‘There is no going back in life. There is no return. No second chance.’
Daphne Du Maurier was born in London and expressed an interest in literature from an early age. It was in 1931 that her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published, but it was Rebecca that launched her career to such heights and caused her to be one of the most popular authors of her time. In 1969 she was awarded a DBE. Du Maurier lived mostly in Cornwall, which is the setting for many of her books, and died in 1989.
Before reading this book, I had of course heard of Du Maurier and her books such as Rebecca and Jamaica Inn but I had never read any of them. It was through hearing about a film adaptation due to be released in June this year that I heard of My Cousin Rachel. I watched the trailer for the film and was intrigued so read the description of the book on Goodreads. After that I knew I wanted to try the book and am now looking forward to the film starring Rachel Weisz (The Lobster; Definitely Maybe) and Sam Claflin (Love Rosie; Their Finest) who, having read the book, I think will be a great cast.
As with many Du Maurier books, this book is mainly set in Cornwall. However, near the beginning, Philip travels to Florence and Italy itself is mentioned often, as this is where Rachel was raised. The contrast between the two settings is often hit upon, and it is clear that Philip is very much in favour of Cornwall and the English ways whilst Rachel is accustomed to Florence and likes that particular way of living. This is an interesting contrast to look at, especially regarding the differences in society and opinions. It is clear Philip thinks little of those from Italy, especially Rachel’s friend Rainaldi, and is very much set in the English way of life. Yet when Rachel arrives she changes things in the previously male-dominated household. Rachel was the lady of the house at her villa in Florence and brings her feminine and Italian influences into many aspects of life meaning that the house slowly becomes her territory, a dangerous place for Philip to be.
It was through hearing about the plot of the novel and the mystery it entails that hooked me into reading this novel. Philip Ashley’s parents died when he was very young and so he is raised by his cousin Ambrose. Ambrose happily remains a bachelor and the two construct themselves a pleasant world. Their house is staffed by men and Ambrose delights in having Philip as an heir that he can teach all about the estate. But it is during one winter when Ambrose is in Florence that everything changes. Ambrose falls in love, marries and dies very suddenly. Naturally, Philip is devastated and believes that he has reason to blame Ambrose’s wife, Rachel. But when Rachel turns up in England, Philip’s thoughts and ideas seem to twist and change as he is drawn to this mysterious woman.
The edition of the novel that I read begins with an introduction written by Sally Beauman. However, I decided to read the introduction after I had finished the novel and I think that was the best choice, else you may be given hints which ruin the mystery of the novel. Once you have finished the book though, if your edition has this introduction, I would really recommend reading it because it offers some really interesting ideas.
The book is narrated in the first person by Philip which I would say is a clever choice. The third person simply would not have worked as we would have been able to know too much, which would destroy the mysterious nature of the novel. However, there are so many moments when Rachel and Philip are alone that by not using the third person, one of them must narrate. Of course, Rachel could not narrate the story, else she would be too open to the reader and that would ruin the plot completely. Therefore, Philip is the appropriate choice. It is clever to use Philip as a narrator because the reader themselves becomes tangled up in all of the manipulation and Philip’s feelings because we are hearing so much of his thoughts and that causes the reader to become as confused as he seems to be. Usually, you trust the narrator to give you an honest view and opinion, but with Philip it was hard to tell whether you could completely trust him. Philip himself is wholly confused, so how can we be sure that he is giving an honest view of both Rachel and the events when it is entirely impossible for him to be objective?
Structurally, the first chapter of the book is being narrated after all of the events of the novel have happened. This is really clever because Du Maurier uses Philip to build the tension immediately and totally hook you in. I was so utterly intrigued by the end of the first chapter that I just wanted to sit and read the entire book in one sitting.
‘Someday, somehow, I would repay my cousin Rachel.’
As a character, Philips is very interesting. He has no memory of his parents, only being brought up by Ambrose who he adores and follows in his footsteps with pride. However, in the first chapter, Philip comments that his likeness to Ambrose, both in looks and character, may have caused him problems. Both men are very accustomed to their way of life and neither have much understanding of women, being single and living in a house staffed entirely by men has probably not helped. Philip is only young and yet seems as old as Ambrose in some respects. He has been brought up by Ambrose’s side, sharing thoughts and opinions, and the same way of life. Their similarities extend to their inner character as Philip comments that they are both dreamers, not practical and business-like like other men.
Perhaps it is his lack of understanding, and the lack of female presence in his life, that cause Philip to become somewhat fascinated by Rachel. Before he meets her, he is sure of his opinion of her and seems set against her from the off. Yet when they finally meet, something in Philip begins to shift. There were times during the novel where I felt he was behaving a little irrationally and sometimes I wanted to stop him and make him think. Why this shift happens, I cannot say for sure. Perhaps he feels an instant connection and intrigue with regards to Rachel, or maybe it is down to Rachel and she manipulates him very cleverly. What is clear is that the connection Philip feels grows and he comes to believe that he knows Rachel better than those around him and that he does not need their advice or opinions. Additionally, when Ambrose passes, we learn that insanity and paranoia run in the male Ashley line, so perhaps Philip himself is affected and this is the cause of his behaviour.
‘There are some women, Philip, good women very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster.’
Rachel is a wholly complicated character. Due to Philip’s narration it is impossible to know the truth about her. We hear about Rachel long before we meet her which allows time for Philip and the reader to build up many initial images and ideas about what she may be like. Then, when we finally met her she is rather different to what we were cleverly led to expect, and whilst Philip is drawn to her, the reader has no clue of her intentions or feelings and begins to feel uneasy about whether she can be trusted. Whether she loved Philip, or even Ambrose, is impossible to know. There definitely feels like shifts in her behaviour, but whether that is paranoia on Philip’s part it is unclear. I know that I was often uneasy about her because it is very hard to trust a character when you do not feel they are necessarily being represented as they really are and could be very manipulative anyway. Yet sometimes she would appear in a way that made me doubt she could really have had a hand in Ambrose’s death which made me question Ambrose and Philip’s thoughts, although this could be her manipulation of Philip or his own disillusion seeping into the reader’s thoughts. I felt like I too was being manipulated, whether by Rachel or by Philip I do not know, but either way my mind and ideas are still changing now. Overall, Rachel really is a mystery, largely due to a narrator who is unable to be objective, but Du Maurier has done this very much on purpose.
‘How simple it must be for a woman of the world, like Mrs Ashley, to twist a young man like yourself around her finger’
Despite not being a principal character, Louise Kendall is a regular feature of the novel. She has known Philip for a long time and is someone he feels he can confide in. Rachel hints that many people are hoping Philip will marry Louise, but he seems uninterested and sees her purely as a friend. It seems, largely due to what Philip tells her about Rachel before meeting her, and potentially some jealousy, that Louise is cautious of Rachel. I felt sorry for Louise because she listens to all Philip says and watches him change under Rachel’s influence but is unable to help because Philip does not always want to listen.
Physically, Ambrose is only in the novel for a short while at the beginning before he goes to Italy, where he passes away. Yet we can get a good sense of Ambrose through Philip as the two are supposedly very alike. Also, the traditions of the estate and what Philip tells us about Ambrose all help us to build up an image. However, it is Ambrose’s letters which keep his presence alive in the novel and these letters play often on Philip’s mind. The letters which make Philip’s decision to go to Florence are largely what shape his initial feelings about Rachel. But whilst Philip’s feelings towards Rachel seem to change, he becomes confronted by more letters from Ambrose during the novel which cause some confusion for him, I think. Ambrose raised Philip and Philip adores him, but Rachel’s presence and manipulation cause him to question someone of whom he thinks so highly. The issue of mental state plays a part again here as we are told by Rachel and the doctors in Italy that Ambrose died due to problems with his brain, which means that he may not have been in a fit state when he wrote the letters.
‘I wondered, in these moments, how I could ever have thought her unremarkable.’
I think that Du Maurier uses the idea of manipulation and control very cleverly in this novel. There are many different reasons that the reader could come up with for why the events of the novel happen, but no matter what, you will always ask yourself whether Rachel was manipulating Philip, and previously Ambrose. This could have happened naturally due to their characters and infatuation with Rachel or she could have had a plan of her own. Rachel is clearly a very clever woman and she is quite capable without the aid of a male, although she likes to have Rainaldi’s opinion. It could be that she wants to get her hands on the Ashley estate and so killed Ambrose and then travels to England with a plan to either manipulate or even kill Philip.
However, the introduction written by Sally Beauman raised an interesting point: perhaps Philip and Ambrose were manipulating Rachel. It is harder to say with Ambrose because we know less of their relationship, but marrying Rachel could have been a way to control her. In his letters Ambrose hints at Rachel’s love for extravagant things and there are questions raised by Philip’s uncle about Rachel’s spending habits. Philip seems to care very little about these warnings, and perhaps that is because he thinks he can use money and expensive gifts himself to keep Rachel in England and under his control. Perhaps these attempts at control are what cause changes in Rachel’s character as I can imagine she would not like to be controlled.
Another theme to look at is love. Ambrose must have fallen for Rachel fairly quickly and they are soon married. Philip quite clearly feels an attachment to Rachel which grows stronger, and perhaps it is these feelings that make him change. Maybe his love for Rachel means he is less perceptive of any warnings and is just less willing to see that she may be flawed or dangerous. As dreamers, both Philip and Ambrose are likely to be more perceptible to falling in love without thinking rationally about it. Was this their undoing?
I really do not want to say very much about the end of the novel. Du Maurier built the tension up perfectly and I was left just sitting slightly stunned for a while because I did not expect that ending. It was a clever ending and kept that same sense of mystery which meant I had to sit and think for a while about what actually happened. Even now, with all of the theories I have mentioned throughout my review, I am not sure which I believe and I am not entirely sure that Du Maurier herself wanted there to be one correct answer as to what caused the events of the novel. There are so many interesting ideas to think about and I think I prefer it that way.
When I decided to read this book I was unsure because I do not really like thrillers or anything scary, but this book keeps the perfect amount of tension and mystery. I would say you feel a certain feeling whilst reading this novel that is hard to describe, perhaps it is a sense of unease because you are unsure of the characters, who to trust and what may happen. I would really recommend this book, especially if you plan to see the film, and I think it has become one of my favourites because I enjoyed it so much and really like thinking it over and looking at all the theories.
I would like to add a note here about my review. It has taken me a few weeks to write because I began writing it very soon after finishing the book and I just did not have my ideas together enough to write it. I needed some time to actually take a break and think the book over a little to gather my various thoughts and opinions. I was also very aware that the mystery of this book is what made me so hooked and I really did not want to put anything in my review which may spoil that for anyone, so I hope I have said enough about the book, whilst also not giving much away so as to make you intrigued enough to read it.
My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier, first published in 1951 by Victor Gollancz Ltd, first published by Virago Press in 2003 but reprinted many times, RRP £8.99, ISBN 978-1-84408-040-3