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. The story is narrated by Philip Ashley, who has been raised since childhood by his elder cousin Ambrose, the owner of a country estate in Cornwall. When Philip is 24 – one year before he comes into his inheritance – Ambrose travels to Florence in search of warmer weather to improve his health. Ambrose writes that he has met and married a cousin of theirs, Rachel, the recently widowed Contessa Sangalletti, but they have no immediate plans to return to England. Within a few months, Ambrose complains of severe headaches calls Rachel “my torment” and shares his suspicions that Rachel and her friend Rainaldi are plotting against him. Philip discusses the letters with his godfather and guardian Nick Kendall, who encourages him to travel to Florence. After a difficult journey, Philip travels at Ambrose’s villa to find Ambrose dead and buried and Rachel departed. He returns to England, swearing to have his vengeance on Rachel whom he believes has caused Ambrose’s death.
A few weeks later, Kendall tells Philip that Rachel has arrived in England. Philip invites her to visit, planning to interrogate her about Ambrose’s death. His initial hostility melts away when he meets Rachel, a beautiful, intelligent and witty woman about ten years his senior, who speaks warmly of Ambrose. Rachel quickly charms the servants, and impresses Philip with her knowledge of the estate, recalled from her conversations with Ambrose. Philip learns that Ambrose’s will made no provision for Rachel, and asks Kendall to pay her a monthly allowance. Rachel objects angrily to the allowance, insisting that she doesn’t wish to be seen as a gold-digger, but is eventually reconciled, and kisses Philip, which stuns him.
Philip becomes progressively more obsessed with Rachel. While sorting through Ambrose’s possession (which Rachel has brought with her from Florence) he finds a letter in Ambrose’s handwriting accusing Rachel of kleptomania, but burns it in the fire. At Christmastime he throws a party to the estate, and withdraws a pearl choker from the family vaults to gift her as a present. Kendall spots the necklace and insists that Philip return it, scolding him for withdrawing it without permission, and warning him that Rachel has overdrawn her allowance and may be sending money out of the country. Rachel appears and calmly returns the necklace, but an annoyed Philip insists that Kendall continue paying Rachel’s allowance and settle her debts.
In the new year, Philip plans improvements to the house and estate, under Rachel’s direction, including a Florentine-style sunken garden. He discovers another letter of Ambrose’s, describing Rachel miscarrying their child, Rainaldi’s increased interest in Ambrose’s will, his suspicions that Rachel and Rainaldi may be lovers, and his reluctance to make Rachel his heir because of her extravagant spending. Philip buries the letter but asks Rachel about the new will, which she has a copy of and shows to him. Philip plans to transfer the estate to Rachel when he turns twenty-five, on the condition that she not remarry, in the hope that this will persuade her to stay with him and not return to Italy. On the eve of his birthday, he withdraws all the family jewels from the bank and presents them to Rachel, with a copy of the transfer document. They have sex, and the next day he drunkenly announces to his birthday dinner guests that they are engaged. Philip argues with Rachel, insisting that she accepted his proposal by sleeping with him. Rachel explains that she only wanted to thank him for the jewels and he has misinterpreted her intentions. Philip tries to strangle her and insists that she marry him. The next day, Rachel invites the vicar’s daughter to stay, and ensures that she and Philip are not left alone.
Philip catches cold in the rain and is ill for several weeks, nursed by Rachel who prepares special tisanes for him. When he is better, she announces her intention to return to Italy. A desperate Philip searches in Rachel’s room for incriminating letters. He finds an envelope of poisonous laburnum seeds, and becomes convinced that she is poisoning him and may also have poisoned Ambrose. The next day, construction workers warn Philip that the new bridge built over the sunken garden should not yet bear weight. Rachel goes for a walk in the garden to inspect the plans, but Philip does not warn her about the bridge. While Rachel is gone, he and Louise search her room for more evidence, but find only letters confirming Rachel has returned the jewels to Philip’s bankers, and a letter from Rainaldi suggesting that Rachel should bring Philip with her to Florence. Rachel falls from the bridge and a distraught Philip holds her in his arms while she dies. 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.”