This is the first of my (hopefully) two reads for Daphne du Maurier reading week between 10 and 16 May 2021, hosted by Ali at Heavenali (details here and here). A story of suspicion, jealousy, love, infatuation and murder, set in du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall.
My Cousin Rachel (1952) is narrated in the voice of Philip Ashley—Philip, 24 when the book opens, is an orphan and has been brought up by his older cousin Ambrose who has taken the place of his parents and has never let him feel their absence. Ambrose is a confirmed bachelor and has raised Philip in a house with no women (after he sent the nanny packing when Philip was 3). While Philip has studied at Harrow and been trained for and can manage Ambrose’s estate (to which he is the heir), he has in most ways led a very sheltered existence. The only people he interacts with other than the tenants are his godfather, Nick Kendall and his daughter Louise, and the vicar Mr Pascoe and his family.
We learn as the narrative starts that Ambrose has not been in the best of health over the past few years and has been advised to travel abroad each winter which he has been doing, visiting different parts of the continent and bringing back new trees and plants which are his interest. But this year, on his travels to Italy, he runs into the Contessa Sangalletti or Cousin Rachel (a sort of relation of the family), who shares his interest in gardens. Before long, Ambrose has fallen in love with Rachel and married her (we learn all this through letters Philip receives). Instead of returning with his bride, Ambrose stays on in Florence to take care of some business for his bride, and then his letters start to become infrequent. Then suddenly, after Philip receives some mysterious and uncharacteristic letters from Ambrose, Ambrose dies.
Given the circumstances, Philip who has already been jealous of Ambrose being taken away from him, and anxious over the changes that might occur (which others are ever ready to point out) is angry and suspects that Rachel is responsible for what has happened to Ambrose—all sorts of images of her are formed in his mind, none particularly pleasant. But then Rachel herself arrives in Cornwall, and Philip is left dumbfounded for she is nothing like he has been visualising. He is almost instantly captivated and soon refuses to listen to anything against her, whether it comes from his godfather/guardian Nick Kendall who warns him of Rachel’s extravagance nor Ambrose’s own words in letters later recovered. Even Louise Kendall’s voice falls on deaf ears. But then, events take another surprising turn.
This was a book that captured me from the very start (and kept me hooked all through). The opening chapter itself, where Philip aged seven walking with Ambrose witnesses a rather grotesque sight sends shivers down one’s spine, and in an eerie way, sets the tone for the theme that is always at the back of one’s mind—murder (whether or not it happened, that is).
Philip’s naivety stands out to us all throughout, for like a sulky child, he is quick to be jealous of Ambrose’s decision to be married, to (perhaps, justifiably) be suspicious of Rachel, and then again to take an almost 180 degree turn as he falls into her spell. While in matters of business he may be efficient, in relationships and judging people, he is not only immature but also headstrong, acting without thinking, and listening to no one. Though one must say that even the other characters (Louise for instance) seem to give contradictory opinions at times.
As we read on, the suspense keeps building up, and one keeps wondering what secrets will be revealed, and what will unfold (despite it being a reread, I didn’t remember the exact sequence of events). The Cornish landscape may be plays less of a role than in some of her other books though it is very much there—the house itself, and the walks they take, and so on.
As Rachel has Philip entranced (or as we think, entrapped) and doing her every bidding, du Maurier has us entirely convinced that Rachel is indeed manipulating him to get what she wants, and believing that we are spectators to what will certainly be Philip’s downfall. In fact, she gets us to become quite smug as we watch events unfold and Philip make one stupid mistake after another playing right into Rachel’s hands. And then she stumps us once again, leaving us pretty much like Philip is left as the end.
Was Rachel really evil or was it simply Philip’s overactive imagination?