style: The Novels of Mary Stewart is in the BookBuzz section. I wanted to call attention to the new Chicago Review Press editions of Stewart’s suspense novels, but that wasn’t allowed in the Reprints section (UK editions only in there). I enjoyed pulling together some of my earlier posts about this favorite author and adding a teaser for her first novel, Madam, Will You Talk?

My review of Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories celebrates the new UK edition from Virago Children’s Classics. Now readers on both sides of the pond can enjoy these delightfully funny and magical stories.

MadamTalk  SerialGarden


I do hope you’ll check them out, and sample other shiny new delights as well.

New Release Review: Girl Waits with Gun

Amy Stewart, Girl Waits with Gun (2015)

GirlWaitsBestselling nonfiction writer Stewart (The Drunken Botanist) hits all the high notes in her fiction debut, Girl Waits with Gun. She gives us a meticulously researched historical setting (the factory district of New Jersey in 1914), a trio of gloriously unconventional and independent female protagonists, a tone that effortlessly ranges from wry humor to suspense to drama, and a first-person narrative voice that vividly evokes a personality and a period. What more could you want? If you’re wise, you’ll stop reading this review right now and go track down a copy.

But if you need more convincing, I’ll tell you that the premise — sisters Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp, after their horse-drawn buggy is wantonly destroyed by factory-owner-cum-thug Henry Kaufman’s automobile, find themselves unlikely assistants in the local sheriff’s crime-fighting efforts against Kaufman and his gang — is not only brilliant, but absolutely true. Kaufman and the Kopps really existed, as did Sheriff Heath of Hackensack. Stewart based her story on records and news articles of the time, which, incredibly, have been completely overlooked and forgotten since. The title, to begin with, is an actual headline referring to the formidable six-foot-tall Constance, who along with her sisters was issued firearms as protection against Kaufman’s reprisal attempts. Other actual documents have been worked into the narrative, adding to its authentic period flavor.

There are blanks in the record, which is why Stewart decided to present her story as fiction, and sees her characters as living a fictional existence parallel to the real ones. She’s invented a subplot that allows Constance to try out her detective skills and also reflect on the secrets of her past, and given Norma a rather noticeable hobby (raising carrier pigeons) that isn’t mentioned anywhere in the historical record. Some of the most astonishing details were drawn from life, though, according to an afterword that helps to sort out fact from fiction. It all merges together seamlessly in the reading, though, and storytelling is the focus rather than research.

This is definitely a character-driven mystery, not one with an elaborate or twisty plot, and though there are lots of threats there’s little on-stage violence. The pleasure is in getting to know tart-tongued Norma, flamboyant Fleurette, and especially Constance, whose search for a place and a purpose in life is tantalizingly given a direction at the very end. I’ve no doubt that readers will be begging for a sequel, and Stewart seems inclined to oblige us. I’ll be eagerly waiting for another installment in the story of the Kopp sisters.

Counted for the Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP X) challenge, hosted by The Estella Society