In recent years, I have been growing fonder and fonder of Daphne du Maurier as an author. My first encounter with her work was, I fear, a little too early, when I was too young to appreciate it and I found the long, descriptive passages that introduce her novel, Frenchman’s Creek, impossible to get past. However, in recent years, I have had another go, not with this particular novel, but with possibly her most famous work, Rebecca and then with Jamaica Inn. I loved them both, especially Jamaica Inn which I now regard as one of my favourite novels.
My Cousin Rachel has been sitting on my shelf for quite some time now. I was saving it for when I would at last have some proper time to really get stuck in to another exciting, gripping and romantic story. I took it down and skimmed the blub on the back. Certain phrases jumped out at me: ‘orphaned’, ‘resolutely single’, ‘mysterious woman’, ‘grand house’, it was already ticking all of the boxes. The actual experience of reading this novel was, however, far from what I had expected. First of all, this story is not a romance. I did suspect it might be for a few pages when the aforementioned ‘resolutely single’ and sardonic protagonist and narrator, Philip Ashley first meets his cousin Rachel after weeks of hating the thought of her. Such a plot structure is used in novels such as Pride and Prejudice, North and South, etc. I thought that was where this was going. But this idea was quickly extinguished by the rather stronger strain of mystery that runs through this book.
Just as with Rebecca, in My Cousin Rachel, we as readers are at the mercy of the narrator and the way that he perceives things. Thus, we are drawn into his claustrophobic, old fashioned, male-dominated world from the start. No matter how well we might know Florence in Italy, or how many pictures we might have seen of it looking just lovely, when we go with Philip, we want to leave as soon as possible, because there is something very sinister about it. Back in his large, lonely, dusty house in Cornwall, we breathe a sigh of relief, for we are home. Du Maurier paints a vivid picture of her settings, just as she does in her other novels, yet all the while, we feel somehow detached, perhaps because we are never told specifically when this novel is set (references to Philip’s cravat and Rachel’s dresses would suggest that it is sometime during the nineteenth century). We are never given the name of the Ashley estate or even the location. And all we have to rely on for what is happening and how people are behaving is Philip’s account. Even this is, at times such as when he becomes very ill, made blatantly untrustworthy.
Philip Ashley is a complex character and, as with Rachel, my opinion of him was tossed and turned about several times throughout the novel. In general, because he is the protagonist and seemingly harmless, I was disposed to like him, or at least to sympathise with him when it looked like things were not going his way. Rachel always seemed like a much more confident and controlled character. She did not need my support. Even in those moments of weakness that du Maurier allows her, I could never fully trust in her because of the seeds of doubt that Philip had already planted.
When one reflects on the plot of this book, not much actually happens. After Philip’s trip to Florence in the first few chapters, the rest of the action all takes place in Cornwall, in and around his house. So much of what is described is the characters’ day to day lives: their visits to church, their walks around the gardens, the occasional trip to the bank. Nevertheless, this story is just as compelling as that of Rebecca, and just as mysterious. It is the characters who engage our interest. The ways in which they speak, the expressions which Philip perceives and reads into in Rachel’s face and movements, the emotions that he describes – these are the tools that du Maurier uses to keep us hooked and to keep us guessing as to who can really be trusted in this novel.
The ending felt very abrupt to me – I think that that is what du Maurier probably intended. It was so abrupt that I had to re-read that final page at least three times before I could conjure up any emotions about what had happened. Then, of course, I tried to unpick it. Had there been any clues as to what was about to happen? Were we meant to expect this? Was it in fact an accident? But in the end, I was left to keep on guessing. Even the repetition of the opening two lines to the novel used so effectively to end it proved more to tantalise than to explain. Perhaps that is why My Cousin Rachel, first published in 1951, continues to be such a successful and widely read mystery novel. Du Maurier leaves it open to the reader to form their own opinions of Rachel, though everyone I have spoken to has come to the same conclusion as myself. It will be interesting to see what spin the upcoming film adaptation (directed by Roger Michell and due for release in 2017) will put on it.