Book Review: “My Cousin Rachel” (1951) by Daphne du Maurier

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With a new film adaptation (starring Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin) having hit the screen this year, it seemed like the right time to dive back into my pile of Daphne du Maurier books and pick up My Cousin Rachel. It tells a story of a young man by the name of Philip Ashley in what may or may not be Georgian/early Victorian times (Du Maurier never specifies the time period). His cousin and father figure, Ambrose, travels abroad to recover from an illness, only to unexpectedly marry “cousin Rachel” and pass away shortly afterwards. In his last letter to his nephew, Ambrose implies that Rachel has poisoned him, leaving Philip devastated and out for revenge. However, when she shows up at his door in Cornwall, Philip begins to have doubts:

Did Rachel murder his cousin or is she an innocent woman?

In many ways, My Cousin Rachel is full of what Du Maurier does best: beautiful descriptions of the scenery, insight into the inner worlds of the protagonist, and a brooding plot so tense that it will keep you reading through the night. At one point I was so engrossed in the story that I had completely missed the fact that the friends I was supposed to meet were twenty minutes late and had been calling me repeatedly – none of which I noticed. For over threehundred pages, I, too, was obsessed with that question: did she do it? Knowing Du Maurier the way I have come to, I was holding my breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

However, what turned out to be more telling than cousin Rachel herself is Philip’s response to her. Having grown up fairly isolated with Ambrose and his male servants, his world is turned upside down by this sudden female presence. For example, the only woman whose company Philip enjoys before he meets Rachel is Louise, and he proclaims that, because they used to play together as children, she doesn’t count; according to him, Louise “is not a woman.” Nice, Philip. Very nice.

The first time Ambrose mentions Rachel in his letters, Philip sees her as an unwanted intruder and grows jealous of her hold on his cousin, and when he hears that Rachel will travel to Cornwall, Philip sputters that she cannot possibly stay at his house (no girls allowed in the club house!). He changes his mind almost the moment he meets her though, and begins to seek out her company; Philip watches Rachel put up her hair, the way she moves her hands, listens to her talk – and he cannot help but be enchanted. Once again, he finds himself jealous – but this time not of Rachel, but of Ambrose for having loved her before him.

Rachel, on her part, appears to be utterly charming, emphasizing her “woman’s instincts” and other talents without alienating Philp or posing a threat to his masculinity. Instead, she seems to appeal to his sensibilities by saying that she doesn’t want any female servants because “women chatter so” and showing that she’s not above planting trees with her own bare hands. She fits into Philip’s life so perfectly that you cannot help but be suspicious: is she really this charming or is it all an act? Rachel deflects every accusation thrown her way with excuses that sound perfectly reasonable, yet she remains an enigma. All we know about her is what we see through Philip’s eyes, and he is as unreliable a narrator as they come.

As Philip starts to lose his head over his cousin and becomes absolutely obsessed with her, I felt torn. On the one hand I wanted to reach into the pages, grab Philip’s shoulders, and tell him to be careful – but on the other hand I really wanted Rachel to turn out to be a black widow mastermind, deftly wrapping this impulsive oaf of a man around her little finger like she had done so many times before with those who tried to control and possess her. The tension builds as Philip becomes more and more desperate to make Rachel his, and I honestly had no idea what the outcome would be.

However, the ending itself was disappointing to me. Du Maurier drops the final Chekhov’s gun with the subtlety of a brick, and parts seem a lot clunkier than I have come to expect of her. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey, but I’m still not sure what to make of the destination. This is partly intentional, but I felt unsatisfied on a different level. A few changes here and there could have made My Cousin Rachel a marvellous psychological thriller and exploration of jealousy, but as it stands, it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. However, I would still call it a fun read and would definitely recommend to to fans of Du Maurier and novels like Jane Eyre.

 

But a lonely man is an unnatural man, and soon comes to perplexity. From perplexity to fantasy. From fantasy to madness.


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