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Courtney Greenberg

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Modern thoughts on literature written by women: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier & Circe by Madeline Miller

Modern thoughts on literature written by women: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier & Circe by Madeline Miller

This is the sixth post of a series about books written by women to give me an excuse to read more female authors. Spoilers ahead!

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My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier is not a book you should pick up if you like fairytales and happy endings. The same goes for Madeline Miller’s Circe, the retelling of the life of the Greek sorceress, the daughter of the sun. The reason I decided to combine the two is because of how they portray women realistically as humans, and not as fragile, breakable beings. Both books are named after these leading women, Rachel and Circe. The former is confident and mysterious, while the latter struggles to find acceptance from others and herself.

In My Cousin Rachel, the eponymous widow travels to England after the death of her husband. She returns to his estate where she meets her late husband’s heir, who is ready to hate her—but instead becomes intoxicated with her calming, mysterious ways and subtle beauty. In Circe, it is not a homecoming, but a banishment that is the story’s catalyst. The sorceress—overlooked by other powerful titans, her siblings, and her parents—is punished for her witchcraft and sent to an isolated island, Aiaia.

Do you believe in magic?

Let me say what sorcery is not: it is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over, and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods do not.
— Circe

The two women have more in common than it would seem. One is a witch, the other a widow.

Rachel, we discover, uses herbs and other concoctions for healing, a misunderstood art. So does Circe. In both books, the so-called magic is not instantaneous. Circe’s sorcery cannot summon up a spell at the snap of her fingers; witchcraft must be coaxed, cradled and worked on, unlike the power of divine beings. Rachel must work at her “magic” as well, harvesting seeds from her beloved trees and making them into tea. It is this activity that ultimately leads to her downfall, after she is suspected of poisoning her late husband by his 25-year-old heir, Philip. He is unable to understand the complicated and complex Rachel, who is by all accounts a self-assured and independent woman. Instead, he eventually views her as dangerous and feels as though her refusal of his love is menacing and malicious. It is a theme we also see in Circe. When women have more power than men, the men slink away, tail between their legs (although there are a few exceptions, like Odysseus and later, his son). Or else the men must challenge women, so as not to seem less masculine. The women are revered, referred to as “other” and only accepted in rare circumstances when men can dig deep, and see them as equals. In the case of Circe, she is only truly accepted as she is in the end by Telemachus. However, Philip is never able to fully accept Rachel because of his immaturity and foolishness. His pride and embarrassment at being rejected take over.

Age is just a number

It is interesting that in both books the women are not young teens. This is important because the role of girls in literature is often as the archetypal blushing bride or waif, while older ones are seen as haggard or “used goods.” But Miller and Du Maurier use their female characters as examples of strength: Rachel overcomes grief and solitude and Circe does much of the same. When Circe mentions her age to her first lover, Glaucos (she’s a goddess, so by the time she falls in love with him, she is centuries old), he is unable to see past it. He shrivels up and is not secure enough to be with a woman of the world, with more experience than him. Circe shrivels, too, and swallows her words to be accepted. We see much of the same in Philip’s relationship with Rachel. He says he accepts her but shrinks at her independence. He is outraged by it and feels entitled to own her and her emotions. (It’s also interesting how relatable this is, given the amount of violence against women often associated with break ups in today’s world.)

‘I would not be young again, if you offered me the world. But then I’m prejudiced.’
’You talk,’ I said, ‘as if you were ninety-nine.’
’For a woman I very nearly am,’ she said. ‘I’m thirty five.’
— My Cousin Rachel

Childbirth and Motherhood

It’s odd that women are viewed as delicate creatures when they do the hardest and most painful thing imaginable: childbirth. Because it is expected of women and seen as too gory to describe, it is often left out of literature. Miller’s scenes describing the birth of Circe’s son, Telegonus, are bloody and riveting. Her portrayal of motherhood, too, is realistic. Circe does not ease into motherhood, but is rather forced into it alone. She does not shy away from self-critique, or from the “shameful” feeling that motherhood does not suit her well. And she is not delusional in describing how a mother’s love can overcome anything. Instead, she offers a nuanced version of what it is like to raise a screaming baby and a terrible toddler. She has no time for spells or to care for herself. Motherhood is all-consuming. In the end, it is her child that gives her the strength to overcome her fears. Her unwavering love (despite the toll of childbirth and care-taking) enables her to have a deeper understanding for her next visitors (Penelope and Telemachus).

It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.
— Circe

Unlike Circe, Rachel has no children and no heir. This position is more fragile than that of a mother because a woman without children (especially at the time Du Maurier wrote this book) was probably considered the most dangerous position of all. And again, unlike Circe, Rachel’s confidence is unwavering in herself. She depends on no one. Her instinct is maternal in some ways, caring for her late husband (although this depends on the perspective) and then later caring for Philip when he is sick. She adds her touch to the English estate once owned by her husband and takes on the role of woman of the house. But her independence comes at a price. Her relationship to other men become suspicious to Philip, even though they are seemingly innocent. Her every move becomes sinister because of his underlying jealousies.

I wondered how it could be that two people who had loved could yet have such a misconception of each other and, with a common grief, grow far apart. There must be something in the nature of love between a man and a woman that drove them to torment and suspicion.
— My Cousin Rachel

Overall, I would definitely recommend these two books. They were beautifully written and showcase women as people with varying emotions and thoughts. These are not mere vignettes, but actual depictions of women with faults, dreams and motives. In the end, they meet very different fates. Rachel is condemned for her independence and refusal of love, while Circe is set free for those same reasons.

Want more modern thoughts on literature written by women? Check out my posts on Wuthering HeightsHouse of Ulloa, And Then There Were None, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Persuasion.

Modern thoughts on 20th century literature written by women: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Modern thoughts on 20th century literature written by women: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Modern thoughts on 19th century literature written by women: Persuasion by Jane Austen

Modern thoughts on 19th century literature written by women: Persuasion by Jane Austen