My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

While du Marurier’s Rebecca is the wittiest (and has the best film adaption), and Jamaica Inn is the most brutal (and my favorite fiction work of 2019!), My Cousin Rachel had me in knots that caused me to put the novel down because the emotion was so powerful.

Philip Ashley was orphaned at age eighteen months, so his bachelor cousin Ambrose Ashley, at the age twenty-five, adopted Philip as his own son. The two led a wonderful, masculine life with none of the fuss of women who would tell them to redecorate the rooms and get their boots off the table. But when he gets into his forties, Ambrose recognizes that he suffers from the cold, wet weather of Cornwall, England, and heads to Florence, Italy, for the winter. While there, Ambrose meets a distance cousin named Rachel, a thirty-five year-old widow, and soon a letter arrives for Philip stating the couple has been married.

Although this turn from bachelorhood to married man in his forties delights everyone on Ambrose’s estate, Philip is more concerned with the way Ambrose’s handwriting grows ragged in the letters that come sporadically those eighteen months he is away. Ambrose’s last claim, that Rachel is his tormentor, sends Philip to Italy to save his adopted father. It’s too late: Ambrose is dead and Rachel is gone away with all of Ambrose’s things.

Emily @ Literary Elephant and I read My Cousin Rachel at the same time so we could discuss it together, and as soon as we were both done, the text messages flew hard and fast. I love the way we read certain aspects differently. I’m the kind of reader who allows herself to get pulled into a narrator’s story, to the point where I forget my physical body and surroundings. Thus, as I explained to Emily, reading Lolita was a strange experience because I recognized how Humbert Humbert was building an argument to put the reader on his side and justify his abduction of a teen-age girl — and because he was in the driver’s seat, I went along with his argument. The same happened with Philip: since he’s the first-person narrator, it’s easy to get lost in his feelings and concerns. Du Maurier’s use of first-person is wonderfully used to build tension and confusion.

When Philip first learns of Rachel and Ambrose’s marriage, Philip pictures some woman at the estate, telling him what to do. And what if they have children? That will mess up Philip’s sole inheritance of Ambrose’s 500-acre estate. A sulky, petulant young man, Philip convinced me of his feelings, until I could completely see his concerns and stand on his side. It was a familiar jealousy, though our experiences are different.

Later, when Rachel arrives at the estate to personally deliver Ambrose’s things — of course they are Philip’s now, of course she never had any intention of keeping them — as a reader I was won over by her “not one of those girls” personality because Philip was. Rachel doesn’t want to change Philip or his bachelor ways, and in turn he finds her intriguing, not like the ladies who bat their eyelashes at him, leading to a deep passion and emotional dependence on Rachel.

There are two elements that made me feel like someone was tightening a violin string too hard, and it was what made me put the book down to breathe. I mean this in the best way, as I got overly-involved in the characters’ lives. One, in what way did Rachel torment Ambrose? His death was preceded by an illness that was similar to the brain tumor that caused his father’s death. Violence, confusion, paranoia, these are all hallmarks of the brain tumor, we’re told. But did Ambrose also have a tumor, or was Rachel slowly poisoning him for his money? Then again, he Ambrose never wrote Rachel into his will. There is loads of convincing, logical evidence both ways! This is where I couldn’t read fast enough.

Then there is Philip’s godfather, who controls the will and money of the estate until Philip reaches twenty-five. Ambrose had a belief that a man doesn’t know himself until he is twenty-five, but when Rachel shows up, Philip is only twenty-four. Everything must go through the godfather, who at first asks petulant, suspicious Philip to be sympathetic to Rachel. As Philip gets to know her, he decides that Ambrose never updating his will was an oversight, and that Rachel should be given a quarterly allowance as the widow.

The godfather later cautions Philip that Rachel is overspending on what they agreed upon and has growing concerns about this cousin. Philip begins to act with heart alone, despite warnings from his godfather and friend Louise, and here is where I had to set the book down. I was positive this idiot would give everything to Rachel and then suffer being slowly poisoned and death. But I had to know what happened! So I read, and read, and read, more engrossed than I have been in another other novel since. . . well, since Jamaica Inn.

I’m 100% convinced that du Maurier is a master of writing, unique in her ability to ratchet up genuine tension, keep the plot totally plausible, craft a variety of characters for which I care even if the person is possibly a villain, and still maintains her wit as sharp as a cobra fang. Completely recommended. What are you waiting for? Go get a copy!

I want to thank Emily for reading along with me! Interested in reading a novel at the same time so we can talk about it, spoilers and all, away from our blogs? Let me know in the comments.

58 comments

    • The surprising thing about du Maurier that ALWAYS gets me is it feels like her books were written this year. They’re so modern feeling, even though My Cousin Rachel was published in 1951. I tend to DNF a lot of classics, though. I just quit The Brothers Karamazov and Siddhartha this week. Ain’t nobody got time for confusing writing. However, I read and loved Moll Flanders, published in 1722. For me, it’s always about clear writing and a catchy story.

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  1. This is such a painful and gripping book. I read both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel multiple times as a teenager and an undergrad, but I’ve held back on re-reading either because I’m not sure I’d feel the same way now. I identified SO strongly with the second Mrs de Winter when I was a teenager, but now I worry I’d just want her to get her act together, and the book wouldn’t work for me (this is not a problem with the book, but with me). Similarly, like you, when I first read My Cousin Rachel I felt like I was on Philip’s side, but I doubt I’d sympathise with him now, and I think there has to be that uncertainty about Rachel in play.

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        • One thing Rebecca doesn’t emphasize is exactly what a lady of the house is. Sure, Mrs. Van Hopper scoffs and says she can’t picture the narrator being a great lady, but what does she mean by that. Yes, we see Rebecca’s old letters, but does that really tell us what makes a great lady? It’s more like Mrs. Danvers is the great lady of Manderlay and the narrator is some pet project Max brought home. I wish du Maurier had made it clearer what the narrator’s dilemma was in sacking the help.

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          • The thing is, I think the narrator’s behaviour makes perfect sense given her youth and social standing, so I don’t think this is a problem with the book but a potential failure of empathy on my part. Historically speaking, it makes sense to me that someone like Mrs Danvers would feel great pride in Manderley, but I guess someone more brought up to that lifestyle would be more likely to (a) have her respect, as they aren’t an ‘upstart’ and (b) have more idea about how to keep her in line.

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    • Honestly, I think because there is so much to unpack in these books that you would like reading them again. Emily and I talked about how while I got sucked into Philip’s perspective, Emily was always aware of Rachel’s precarious situation as a woman with no means and a background of poverty. Why would she not be manipulative, if needed, in a system that is against her? Also, don’t forget that he lays hands on her. What does that mean? Is this a story in which we buy into misogyny for the sake of “romance”?

      With Rebecca, there are so many great conversations to be had about whether we can get over marrying a murderer, one who murdered because he dubbed his wife “evil.” I mean, this books area amazing feminist texts in which du Maurier buries the concern of the women and tricks us into being complacent.

      Have you read Jamaica Inn yet?

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      • I guess my problem is that I don’t think Rebecca works as well if you see Max as an oppressor and Mrs de Winter 2 as a dupe. For me it loses its power. But I definitely do want to re-read both these books. I have also read Jamaica Inn, but a very long time ago, and I don’t remember much about it.

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        • I try to remember that for the narrator this is the first great love of her life, and a replacement father figure, too. She has no family, and Manderlay has so many traditions and built in people that it’s like marrying in to a whole new social support system.

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  2. The only du Maurier I’ve read is Rebecca. I loved the writing and the building of suspense, but didn’t particular like the ‘young, timid, naive women falling in love with older man’ aspect of the story. However, I certainly have appetite for more du Maurier, perhaps this one could be the next one.

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  3. Great review, as always, and thanks for linking me! I’m so glad you also enjoyed this one, it was such a fun read and I was totally engrossed as well. 🙂 I think the main difference for us is that you were a bit more hooked by Philip than I was, though I definitely found him intriguing as a narrator. But I completely agree with the rest of your points, about the steadily increasing tension, the layering of evidence that seemed to point both ways, the blinding jealousy… it really is an impressive novel, and I’m so excited to read more of her work in the future! Also, I forgot Sam Claflin was in the film adaptation, now I really must watch it soon!

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  4. Uggggghhhhh! Stop writing the BEST reviews ever. You make me want to go out and read a book RIGHT NOW. And my TBR is so long for January. Why.

    But seriously, I definitely need to read My Cousin Rachel. Do you think buddy reading this book enhanced your experience or interpretation in any way?

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  5. Really enjoyed your review – I admire your ability to empathise with Philip, when I just wanted to knock him over the head! I do agree about the absolutely masterful building of tension and dread, and I really thought the ending was perfect.

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    • I’m not sure empathize is the right word. It’s more like I get so caught up in a good narrator that I’m willing to go along with whatever they are feeling. Maybe that is empathy? Actually, you’re right: I empathized when he was being petulant about Ambrose possibly having other children and getting more attention than Philip.

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    • The minute he laid hands on Rachel, it was hard to sympathize with him. Was he really so surprised that Rachel then invited Mary to live with them to maintain Rachel’s reputation and safety? It’s like Philip can’t even see it from her point of view.

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  6. I’m another one who is going to have to find the book to see how it ends – a very exciting review! Pity about Brothers K. I was really enjoying it last year when the cd self destructed. Now I have it on my phone I listen to it later this year. I suppose I’d better write a review as well.

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  7. Fantastic review! I’ll have to read this. Is the language difficult? That’s my only hesitation in ever reading classics, if I struggle too hard with the writing/language, I don’t enjoy it as much. I’m getting better at deciphering it as I get older but it’s still a struggle sometimes.

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