In which I review My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 thriller about a young Victorian aristocrat who becomes obsessed with his cousin Rachel, a widow who may have poisoned her husband.
What it’s about: Cornwall, England, the 1830s. Philip Ashley has been raised since childhood by his elder cousin Ambrose, the owner of a country estate in Cornwall. When Philip is 24, Ambrose travels to Florence to improve his health, meeting and marrying his cousin Rachel, the recently widowed Contessa Sangalletti. After receiving a letter from Ambrose describing Rachel as “my torment”, Philip travels to Italy, to discover Ambrose had died and Rachel has departed. He returns to England, taking charge of the estate and is persuaded to receive Rachel as a guest. His initial hostility melts away when he meets Rachel, a beautiful, intelligent and witty woman about ten years his senior. Philip becomes obsessed with Rachel, spending money on the estate to impress her, arranging for her to be paid a monthly allowance, and attempting to gift her a valuable family necklace at Christmas. On the eve of his 25th birthday, he gifts Rachel the estate and the family jewels, and they have sex. He drunkenly announces their engagement to his birthday guests, arguing with Rachel who says he misinterpreted her intentions. He insists that they marry and attempts to strangle her. He falls ill, and is nursed by Rachel, who announces her plans to return to Italy. Philip becomes convinced that Rachel is trying to poison him and may also have killed Ambrose. Rachel dies after falling from a partially-constructed bridge in the estate gardens, an accident that Philip predicted but failed to warn her about. Tortured by his responsibility for Rachel’s death but still unsure of her true motives, Philip vows never to marry or be with another woman again.
Why it’s a classic: Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, published in 1938, became an international bestseller and made her a literary celebrity almost overnight, with successful film adaptations of Rebecca and her other writings. My Cousin Rachel was published 13 years later, when du Maurier was at the height of her popularity. It was also, according to biographer Margaret Forster, a period where du Maurier was pissed off at being pigeonholed as a “mystery writer” and wanted more recognition from critics. (The prospect of of a novelist of du Maurier’s success wanting to be less rather than more popular with a mainstream audience is a problem most other writers would love to have, but never mind). My Cousin Rachel feels like du Maurier’s bid to write a high-pedigree literary classic, steeped in her research of the early Victorian era and echoing something of the wild landscapes and demented sexual obsession of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
My Cousin Rachel was an instant commercial success, exceeding even the initial sales for Rebecca – the first print-run of 125,000 copies was her largest ever, with a reprint of 25,000 copies within the first three months – and received her best reviews in over a decade. The normally standoffish Guardian described the novel as “an even more consummate piece of storytelling” than Rebecca, though the ever-defensive du Maurier shrugged off the praise, concluding “I will never be a critic’s favourite“. (Oh Daphne….) A Hollywood screen adaptation was released the following year, directed by Henry Koster and starring Olivia de Havilland as Rachel and the then-unknown Richard Burton as Philip. As with most adaptations of her work, du Maurier didn’t like the film, but it certainly didn’t hurt her sales figures, and the book remained in print ever since.
Though du Maurier didn’t appear to think much of the late 20th century, it’s only in this period that her work was seriously reappraised by literary scholars, and especially by feminist critics, who praised her complex depictions of female psychology, and her perverse reversal of gender norms. Both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel feature female protagonists who challenge social conventions, pursuing their sexual desires without guilt or compromise while gleefully ruining the lives of the men who love them. Though both women are killed, apparently as punishment for their sins, they remain vital and fascinating presences who drive the narratives, demanding our interest and admiration.
Scholars and biographers (including Forster) have also drawn links between Philip’s obsession with Rachel and du Maurier’s passionate if very unhappy relationship with Ellen Doubleday, the wife of du Maurier’s American publisher. After first meeting Doubleday, du Maurier wrote that she’d been transported back in time to being “a boy of eighteen all over again with nervous hands and a beating heart, incurably romantic and wanting to throw a cloak before his lady’s feet“. Sounds familiar?
My Cousin Rachel‘s reputation was further revived by a well-timed 2017 film adaptation, this time adapted by Richard Eyre and starring Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin. Eyre’s version was more explicit in its depiction of the lovers: there’s no doubt that Rachel and Philip sleep together, and Philip is reduced to a dribbling (and frequently shirtless) addict with Rachel as his drug. Weisz is sensationally well-cast as Rachel, radiating old-school movie star charisma so that it’s always clear why Philip is entranced by her, while playing his (and the audience’s) shifting sympathies as skilfully as in du Maurier’s text.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge bouquet, or preferably the pearl choker that Philip capriciously gifts to Rachel. When du Maurier died in 1989, Margaret Forster, her future biographer, wrote in tribute: “No other popular writer has so triumphantly defied classification…. She satisfied all the questionable criteria of popular fiction, and yet satisfied too the exacting requirements of “real literature”, something very few novelists ever do.” This wonderfully succinct observation is the key to understanding My Cousin Rachel‘s appeal. It’s both a page-turning thriller that satisfies all the dumb parts of your brain, with a Did-She-or-Didn’t-She? mystery that lasts to and beyond the final pages. It’s also a fascinating portrait of male sexual jealousy and misogyny that neatly reverses the male-female power dynamic, producing a remarkably modern anti-heroine.
It’s this pull between page-turning genre fiction and proto-feminist narrative that makes My Cousin Rachel such an intriguing read. A more conventional mystery writer would have drawn a clearer line around Rachel’s character, letting their reader know definitively if she was innocent or guilty. du Maurier calibrates her story expertly so that we’re never fully clear if Rachel was a poisoner or just an opportunist – I can see literary critics (and barristers) compiling convincing arguments in both directions.
du Maurier’s masterstroke is to have Rachel’s story told through the unreliable perspective of Philip, a character who might be speaking the unvarnished truth but who also might be covering his own guilt by retrospectively justifying his actions. Though it’s possible that Philip is du Maurier’s literary alter ego – a young man passionately in love with an unattainable woman, and the mouthpiece for her unmentionable passions for women – he’s also the butt of her satirical takedown of the ridiculousness of men. Philip is raised by the “crusty cynical woman-hater” Ambrose in an environment largely free from women, and he’s clueless about the workings of desire – shrugging off any gossip about Louise being his sweetheart, and bitterly resenting Rachel’s intrusion into his homosocial world with Ambrose. His imaginings of Rachel’s appearance before she arrives is a masterclass of schoolboy misogyny, and there’s something perversely satisfying about watching him eat his words and transform into a speechless fool as he falls under Rachel’s spell.
By contrast, Rachel’s feminine energy appears to be limitless. The great cultural critic Camille Paglia writes that in Hitchcock’s film The Birds (based on du Maurier’s short story of the same name) female sexuality is a powerful primal force that continually undermines the established (ie male) world order. The same is true of Rachel, who is a force of nature that poor wee Philip is powerless to resist. “It was a queer sensation having a woman in the pew beside me,” he says after accompanying Rachel to church. When Rachel touches his head or shoulders in passing, he trembles, commenting “I think she had no knowledge what it did to me”, though it’s more than likely that she did.
Even when Rachel is absent, that primal force remains in the landscape. While Philip waits outside the house in the dark, preparing himself to climb into Rachel’s room and offer her the jewels, “suddenly to my nostrils came that rank vixen smell about me in the air, tainting the very leaves under my feet.” That “rank vixen smell” indeed draws him in and all but consumes him, scrambling his ability to think clearly or notice what’s really going on. Stories about sexually voracious men using and abandoning women are ten a’ penny. du Maurier has a huge amount of fun reversing the power roles between the genders, as Rachel coolly rejects Philip and dodges his fox-trap of a marriage proposal, while thanking him sweetly for the good time. Although Rachel dies in the end, she succeeds in wrapping Philip around her little finger (as Louise wryly predicts), living life largely on her own terms, and in haunting his dreams even after her death. Girl Power!
While Philip is often ridiculous, as readers we can’t dispute the sincerity of his feelings. As she also shows in Rebecca, du Maurier has a matchless understanding of sexual obsession and all its ugly attendant emotions: jealousy, possessiveness, selfishness, myopia and a dangerous lack of perspective. The directness and brutality of du Maurier’s insight makes My Cousin Rachel an often startling and confronting read: here is a writer who can see human nature at its most exposed and unattractive, and who’s utterly fearless in holding up a mirror so we can see our horribly distorted selves.
“[L]ife has to be endured, and lived,” Philip says at one stage. “But how to live it is the problem.” My Cousin Rachel doesn’t exactly provide an answer to this question – if anything, it’s a cautionary tale about how not to live – but it cuts deep and stings true in a way few other novels of any genre manage to do. I adored every single page of this book, and finished it with a pang of sadness, aware that I’d never have the thrill of reading it for the first time again. Of course, I have the great pleasure of going back to it again to look forward to.
Quotable Quote: “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.”