My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier

There are some books which you finish and feel a mixture of utter joy that you read something so wonderful, swiftly followed by that lurch in your chest when you realise that these books come few and far between and that you won’t have this exact experience ever again, even if you were to re-read the book from the start… something which you invariably want to do in these situations. This was the exact set of feelings that I had after I had read the very last line, and oh what a closer it was too (no spoilers coming though I promise), of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne Du Maurier.

Virago Books, paperback, 1951, fiction, 304 pages, from my personal TBR

Philip Ashley is the narrator of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ he is a rather naïve young man who has grown up under the care of his elder cousin Ambrose, who owns a large estate, and has become like a mixture of father, brother and best friend. He is also being lined up as Ambrose’s heir and replacement as manager of the estate which often means when Ambrose has to go away to avoid the winters Philip is left in charge. On one such trip to Italy Ambrose writes to Philip that he has met ‘our cousin Rachel’ a woman who slowly looms larger in letters before Ambrose announces they have married, only soon after Ambrose suddenly dies after sending Philip some much more ominous correspondence and soon Rachel herself descends upon Philip’s life.

The story so far does sound a relatively simple one; however I have only really given you the gist of the very first parts of the book. As it goes on, and what sets it apart, the psychological intensity Du Maurier weaves through the pages along with the constant sense that she could pull the rug from under you at any given moment is incredible. Before Rachel even appears herself, around 80 pages in, she is quite the presence and the reader has quite possibly made up their mind about her through Philip’s utter jealously and then suspicion of this woman. Daphne then brings in a character quite unlike the one we would imagine. It is this game of Rachel being a misunderstood sweet if tragic innocent or magnificently manipulative calculating monster that makes you turn the page, are you right about her or utterly wrong?

“Since my journey to the villa she had become a monster, larger than life itself. Her eyes were as black as sloes, her features aquiline like Rainaldi’s, and she moved about those musty villa rooms sinuous and silent, like a snake.”

As with all of Daphne’s novels this is also a book about the human psyche generally, again this is often the case, the much darker sides of it. Jealousy is at the heart of this novel (I occasionally wondered about the nature of obsession too in terms of Philip and his attachment to Ambrose, or was there something other that dared not speak its name?), Philip makes all his initial opinions on Rachel on nothing more than that one pure emotion, after Ambrose’s death comes grief and anger and here too Rachel becomes the focal point for this. We also have to ask ourselves if Philip is an incredibly perceptive young man despite his almost closeted childhood, or is he possibly just as unreliable and possibly as innocently beguiling as Rachel herself? Something on every page makes you question yourself, it is quite incredible.

The atmosphere of the book is also utterly brilliant. In fact ‘My Cousin Rachel’ rather reminded me of the sensation stories of the late 1800’s, which I think is when this novel is meant to be set though we never officially know the time period. From the very opening sentence ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.’ we know we are in for a dark and brooding tale, and Du Maurier certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Many people claim this is like a sister novel to Du Maurier’s most famous work ‘Rebecca’ and I think to say that does do ‘My Cousin Rachel’ an injustice. Yes there is the gothic feel and uneasy atmosphere of both novels, they both feature large estates, we also have a mystery at the heart of each tale and a woman who takes over every page even though she may not be in the book that often. I grant the fact they do both also look at dark human traits but in very, very different ways and though ‘Rebecca’ will always be my favourite Du Maurier novel I am not sure that ‘My Cousin Rachel’ could be beaten for it’s sense of never knowing the truth, in fact I would say Daphne leaves much more to the reader in this novel than she did in ‘Rebecca’ and I loved that.

I had always been told to leave ‘My Cousin Rachel’ as one of the last of Daphne Du Maurier’s novels because it was one of the best. I would heartily recommend people read this as their first Du Maurier novel because once you have read it I can almost guarantee you will want to go off and discover more of her works, I really envy you joy you have ahead of you if you haven’t read this novel before. This will easily be a contender for my book of the year almost exactly fifty years after it was originally published.

I should actually thank Ruth (and I think Jeanette) for making me read ‘My Cousin Rachel’ much sooner than I had ever intended, this was going to be one of those ‘save it for a rainy day’ reads that would languish on my TBR forever. I had also not anticipated reading Daphne so soon after ‘Discovering Daphne’ with Polly. I am thrilled I read it and it’s another reminder that I need to stop putting off the books I really want to read and just get on and read them as I mentioned a week ago.

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25 Comments

Filed under Books of 2011, Daphne Du Maurier, Review, Virago Books

25 responses to “My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier

  1. Simon, this is my favorite DuMaurier (yes, even more love for this one than Rebecca) for all the reasons you run through here but most especially because this is one of the best examples of unreliable narration that I know. You also get all of the build up and mystique around a character that you do in Rebecca but in this novel, the questionable character actually shows up. Alive. Throws so much into turmoil. Just love it!

    • The thing is though is Philip unreliable? Ha, I am saying that tongue firmly in cheek because that is really the heart of the whole book isnt it. What to believe and what to question?

      I loved how Rachel was so formed in my mind and then when she turned up you got the reality (or did you, ha) and how again it threw everything for me as a reader. Brilliant, brilliant novel.

  2. I don’t know whether I liked this more than Rebecca (I’ll need a second reading to decide), but I think you and Frances are quite right to say that this may be a better book overall. It asks so much more of the reader and reveals so little in the end. I love how ambiguous it all is; I changed my mind about Rachel on just about every page.

    • Rebecca was my first Daphne read and that is probably why it is so special to me. I would agree I think technically My Cousin Rachel is better and generally as good (note it was published after Rebecca so Daphne knew what worked) but the whole atmosphere of Rebecca and the first time I read it making me open my eyes again to the world of fiction I will have it as a favourite. This is easily second and only by a small amount.

      I could waffle on more but won’t, I did find it interesting that Polly still thinks Jamaica Inn is her favourite, because it was the first Du Maurier she read. Maybe the first times are always the favourites. I think that could be a whole other post right there.

  3. I agree with Frances — I loved it even more than Rebecca too. So glad you loved it as I think you were afraid you wouldn’t!

    • I don’t know if I was 100% worried I wouldn’t, though that fear is always there when you read a new book by your favourite author, I was more leaving this one because I knew enough about it to suspect it could be a favourite and then every Daphne novel from now on might fade in comparison.But if I do that with every book I really want to read and get hit by a bus next week (heres hoping I don’t, I just touched wood) then I would have missed out.

      I hope that makes sense am a bit waffly today.

  4. Susan in TX

    Okay, now that you’ve read Rachel, if you haven’t read Frenchman’s Creek, you have to read it next. I think I like it first, then Rachel and Rebecca tie for second of Daphne’s books with me. 🙂
    BTW, there is a movie version of My Cousin Rachel. I stumbled upon it on Youtube one day. It was fairly true to the book…good for a rainy day when you don’t feel like reading.

    • I haven’t read Frenchman’s Creek but after your comments on it Susan I think I will have to whack it up the TBR. I think I have a copy (I need to update my TBR spreadsheet) and so it could be one of the reads for the next few months as I start to simply read all the books I would like to if the world was going to end in 2012 like the mayans thought!

      I didn’t know about the movie either, I shall have to hunt that out if I can.

  5. Yea! So glad you loved this. I read it last year right around this time and was just amazed at the storytelling. As you mention, the psychological intensity is incredibly well done. Great, great review.

    • I couldn’t believe how psychological it was I have to say. I was expecting it to be good as so many people like it, but had no idea it would be THIS good. Really thrilled, and could happily re-read it trying to work out who is telling the truth all over again.

  6. Ruthiella

    Must read this book! I adored Rebecca. One of the few books I have read twice. Oddly, however, I never binged on Du Maurier. I did read Jamaica Inn earlier this year but was not very impressed with it. I will also take Susan from TX’ recommendation for Frenchman’s Creek. I actually have a copy of that, begging to be read.

    • I don’t love Jamaica Inn as much as some people do I have to admit Ruthiella, but I do like it a lot. I think it lacks some of the intensity for me but i wonder if some people are more Rebecca lovers and others are more Jamaica Inn lovers rather like Jane Eyre vs Wuthering Heights?

      Maybe we could become joint forces on a Frenchman’s Creek read? Ha.

  7. The more du Maurier reviews I read the more I think I will be brave and read one other than Rebecca.

    • Have you only ever read Rebecca Becky? I know what you mean though, if you truly love a book you always want to read the authors other books but feel slightly scared of doing so.

  8. Erika W.

    This makes me think. My favorite novel by her–and I will still swear that it is the best by far, I read first of all as a teenager. This is “The King’s General”. It didn’t even end as I wished it to, as a romantic youngster. Try this next and you can’t be disappointed.

    When i re-read Rebecca I was amazed to see how my reactions had changed! I sided with Rebecca as the true heroine and no longer had any interest in the mousy wife # 2.

    • Oooh thats an interesting recommendation, thanks very much Erika. I am not sure if I have it (highly likley) but maybe this is one to tackle before Frenchmans Creek.

      When I re-read Rebecca this year I had a very similar reaction, isn’t it strange how your opinion can change like that.

  9. Erika W.

    p.s. You could look into “Don’t Look Now”–9 extraordinary short stories by her. Once read, not forgotten, especially “Blue lenses” and “The Birds” (Hitchcock’s film does not follow the original too well)
    But don’t read these if you don’t want really creepy stories at present.

  10. I so agree with you, Simon – I have never read a better novel in terms of ambiguity. You really cannot say whether Rachel is good or evil – or, rather, I ended up certain that she was good one minute, and certain that she was bad the next.

    By the way, don’t worry about my email abotu comments on my blog, I think I’ve sorted it out now. But the first email, about The Readers, stands 😉

    • Yes thats the exact same reaction I had Simon. One minute I thought she was misunderstood, the next I thought ‘no she is wicked’ my head couldnt keep up with itself whilst turning the pages, and this is a proper literary page turner.

  11. Enjoyed reading your review. I share your passion for My Cousin Rachel. I’m fond of Rebecca, too, but I find a lot of snobbery in the dialogue.

  12. Pingback: Savidge Reads Books of 2011 – Part I | Savidge Reads

  13. It was written around the time of Du Maurier’s disastrous (unrequited?) love affair with Ellen Doubleday. If you listen to Phillips’ voice, you will hear that is clearly a woman’s, and the story has all the elements – hopeless passion, uncertainty, ambiguity etc – of a lesbian affair, at least in the way they used to be in the ‘fifties.

  14. Pingback: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier | Iris on Books

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