….wherein I wonder about the not-as-famous novels by famous authors and worry if I’m missing out.
I had one of those mornings this week, the kind when you think of a phrase or opening line or a song lyric but you can’t place it. I thought about it and thought about it until it became an annoying mental earworm that, until I identified it, was certain to make me crazy.
The phrase was, “They used to hang men at….”
I was fairly certain it was an opening line because that’s a really depressing song lyric, even for an emo band, or The Cure.
The day it popped into my head, I was away all day, driving around with no Internet access. Of course. I ended up spending most of the day playing, “I’m going to think of this on my own, no cheating,” with myself. A game which promptly ended as soon as I got home and Google became available.
I was right. It’s the opening of Daphne du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel:
“They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more though.”
I’m embarrassed to admit this, because I consider myself a fan of Dame Daphne’s, so recognizing that opening should have been easy-peasy. (In my defense, I kept thinking of Ambrose Bierce, who had a thing for hangings.)
I’m additionally chagrined because My Cousin Rachel is an excellent novel, but it’s sometimes forgotten behind her much more famous Rebecca. If the phrase that had popped into my head today included the word Manderley, I would not have hesitated for a second in identifying it. But My Cousin Rachel is like a redheaded stepchild in du Maurier’s publishing credits.
It shouldn’t be. The story is a corker, full of du Maurier’s special gift for planting uncertainty in the reader’s mind. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the novel is about a love triangle between Phillip, his cousin Ambrose and and Ambrose’s wife Rachel. It was written in the gothic style, so it’s chock full of doubt and jealousy, an untimely death and a possible poisoning, a romantic setting on the Cornish coast, and lots of woo-woo atmosphere.
Some new readers might find the dramatic style of the novel rather dated. If it seems so, think of this. In the story, Rachel is a lot older than Phillip, but he falls in love with her and (maybe, maybe not) she reciprocates. If it were marketed today, it might be called a cougar story. (Although I’m not sure how Dame Daphne would feel about that tag. Nor, for that matter, how I feel about that tag.)
Du Maurier was a highly accomplished writer, from a highly accomplished literary family. To make up for my lapse with the Rachel line, let me share that, in addition to her novels, she wrote the short story, The Birds, from which Alfred Hitchcock based his killer crow movie. She penned three plays, the first of which was an adaptation of Rebecca for the stage. Her list of publications is impressive and long, so maybe it’s not so bad that I temporarily forgot the opening of My Cousin Rachel.
Or maybe it is.
I’m wondering now, about other not-quite-as-famous novels that are overshadowed by their more famous siblings. Have you read Moby Dick, but not Billy Budd? Jane Eyre but not Villette? Lolita but not Pale Fire? Catch 22 but not Something Happened?