My Cousin Rachel, published in 1951, is the third Daphne du Maurier novel I have read (the others being Rebecca and Frenchman’s Creek). It has a lot of similarities to Rebecca, in the creation of many ambiguous and duplicitous characters. It touches on a lot of the same themes – darkness at the core of unhappy marriages, the many different masks that people wear, large Cornish country estates. In common with Frenchman’s Creek, it is historical fiction (set at a nebulous time in, I think, the early Victorian era); in common with Rebecca, it is both beautiful and sinister. However, unlike either novel, I somehow couldn’t love it.
The novel opens with Philip Ashley, a wealthy young man in his mid-twenties, reflecting back on the body of a hanged criminal that he saw as a child – a human man reduced to a rotting carcass, set against the sweeping and beautiful Cornish countryside. Orphaned as a young boy, Philip was taken in and raised by his older cousin Ambrose Ashley, a bachelor in his mid-twenties. Ambrose had very set ideas about the world and about women – he raised Philip with no female company, even to the extent of having all-male servants and dogs in his household. Philip is raised for the sole occupation of being Ambrose’s heir, and running the estate. Except for brief, reluctant periods of time away at school and university, he has been raised entirely within one small community. Philip’s life is upended when a stranger is introduced into his tiny world: Ambrose, who spends his winter on the continent for his health, unexpectedly marries Rachel, an Italian-English contessa with an obscure connection to the family. Less than a year later, Ambrose is dead. His final letters home – almost incoherent with illness, madness, or grief – point an accusing finger at his widow, who is heading for Philip’s estate. Did she truly have something to do with his death?
My Cousin Rachel is a stunning novel – eerie, tense, beautifully written, and sinister. The descriptions of Philip’s estate, and of Rachel’s house in Italy, are particularly evocative. It is also frequently funny, which is not something I remember from the other du Maurier novels that I’ve read. This is apparent in the characterisation of the servants, for example. The caricatures are a little uncomfortable to read with 21st-century eyes, because they are so obsequious, but still pretty funny. Watching the whole household turn itself upside down because a woman is coming also makes for entertaining reading – the sudden production of silver service or ornate tea trays that have lain in an attic somewhere for 20 years.
Here is the thing, though. I just find it so difficult to read first-person narration where the narrator is dreadful, and Philip definitely is. He’s immensely self-centred, unable or unwilling to consider other people’s feelings, narrow-minded, jingoistic, a dyed-in-the-wool chauvinist. The whole time he is criticising Rachel’s inconstancy and impulsiveness, he fails to recognise those qualities in himself: before Rachel arrives, he is 120% sure she is a murderer; immediately after she gets to Cornwall and turns out to be super hot and occasionally half-dressed, he is convinced that she’s perfect. All his decisions throughout the book demonstrate fickleness and a failure to regulate his behaviour. I’m sure du Maurier meant him to be those things. His flaws are a clear indictment of the way Ambrose raised him without any female company, raised him to mistrust and dislike women. The use of this particular voice is also a brilliant commentary on how men and women are perceived. Philip and Ambrose are the most irrational, overemotional characters in the novel, but they can’t perceive it, because Men Are Reasonable while Women Have Feelings. Stylistically, thematically, Philip’s narration is absolute gold, and definitely the right decision. I just wish it had been less annoying.
On the plus side, the ending to the novel is absolutely perfect, as the endings to Rebecca and Frenchman’s Creek were. No spoilers, but it was exactly the right ending for all the topics that were discussed. I had vague suspicions about how it would end – some of which were justified, and some of which weren’t. Even when I guessed what would happen, it didn’t ruin my enjoyment as I watched it unfurl. Du Maurier is such a genius at rendering moments of dread and tension, and her skill is on display here. Both the beauty and the darkness of the novel are distilled wonderfully into a couple of chapters, and the pace certainly picks up here after being stalled for the middle section of the novel.
So, what’s my summary? This is a very good novel, which I didn’t like. If you are more patient than me with interminable descriptions of falling in love, and if you can handle infuriating point-of-view characters, you might really like this. I can absolutely see how it could be someone’s favourite novel. It definitely wasn’t mine.
This post contains Foyles Affiliate links. If you click through and subsequently make a purchase, I may earn a small commission, though the price you pay will not change.