In My Cousin Rachel (1951), you build up tension, chapter after chapter, by unravelling the personality of the eponymous character in all its complexity and ambiguity: as if it were a game of hide-and-seek, where we follow a clue, only to have it undermined a few steps ahead; much like a dog, running around its own tail.
The novel is narrated by Philip Ashley, a twenty-four-year old gentry man. Orphaned at an early age, Philip was raised by his bachelor cousin Ambrose Ashley, who owns a large estate in Cornwall. Due to a few health problems, Ambrose has to spend the winter abroad in Italy. In Florence, he meets Rachel, a distant cousin who married an Italian viscount and was now a widow. To Philip’s dismay, out of the blue, Ambrose gets married to cousin Rachel in the Spring. Shortly thereafter, Philip begins to receive disturbing letters from Ambrose, who has fallen ill, and complains of piercing headaches. His marriage is not going well, and he mistrusts Rachel, claiming that she is constantly watching him.
Philip sets out to Florence to clear things out. However, by the time he arrives there, it is already too late: Ambrose has died under mysterious circumstances, and cousin Rachel is nowhere to be found. There are rumours that Ambrose might have suffered from a brain tumour, like his father, but Philip is adamant that Rachel murdered him.
Due to the fact that Ambrose had not made provisions for his wife in his will, Philip is the sole heir to the estate, which will be under the control of his guardian, his godfather Nick, for the remaining three months until Philip turns twenty-five.
He returns home, only to have his life disrupted once again by the arrival of Rachel. Even before we meet her, she is a strong presence looming over the story. The highlight of the novel, for me, was the fact that, because we see her through Philip’s eyes, our feelings for Rachel mirror his own evolving feelings: at first, when Ambrose announces his marriage, we feel jealous and lonely; shortly after his death, we are deeply suspicious of her, and we are quite sure that she is a murderer; when she finally arrives at the estate, we are shocked to see that she is somewhat different from what we had imagined; she is mysterious but charming, and, much like Philip, we fall under her spell. We are not altogether convinced that she is innocent, but that element of doubt is part of her charm: it binds us – and Philip – to cousin Rachel. We fall in love with her through his eyes.
For him, she is either a monster, or a saint – nothing in-between: his image of her shifts constantly between these two extremes, and the stakes are so high that she might never live up to his expectations of her.
Always dressed in black, brewing her tisanes, Rachel might be planning on murdering Philip, or she might simply be mourning the death of her husband. She might be trying to rob Philip of his inheritance, or she might just be on a visit. This might be the story of an inexperienced man who is gradually seduced by a manipulative older woman; or the story of a childless woman who is affectionate towards a boy. Rachel might be a calculating murderer, or an innocent victim who nursed her husband through his illness and violent spells. We don’t know. Do you?
I particularly like the scene where you slightly shift our prejudices over their relationship: Philip has had sex for the first time, and assumes that it implies that she loves him and they are getting married – only to find out in the morning that for Rachel nothing of importance has happened. He is suddenly thrown into a position which he expected would only fit women, not men.
Soon in the novel, we hint at the fact that Philip might be an unreliable narrator: not only because of his slightly misogynistic remarks throughout the novel, but also because he is only able to see what he wants – or desperately needs – to see. And he clearly cannot grasp Rachel – she remains a mystery until the very end. Is she trying to seduce him for money? Or is he trying to buy her with his fortune? They might in fact be the perfect mirror image of each other. Who wants to trap whom? And who is the real prey?
“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.” ― Daphne du Maurier,
“We were dreamers, both of us, unpractical, reserved, full of great theories never put to test, and like all dreamers, asleep to the waking world. Disliking our fellow men, we craved affection; but shyness kept impulse dormant until the heart was touched. When that happened the heavens opened, and we felt, the pair of us, that we have the whole wealth of the universe to give. We would have both survived, had we been other men.” ― Daphne du Maurier,
“I have never seen eyes more bewildered or amazed. She looked up at me, and down to the scattered necklaces and bracelets and back to me again, and then I think because I was laughing, she put her arms suddenly about me and was laughing too. We held one another, and it was as though she caught my madness, shared my folly, and all the wild delight of lunacy belonged to both of us.” ― Daphne du Maurier,
About the book
- Virago Modern Classics, 2012, 352 p. Goodreads
- Virago Modern Classics Designer Collection, 2011, 335 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1951
- My rating: 5 stars
- The story was inspired by a portrait of Rachel Carew at Antony House in Cornwall.
- The novel was adapted into a movie twice: in 1952, directed by Henry Koster (IMDb) and in 2017, directede by Roger Michell (IMDb). A BBC television adaptation, starring Christopher Guard and Geraldine Chaplin, was broadcast in 1983.
- I read this book for The Virago Modern Classics Book Club.