Daphne du Maurier Reading Week: My Cousin Rachel (1951)

It’s probably a decade or more since I read anything by Daphne du Maurier. The three novels of hers that I know are Rebecca (of course), Jamaica Inn, and The House on the Strand. HeavenAli’s annual reading week was the excuse I needed to pick up the copy of My Cousin Rachel that I grabbed from the closed-down free bookshop in the mall about a year ago as we were clearing it out. I’m glad I finally got to this one: it has a gripping storyline and the title character is a complex woman it’s impossible to make up your mind about.

To start with, we have an opening line that’s sure to make my year-end superlatives post: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” The whole first chapter is heavy with foreboding, most of which I didn’t pick up on. It’s clear at once that the narrator, a young man named Philip Ashley, feels guilty for the situation he finds himself in, but can’t decide whether Rachel shares his culpability. Philip is the ward and heir of his older cousin, Ambrose, who winters in Florence for his health but on his latest trip marries Rachel, a widow and distant half-Italian cousin who also has roots in Cornwall, and stays in Italy.

From what little he learns of her through Ambrose’s increasingly incoherent letters, Philip is predisposed to dislike Rachel. When Ambrose dies of a suspected brain tumour, Philip is alarmed to hear that Rachel has already emptied their Florence villa and is reluctant to meet her when she arrives in Plymouth some weeks later. But she is not what he expected: just 35 and beautiful; with a passion for garden design and herbal medicine; witty and gently flirtatious. Before long Philip is smitten. “Why, in heaven’s name, did she have to be so different and play such havoc with my plans?”

The plot revolves around Ambrose’s unsigned will and what it means for the ownership of the Ashleys’ Cornwall estate. Philip is now 24, but on his 25th birthday, which happens to fall on April Fool’s Day, he will come into his inheritance and can make his own decisions. Will Rachel, notorious for her extravagant spending, bewitch him into altering the will to her advantage? A pearl necklace, hidden letters, a beggar woman, churchyard conversations, tisanes, lavish curtains, and a foppish Italian visitor form the backdrop to this Gothic tale.

I never succeeded in dating the action: the only major clue is that it takes three weeks to travel between southwest England and Florence, which seems to point to the nineteenth century. But a lack of definite markers makes the story feel timeless and almost like a fairy tale. Although she shrewdly looks out for her own interests and can manipulate Philip’s emotions, Rachel is no stereotypical witch. Sally Beauman’s introduction to my Virago paperback usefully points out that we only ever see Rachel through the male gaze (Philip’s perhaps unreliable narration and Ambrose’s letters) and that from the title onward she is defined in relation to men. In making a bid for her own independent life, she is the true heroine of what Beauman calls du Maurier’s “most overtly feminist” novel.

I always love the murky atmosphere of du Maurier’s work, but can find her plots contrived. However, this ended up being my favourite of the four I’ve read so far. Initially, it reminded me of E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread, while by the end I was wondering if Janet Fitch took it as inspiration for White Oleander. There’s an unusual pair for you! Make of it what you will…

What else should I read by du Maurier?

29 responses

  1. This has been my favourite du Maurier too – I love its ambiguity and I appreciated Rachel as a character. I’ve just read The Scapegoat and was impressed.

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    1. Thanks, Cathy — I’ll look into that one.

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  2. I was a teenager when I read this, and I don’t recall it at all. One for a re-read one day.

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    1. It was a great read! I didn’t predict where it was going at all.

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  3. As with many of us, this was a teenage read which I enjoyed, but was probably lost on me in many ways. Time for a re-read, together with others from her pen.

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    1. I’m sure there’s lots of ideas at Ali’s website.

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  4. This one is so compelling isn’t it? I agree it’s difficult to make up your mind about Rachel, such a well drawn complex Character. Thanks for joining in #DDMreadingweek.

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    1. Thanks for hosting, Ali! I’d never managed to join before, but I will again.

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  5. I enjoyed this too, you make me want to read it again. I also noticed that we can’t know who Rachel really is, we experience her primarily as “an image seen through Philip’s fractured mind.” The Scapegoat is excellent too (with some suspension of disbelief as to the premise).

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    1. I don’t know anything about that one, but several people have recommended it now! One for next year…

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  6. One of my three favourite du Maurier novels! (The other two are Rebecca and The Scapegoat). I still think nothing can really top Rebecca, but this is such a great novel.

    Speaking of Sally Beauman, I’m still cross about her faux-feminist introduction to Rebecca, which enraged me as a teenager! I have the same Virago paperback edition of My Cousin Rachel, but can’t remember what she says about it, so imagine it was more sensible.

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    1. Lots of love for The Scapegoat! I will definitely have to read that one. Maybe in next year’s readalong week if I can find a library copy. I’ll need to reread Rebecca, too — I read it so long ago, and don’t recall being impressed.

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      1. I’m kind of surprised by that just because you liked My Cousin Rachel so much and I think the two books share a lot in common. But then I’ve been holding off re-reading Rebecca for years for fear of ruining the experience I had as a teenager/very young woman so I can’t really talk!

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      2. It could be 15 years or more since I read Rebecca. I was a harsher reader in those days, I think. I rated almost everything 3 stars and didn’t keep notes to justify my scores!

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    2. buriedinprint | Reply

      That makes me curious about the introduction: what is a faux feminist?! 🙂
      Probably not a conversation to undertake in a comment section. LOL

      Rebecca is one that I read as an adult and I do believe that I would have enjoyed it so much more if I’d discovered it as a teenager; I can imagine how much you would must adored it. Plus, a friend had recommended it to me as a novel with a feministy heroine (*I* can’t define that!) and her description left me with a million expectations, none of which aligned with DDM’s novel. Rereading it last year was good, but still left me wishing I’d found her earlier.

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      1. Ha, yes I have not read Beauman’s introduction to Rebecca for a long time and I don’t have the book with me now! I’m not sure ‘faux-feminist’ is the right term. IIRC, Beauman gives quite a revisionist reading of Rebecca in her intro to the Virago edition (if you were being cynical, you might say she was keen to promote her novel Rebecca’s Tale which was out about the same time and leans heavily into this reading). This reading demonises Maxim and whitewashes Rebecca, which – without wishing to suggest that Maxim is without fault – strikes me as a supremely uninteresting reading of the novel. I unfortunately read this as a teenager when I already thought feminism was stupid and it further put me off, I really wish I had encountered more genuine feminist writing as a teenager rather than this silliness.

        Re Mrs de Winter, ha yes she is definitely not a protagonist cast in the traditional feminist mould so I can see why your expectations weren’t met. I identified SO strongly with her as a teenager/very young woman that I’ve been reluctant to re-read the novel since. I’m not sure I could re-enter that imaginative space.

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      2. buriedinprint

        Well, I’m still curious about the introduction because I usually do enjoy the VMC introductions, but I can also relate to the idea that leaning too hard into demonization and victimization would erode much of the appeal of her character straight off. So much of what you’re saying here brings to mind the thoughts and feelings that I had when I approached my reread for last year’s DDM week. Because I had not read Rebecca (or DDM more generally) as a young reader, I had to imagine what I might have thought and felt about the story, based on how I accepted other fictional women’s decisions and behaviour in other favourites, but maybe some of the allowances I imagine that I might have afforded her are the kinds of forgivenesses that you might have intuitively offered the story as well. I still think it would be interesting if you were to reread, but I also completely understand how hard it is to make time for rereading when there are so many amazing new books one craves reading too.

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      3. I’m definitely going to re-read Rebecca! It’s just that it would be a shame if I were to get impatient and irritated with Mrs de Winter when – as my experience as a young woman shows – her character deserves empathy.

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  7. Glad you enjoyed it so much – I loved this when I read it two years ago. I think I even liked it more than Rebecca – which I also really loved. As you write, the reader is left to decide about Rachel because we don’t really see her POV.

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    1. I don’t often read books with a suspense element, but when I do I can like them more than I expect to!

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  8. I found this such a page-turner although it was a bit breathless and melodramatic. I see I failed to read the introduction so will do that forthwith. I’ve been tempted by reviews of The Scapegoat, too (I didn’t like Jamaica Inn very much as too violent for me so I am steering clear of the ghosty ones, too) and also there’s The Parasites, which will be I’m sure coming to me by the great Enabler, Ali, in time for next early May!

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    1. Melodramatic, true — that’ll be the Gothic influence! But I agree it was a real page-turner. I’ll have to make The Scapegoat my next du Maurier.

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  9. This book just didn’t hit the spot for me at all. I was expecting a much darker novel but never got it. Based on your review those elements were there, but I missed them

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    1. I was similarly underwhelmed by some of du Maurier’s novels in my 20s, but I’d like to try her most famous works again.

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      1. That’s a good plan. I’ve definitely found some books that didn’t work first time around but on another day they were very enjoyable.

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  10. I loved, loved, loved this when I read it. The film is quite good (Rachel Weisz is inspired casting) but does something at the end that I can’t decide if I love or hate, which probably only makes the case for it as a successful interpretation!

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    1. Interesting … I’ll have to get hold of it to watch!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. buriedinprint | Reply

    Even though the week is over, I’m still happily reading a few pages of Mary Anne most nights. I’ve read a few of her books (six, maybe?) but not enough to feel as though I could make a suitable recommendation for what you might want to read next. But if you do try The Scapegoat next year, I might join you. And I am intrigued by the idea that Beauman considers this her most overtly feminist novel…

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