This book review of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne du Maurier is in conjunction with the 1951 Book Club of Simon David Thomas Stuck in a Book and Karen Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.
‘My Cousin Rachel’ is the story of a man’s curiosity surrounding the sinister conditions of his beloved cousin’s death, his suspicions regarding his cousin’s widow’s involvement in the death, her motives and character and most importantly his all-consuming love for her…
Phillip Ashley, orphaned at a very young age, had been brought up rather unconventionally by his uncle, Ambrose Ashley, owner of a large estate in Cornwall. The bond between the two men is naturally quite strong. Not only does young Phillip strongly resemble his uncle, they share similar temperaments and character traits. The pair shun society, particularly that of women, and lead a rough and tumble existence, ignoring social etiquette and depending on the services of a band of loyal servants to keep the household running.
Phillip had been reared and trained to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and is in every way, the heir to Ambrose Ashley’s personal estate and fortune.
Due to reasons of ill health, Ambrose Ashley is advised to avoid the damp English winters and to spend this time, building his health in warmer climes.
Ambrose reluctantly leaves his estate in the hands of his young cousin, freshly returned from college and travels to Florence, Italy. There he meets and falls in love with a widowed countess, the half-English half-Italian Rachel.
Phillip upon hearing the news of his cousin’s marriage is shocked and secretly jealous. Ambrose had always been misogynistic in his attitudes and this had rubbed off on his impressionable young cousin.
Ambrose, wracked with headaches, writes less frequently to his cousin in England but on occasion sends troubled notes, expressing his concerns regarding the character, motives and spending habits of his wife Rachel.
The suspicions turn morbid, which are revealed in scattered excerpts of letters, revealed here and there. The symptoms concur with that of a lethal brain tumour that Ambrose is suspected to be afflicted with.
When Ambrose’s last letters send out a frantic plea for help and rescue from his wife’s clutches, Phillip travels hurriedly to Florence, only to learn of Ambrose’s sudden demise upon arrival.
When Phillip returns heartbroken to Cornwall, to pick up the reigns of the family estate, he finds the entire property and Ambrose’s wealth has been bequeathed to him, with nothing going to his widow.
Phillip, convinced that Rachel is responsible for his cousin’s death, steels his mind against his widowed cousin, when she suddenly decides to visit Cornwall and Ambrose’s estate. But slowly and surely, Rachel infiltrates Phillip’s life and converts his doubts and anger regarding her to infatuation.
From time to time though, through fragments of letters that are retrieved from the past, or from the gossip of acquaintances who knew Rachel, or from Rachel’s actions and abrupt and often mercenary behaviour, the all- pervading nagging doubt resurfaces – is Cousin Rachel all that she seems?
What struck me the most when reading this novel was how compelling the storytelling was. From the very outset the book was an absolute page turner.
du Maurier employs the usage of an unreliable narrator, a man who is clearly swayed by emotion, as a wonderful plot device to inject tremendous psychological tension in a taut, highly strung story.
We are kept continually guessing whether Rachel is the scheming, conniving temptress- a figment of a misogynistic mind, or a sweet tempered considerate woman with a tendency to overspend.
I was reminded of Hitchcock’s film ‘Suspicion’ when reading this book. Both the book and the movie deal with similar themes and are wrought with the same psychological manipulation of the human mind.
With Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, du Maurier, to my mind, reaches the pinnacle of her storytelling powers. She has a genius for creating such fleshed out, memorable characters who participate in well constructed, gripping plots. With these two books, du Maurier exhibits consummate literary skill that far exceeds the romantic entanglements and wild plots that we tend to associate her with. She is a highly underrated author who deserves to be in the limelight.
Title: My Cousin Rachel
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Setting: Cornwall, England
Characters: Phillip Ashley, Ambrose Ashley, Rachel Ashley, Signor Rainaldi, Nicholas Kendall.
To read more reviews of books published in 1951 please visit here and Karen’s blog.