**Review originally posted at thelifeinthestacks.com.**
I didn’t discover Daphne du Maurier until I was 23 or 24 years old. I have no idea why I origin**Review originally posted at thelifeinthestacks.com.**
I didn’t discover Daphne du Maurier until I was 23 or 24 years old. I have no idea why I originally brought home an old hardcover copy of Rebecca from the library but, looking back, it was one of the best book discoveries that a reader can make. I was absolutely sucked in from the first page on—the suspenseful mood, the creepy housekeeper, the old mansion, the Britishness of it all—it’s just my cup of tea. When I finished I enthusiastically told a friend about this book I had discovered (and no, I had no idea it was a movie, either) and she looked at me with very little expression and said, “Yeah? You’re just now reading that?” So don’t be like me—if you’ve never read Rebecca, go and get it, as soon as you can.
While you’re at it, get a copy of My Cousin Rachel as well. Shortly after I finished Rebecca, I started systematically buying du Maurier novels. I haven’t found copies of all of them yet, but of the ones I’ve read, My Cousin Rachel is nearly as good as Rebecca and just as much fun to read. I recently re-read MCR in a fit of post-Downton Abbey melancholy and liked it as much as I did the first time. If you like period BBC drama or mystery novels, I’m sure you’ll like these books.
My Cousin Rachel is a romantic and suspenseful tale told in the Gothic tradition (maybe light on the romance and heavy on the mystery/suspense; although I typically don’t read romance, I guess I have a weakness for the Gothic style). The first thing we see is a man, hanging, and the shadow of madness and evil that it casts over the life of our narrator, Philip Ashley, from his youth onward. And then comes the question at the heart of the novel, “Was Rachel innocent or guilty?”
Philip Ashley is twenty-four when we meet him. He has returned home to Cornwall from his years of schooling at Oxford, happy in the expectation of living a bachelor’s life with his cousin Ambrose Ashley, who raised him when he was orphaned as a small boy. Ambrose’s health, however, soon requires him to travel to a warmer climate and he settles in Florence, where he meets a widow, Rachel. Ambrose writes glowingly to Philip of his acquaintance with Rachel and then writes that he has married her. And here the Gothic elements come fast and thick—his letters become fewer and darker, filled with suspicion of Rachel and accounts of his own terrifying spells of illness. Philip determines to go to him and receives one final letter as he pulls down the drive, a plea from Ambrose for Philip’s help. When Philip arrives in Florence Ambrose is dead and Rachel has disappeared.
Philip returns home with little but hatred for Rachel. He envisions her alternately as a murdering, scheming monster and a terrible, aged hag. He vows retribution for Ambrose’s death—until the day she arrives at his home a lovely, enchanting, and mystifying young woman. Here you may guess accurately at what happens next. But you cannot foresee the conclusion of the matter, and you wouldn’t want to, anyway, and miss out on the delicious suspense.
I read somewhere, I have no idea where now, that this book reads itself. And it does—it reads so smoothly and effortlessly that it’s like floating through the words and scenes. For the ease with which it came to life, I could have been watching a film. But while the story flows along and buoys exudes hopes and happiness, we know it will ultimately turn out badly for Philip because we’ve read the first chapter in the book, with its description of the hanged man.
**Some spoilers ahead—read at your own risk**
Reading Philip’s narrative is like watching an inevitable train wreck. He’s young and arrogant and makes more than a few idiotic mistakes. Even though we’d like to grab him and stop him from making the worst mistake of all, it’s hard to doubt him or his reliability until the end. And Rachel, such a masterfully created character, never stops making us wonder. We like her. She’s tender and generous, she mourns Ambrose—but she leads Philip on, she overspends, she keeps her own council except for with the shadowy man, Rainaldi, and she hides poison in her room.
There is never a clear answer to Philips question, “Was Rachel innocent or guilty?” The answer is both, and I think du Maurier wants us to live with the ambiguity. The more I think about it, the more guilt seems to be the theme of the novel. Did Rachel possess poison and use it on Ambrose and Philip? It seems to be undeniable. Did she come to the point of actually murdering Ambrose and would she have done the same to Philip? I don’t know. Did she ever love Ambrose? Or did she love Philip? Maybe she loved both. And then we have to ask, is Philip himself innocent or guilty? He’s definitely guilty of a blind infatuation that forces him to grasp for control over Rachel. And when Philip realizes how much Rachel has played him, he turns violent. In a world where men held all of the legal and financial power, Rachel could have felt threatened. Given that du Maurier makes Philip out to be Ambrose’s double, it is possible that Rachel felt the same threat from Ambrose.
It has been so long since I first read MCR that I had (happily) forgotten the ending. There’s nothing much more satisfying in a suspense novel, in a backwards sort of way, than being nearly convinced of someone’s guilt and then having doubt poured all over it. Du Maurier pours loads of doubt over Rachel’s guilt at the end—so much so that Philip begins to doubt it himself. And—we’ll never know. In this way the end of the novel is pure tragedy. Is Philip responsible for Rachel’s demise? Legally, no. But he holds himself guilty of it, and this is what I think brings the novel full circle. I believe many of Rachel’s actions were motivated by guilt—whether for killing Ambrose or not loving him enough—and as the femme fatale, she has turned that guilt over to Philip....more