Someone’s Cousin Reviews ‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne du Maurier

Young, rich and unworldly Philip Ashley was raised by his uncle Ambrose after his parents died. For years, it was only the two of them. Philip and Ambrose. One year, in an effort to cure what ails him, Ambrose sets out for Florence, Italy, and falls for his mysterious cousin Rachel. Not really a cousin—more like a distantly related family member. Ambrose falls for cousin Rachel and marries her. Then he dies suddenly. Philip, thrown off by increasingly suspicious and mentally unsound letters from Ambrose, sets out for Florence, and is only left with more questions than answers. When cousin Rachel announces she is to visit Philip in Cornwall, he prepare to meet his cousin Rachel with hatred in his heart.

My Cousin Rachel is a gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier published in 1951. After becoming obsessed with Rebecca after reading it in April 2017 and watching the movie adaptation with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier not along after, I was interested in reading more du Maurier. In early 2018 I splurged and bought the Virago Modern Classics hardcovers of Rebecca alongside My Cousin Rachel and The Birds: Short Stories after seeing the gorgeous covers in a BookTube video. I tried reading MCR in 2019 or 2020, but because of everything that year entailed, stopped reading halfway through, started again, stopped. Late last year, in a reading frenzy, I finally decided to start again, and read the physical copy alongside the Borrowbox audiobook narrated by Jonathan Pryce. And I can say I finally finished it earlier this month! Was it as good as Rebecca?

Simply put: I believe Rebecca is the superior novel, and there’s a reason it’s always on the list for classic gothic horror. There’s something darker at play with the unnamed protagonist and the looming spectre of her husband’s widow, and the enchanting Mrs Danvers. But du Maurier delivers again with her stunning endings that leave you completely shaken. The location for Rachel is mostly the same as Rebecca; beautiful country Cornwall, but with some change of scenery in Florence. We might as well not be in Florence—Philip Ashley despises anywhere that is not his pure, beautiful Motherland, and it feels very xenophobic, this puritanism, this belief of Philip’s part of the world the only “pure” part of the world. This makes sense in making his cousin Rachel more unlikeable, and she certainly is unlikeable as the story progresses, but also feels like Daphne du Maurier’s obsession with her specific part of Cornwall encroaching onto her writing. But Philip is also raised by his cousin Ambrose to be wary, basically misogynistic of women; he is raised by Ambrose in a mansion staffed only by men. The Mrs Danvers of this book is Seecombe, a dutiful older man also wary of women until he too meets cousin Rachel and falls under her spell. Seecombe has nowhere the presence as Mrs Danvers, but his role as supporting cast is perfectly adequate. The only women Philip knows of before his cousin Rachel are his godfather Nick Kendall’s (and yes, he always refers to him as “my godfather, Nick Kendall”) daughter Louise, the pastor’s wife Mrs Pascoe and her three daughters, and his dead aunt Phoebe—of whom he gives her boudoir to his cousin Rachel. All are portrayed negatively, even Louise, the most likeable and prescient of them. This is supposed to make us dislike his cousin Rachel; prepare to meet her with as much hatred in our heart as Philip does. Until things change, and Philip is caught up in the spell of his cousin Rachel, for the worldly woman, twice-married, awakens Philip’s naive, curious soul.

This edition of My Cousin Rachel comes with an introduction by Sally Beauman. I purposely leave these essays to the end of my reading journey, so it doesn’t manipulate my reading experience. I like to read them afterwards to see how academics, scholars, whoever they may be, interpret the reading and how we varied in opinion, and usually we do vary in opinion.

While you do read this novel sorry for Ambrose and what happened to him, for it shouldn’t have happened to him, his role in raising Philip is a fascinating one. Ambrose himself was not the man, especially at the time, fit for raising a son. He was a bachelor, wholly unused to women, and while he imparted wisdom and insights upon Philip, he taught Philip about death and women, but when push came to shove, Philip never truly understood his words until it was almost too late. I spent most of the book annoyed at Philip’s naivete, for falling for cousin Rachel so easily because she was unlike what he was used to, for turning against cousin Rachel so suddenly because she was unlike what he was used to. His disdain of Rainaldi and descriptions of the Italians (even the ones who were only nice to him), so foreign to him they might as well have been from Mars, felt more like the racism of the time the book was published. Rainaldi was never portrayed as anything but antagonistic, the Mrs Danvers of this tale, and one couldn’t help but hope for something to happen to him. Unfortunate. And Don, Philip’s beloved Retriever. Poor, poor Don 😦

And their cousin Rachel. Oh, Rachel. I spent most of the book thinking of her like the titular Rebecca, conniving and manipulative and potentially a black widow, but I was never truly certain. Her behaviour towards Philip is off: teasing this man you know is young and gullible and naive way below his years (he might as well still be a schoolboy at Harrow!), and the power imbalance is definitely intriguingly played out by du Maurier. Like Rebecca, it took a while to realise this isn’t set in the timeframe it was published, which makes Rachel’s behaviour more understandable. She marries the men she marries, and they die, and that is when she has the power. It is a time when women were powerless. It is like the famous quote by Elizabeth I:

I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England

Cousin Rachel makes the most of a bad situation, but thanks to being raised by those used to opulence, she is used to only having the finest in life. She beguiles men who see less of her as a person, as a delicate flower, and she plays upon that stereotype. From the outside: a sad, weak, small woman, clad in black for mourning, not a threat. There is no evidence of any wrongdoing; any man who is the tiniest bit suspicious will have their fears alleviated after a mere conversation with cousin Rachel. How could poor, innocent, sad cousin Rachel harm a soul? She doesn’t even want much! Is Philip imagining her flirtations, or is that by design? It takes Philip until he gives his cousin Rachel everything for him to realise, and even then…what will happen of him? His conclusion is not neat, there is no happy ending for either cousin Rachel or Philip.

My Cousin Rachel is a slow burn, much like its predecessor, but picks up speed, and is a challenging read. Jonathan Pryce is a lovely narrator for Philip, and was useful in helping me learn to pronounce words I’ve never heard spoken aloud before, so this book had the double whammy of being a fascinating read and increasing my vocabulary. The rating I decided for My Cousin Rachel helped me bump Rebecca up from four to four-and-a-half stars; I spent ages debating what to rate it. Philip was way too naive and gullible, but he makes for a nice change for a protagonist, especially for a man in his twenties in the time setting. Is cousin Rachel innocent or guilty? I have my suspicions, but what do you think? Is she an innocent victim surrounded by untimely death, or a beguiling manipulator of a naive young man, controlling men for their large sums of money? The ambiguity makes for a compelling read.

Overall: 4/5


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