“My Cousin Rachel”: Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic horror and a warning about inherited wealth

As I recall, my late mother liked to read some of Daphne Du Maurier’s novels back in the 1950s. Despite the French (Norman) name, she fits well into courses in “English literature”, following the Victorian novelists, writing about their time period but with a touch or gothic horror and supernatural as well as class given romance. I remember reading two novels by Thomas Hardy (including “The Return of the Native”) in 12th grade, and some George Eliot aka Mary Anne Evans (“Silas Marner”) in 10th, with the way a little girl named Eppie humbled the Scrooge-like Silas.   The best known film based on Du Maurier that I had seen before was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”, with the burning of Cornwall at the end.  The other classic film, based on her story story, was Hitchcock’s “The Birds” in 1963 (I have visited Bodega Bay twice).

My Cousin Rachel”, the new British period gothic romance film by Roger Michell for Fox, based on Du Maurier’s mature 1951 classic gothic novel, is set in the same Cornwall, and opens with a shot of the fragile coastal cliffs that will play a crucial role in the movie plot (the details of which, Rachel’s death, are changed from the book). Here let’s say that the movie and book touch on the whole moral question about the proper way to behave with inherited wealth and estates. Think of the politics: the conservatives (the GOP in the US) wants to eliminate the death tax and grow family generational wealth, Trump-style; the radical Left, like the People’s Party of New Jersey which I spied on in the early 1970s, wants to eliminate privilege and especially inherited wealth. There are questions even in how I manage my own estate (link).  A good friend from California in the Log Cabin Republicans world tells me and an entertainment attorney tells me that George Eliot’s novels dealt with the “dead hand” and the proper use of inherited wealth a few times in her novels, and this seems to be a preoccupation of English novelists. (High school English teachers, take note, even if I’m not subbing for you now; good test question material.)  People could be pursued by relatives or other interests based on the way arcane language in a will is re-interpreted, the source of a lot of handwritten-document intrigue. This whole English class system seems to fear expropriation. As if the inheritances hog wealth that could become a poorer person’s safety net, even in conservative parlance. The really radical Left regards inheritance as stealing. Even Thomas Piketty doesn’t go that far.

The central characters are Philp Ashley (Sam Clafin), the 24-year-old looking forward to taking over his guardian’s estate (cousin Ambrose, who has mysteriously died in Italy), cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), the godfather Nick (Ian Glen), now supervising Philip until he comes of age at 25 and more distant relative Louise Kendall (Holliday Grainer), who has plenty of suspicion of Rachel. Let us say that Philip is assertive and dominating, if a bit of a home-body. One scene shows a real hairy chest, but in those days women didn’t have to shave their legs, either.

The plot is both Hitchockian and a bit of a stretch. Philip first suspects Rachel of poisoning his guardian. A trip to Italy and shown Rachel in cahoots with one Rainaldi. But once back home, as she moves in and as Philips gives her an allowance, he starts to fall in love with her.

Here comes the stuff about inheritance. The guardian Ambrose had left the family estate to Philip, so he doesn’t need another job and keeps the servants. But there had been another will leaving it to Rachel, unsigned because apparently Rachel didn’t have child. Philip feels conscience-bound to turn it over to her, but expects to marry her and live off the wealth anyway.

The late part of the movie turns into the love-hate. Philips has potentially procreative sex with her once (and in older families people do have sex with cousins, and it happens today in some circles, not a good idea). Philip gets sick, and suspects her of poisoning him. Their interactions become surreal (as in a stage play, something Jesse Eisenberg could come up with), as Rachel, after Philip turns over the estate to her, won’t marry him. There are hints that she has a lesbian relationship on the side, and that Rinaldi back in Italy was homosexual and wanted much younger men. Even so, I was left with the impression that at first wanted just to do “the right thing.”

Then Philip finds a clever, undetectable way to get rid of her. It’s different from the book, but pure Hitchcock.

At the end, you feel you have indeed watched a horror film. Other reviewers have criticized the film as too tame, but I found it rather compelling.

The film draws out the period look, showing how people sign legal documents with quill pens to make then so final and official.

The movie reminds me of “Raising Helen” (Disney, Garry Marshall, 2004), where a young woman has to (or gets to ) raise a sister’s child as part of an estate. And I recall the short story by John Knowles, “The Reading of the Will”, in an anthology “Phineas”, which contains the story upon which the coming-of-age prep school tragedy [anticipating the WWII draft] “A Separate Peace” film (1972, Larry Peerce) was based. Yes, he jousted the limb,

Lands End at Cornwall, wiki

Name:  “My Cousin Rachel
Director, writer:  Roger Michell, Daphne Du Maurier
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, 2017/6/9, evening, fair crowd
Length:  106
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Fox Searchlight
Link:  official

(Posted: Saturday, June 10, 2017 at 12 Noon EDT)

The Perils of “Privilege”: does the book make the word a near oxymoron?

I’ve already written my own missives about “rightsizing” and meritocracy, but I have used the “P” word all that much.  So I thought that this new book (mostly written right before the 2016 presidential conventions) by Phoebe Maltz Bovy would consolidate my thinking, even about my own life.  That is,  “The Perils of ‘Privilege’; Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage.”

The basic reason is that of a natural logical paradox.  Those who point to someone else’s unearned privilege are creating a reciprocal unearned privilege for themselves. Of that, she gives many examples.  And in her Conclusion, “After Privilege”, she tries to unwind our thinking, with suggestions like “less awareness” or less hypersensitivity, repudiating the overuse of the word “violence”, returning to a focus on the macro rather than the micro, and making social justice a means rather than an end.

She makes good use of buzzwords, most of all, “YPIS”, or “Your Privilege Is Showing” (I can think of another “P” word), as well as problematic “faves”.  But she tends to go back and forth over the same materials in the five chapters.  The organization of the book seems a bit arbitrary.

She gives many little anecdotes.  One is a narrative of an upper class young man who wants to prove to himself he can hold down a “real job” in a fast food restaurant – to find out if he can work in a regimented environment.  I[m reminded of Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” (2001). She mentions the conflict of interest problem in whether a social studies professor can ethically write about a “privilege” issue of one of her students.

She also talks about the context problems caused by membership of people in multiple groups in crisscross fashion. She mentions how this affects our perception of the victims of terrorism (against white or well-off civilians, on the one hand, and against religious populations by dictatorial governments, like in Syria, on the other).

In the Afterword, particularly, she explains the irony of Donald Trump’s reinventing the exploitation of privilege by building a voting block of rural white people without college degrees.  But this views elitism (e.g. the Clintons) as another variation of the privilege theme, as fodder for the political Right. It can morph into anti-intellectualism, anti-science, and religious “cultism” as well as a “take care of your own first” idea of charity.

For an individual, the question is, “What am I supposed to do about it?”  I could be viewed as in a marginalized group (gay), which brought considerable consequences earlier in my adult life.  But I was also “privileged” in being brought up in a state, prosperous family as an only child (cis-male).  In ,y working career, my childlessness was seen by other colleagues as a kind of privilege. Later in life, I have benefited from inheritance.  I think that implies some obligation.  Is it to focus less on my own expressive goals and join in to reinforce other people’s social capital?  That could make a difference, for example, in assisting asylum seekers (and refugees), the former having become very difficult to do totally legally and entailing risk. I think the question of “privilege” intersects with that of “fairness”, as my own experience early in my life with the military draft and my use of deferments (ultimately to finish education before service and be sheltered from combat, while giving people grades as a math instructor in graduate school, possibly putting some of them at more risk) now adding to some moral burden.  Maybe the right word to use is “karma”, rather than “privilege”.

Whimsically, I’m reminded of an essay about gays in the military that I authored for Colorado’s “Ground Zero News” in 1995, “The Perils of Rebuttable Presumption“, which I never mentioned again.

Author: Phoebe Maltz Bovy
Title, Subtitle: “The Perils of ‘Privilege’: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage”
publication date 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-09120-8
Publication: New York: St. Martin’s, 324 pages, hardcover, Introduction, 5 chapters, Conclusion, Afterword
Link: authorreview

(Posted: Thursday, April 6, 2017 at 3 PM EDT)