My Cousin Rachel is a book by Daphne du Maurier, who is most well known for her 1938 novel, Rebecca. While I have read Rebecca, years ago, I don’t remember much of it except that it was mysterious and suspenseful – and very good. I don’t think, however, that I got a chance to read any other novels by Daphne du Maurier at that time, perhaps because she never reached the kind of fame and ubiquity that novelists like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Somerset Maugham enjoyed, whose books have become enduring literary classics. Lately, however, Daphne du Maurier has re-emerged in public consciousness with another one of her books, My Cousin Rachel, being made into a movie that has just been released. (Rebecca was made into a movie in 1940 by none other than Alfred Hitchcock). It provided me with the incentive to go out and get a copy of the book to read before watching the movie, as I hate it when my own visualizations of the characters in a book – usually the best part of reading – become overlaid by the actors playing those roles in the movie adaption. I found the book so good that I finished it in the course of a weekend.
My Cousin Rachel tells the story of a young man, Philip, who becomes infatuated with an older woman, Rachel, whom he was all set to detest. Philip is an orphan who has been brought up by his cousin, Ambrose, a wealthy landowner in England. Philip aspires nothing more in life than to be like Ambrose, and is very much like him in looks and in nature – shy and reserved with no social graces as such and little interest in material comforts, yet hardworking and generous to his servants and tenants. The story is set in the 19th century, at a time when there were still estates and landowners and large houses with many servants. Ambrose is a confirmed bachelor and has no interest at all in romance and marriage, until he travels to Italy one winter to escape the damp English weather that is making him unwell. (It was very common at that time for the English to go abroad every winter, typically somewhere warm and dry.) In Italy, he meets a widow, Rachel, marries her, continues to stay in her villa for several months, and is in the seventh heaven of bliss until his health rapidly deteriorates and he suddenly dies. All of this is communicated to Philip back at home through letters, which initially show how besotted Ambrose is by Rachel and subsequently, as time goes on, become darker and more paranoid. Ambrose starts to think that Rachel is a spendthrift, that she is too close to the Italian man who is her friend and financial advisor, and finally, when he has become extremely sick, that Rachel is trying to poison him. Philip rushes to Florence as soon as he gets Ambrose’s last few letters foretelling doom, but it is too late – Ambrose is already dead.
Naturally, Philip is devastated – and furious with Rachel, who is now his cousin. He is told that Ambrose might have suffered from a brain tumor similar to that which his father died from, but that doesn’t stop him from feeling almost a murderous rage towards Rachel. But that is before he meets her. She comes to visit, and Philip is soon as besotted with her as Ambrose was, to the extent that he eventually signs over all of his considerable property to her and gives her all his family jewels, which are worth a fortune. He doesn’t care – he is in love with this woman, and despite their age gap, wants to marry her. They have a one-night tryst, an occurrence which makes him think that she has agreed to marry him, when in fact, for her, it was just a “one-night stand” – as we would it now – with someone she has affection for and who has just given her a fortune in jewels. Naturally, she shoots down the idea immediately. Philip falls ill, and while Rachel continues to stay on in England to nurse him, things are different between them now – she remains affectionate, but also distant and firm. At the same time, her Italian friend comes to visit, and Philip, like Ambrose, hates him, thinking they have something going on between them. The final straw is when Philip finds some poisonous seeds in her bureau – is she trying to poison him like she did Ambrose?
While, of course, I can’t give away the ending, I would have to say that the book was so suspenseful that I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it, despite the fact that it was not a thriller or a murder mystery. I also found it beautifully written, very evocative, almost haunting. It is told from Philip’s point of view and captures all of his emotions – his diffidence, rage, jealousy, infatuation, and confusion – so authentically and in so much detail that we seem to be inside his head, actually experiencing all these feelings. I also found it such a welcome change from contemporary novels, many of which attempt to be “clever” but end up just being obscure and convoluted, not to mention pretentious. My Cousin Rachel is a wonderfully crafted story, told in a straightforward manner and without any artifice whatsoever. I wish people still wrote books like this today.
My Cousin Rachel
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Original Publisher and Date: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1952
Reprint Publisher and Date: Sourcebooks, Inc, 2009
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.