“There are some women, Philip, good women, very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster. Whatever they touch somehow turns to tragedy. I don’t know why I say this to you, but I feel I must.”
Why is one book from an author’s considerable body of work remembered more than others? I don’t think it’s necessarily because that book stands out for its excellence. In the case of Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, often termed her masterpiece, seems to be the book she is best remembered for. The Hitchcock film version helps, no doubt, and then there’s the remake with Diana Rigg. Plus there’s that unforgettable first sentence: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
This brings me to My Cousin Rachel, a book du Maurier published in 1951–13 years after Rebecca. There’s also an excellent film version of this book, but as I write this post, the film is OOP. My Cousin Rachel, is, I think, the superior book, at least in my opinion. Rebecca is much more traditional, but it’s a wonderful book, and perhaps part of its success can be traced to the way du Maurier makes the reader feel the presence of a character who isn’t there. We feel the presence of the enigmatic Rebecca everywhere–as does the new, very different Mrs de Winter. Curiously, a surface examination of the plots of both novels yields some similarities. Both are set in du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall, and in both novels men marry women they hardly know while they are holidaying in Europe.
But enough of Rebecca. What of My Cousin Rachel? It’s easy to define the plot, but not so easy to describe what is actually going on. This is a novel that explores the dark ambiguities of human nature and the toxicity of jealousy.
It’s the 19th century, and the narrator is Philip, an orphan, who is brought up by his cousin Ambrose. There’s about a twenty year difference between Philip and Ambrose, and no small degree of hero-worship is directed towards Ambrose, “god” of Philip’s “narrow world.” We only see Ambrose through Philip’s memories, but he’s larger than life, a good man, but a man with some peculiarities. Ambrose is a confirmed bachelor, and laughs at the notion of marriage and producing an heir as he argues that Philip is a “ready-made heir“ for his extensive Cornwall estate. Ambrose is considered “eccentric perhaps, unorthodox,” but he’s much-loved by everyone. Philip is influenced by Ambrose’s eccentricity. He’s taught the alphabet by using swearwords, and they live in an all-male household as Ambrose will brook no female servants.
Ambrose begins to winter abroad due to his severe rheumatism, and he turns the time to collecting plants from abroad and bringing them back to Cornwall:
The first winter came and went, likewise the second. He enjoyed himself well enough, and I don’t think he was lonely. He returned with heaven knows how many trees, shrubs, flowers, plants of every form and colour. Camellias were his passion. We started a plantation for them alone, and whether he had green fingers or a wizard’s touch I do not know, but they flourished from the first, and we lost none of them.
So there are some benefits to Ambrose’s exile. Until the third winter….
For his third winter away in Europe, Ambrose decides to travel to Florence. In his first letter from Florence, Ambrose mentions that he’s met “a connection” of the family. This connection, a distant cousin, is the recently widowed Contessa Sangalletti–also known as Rachel. Ambrose’s letters continue to mention Rachel and the information that she’s burdened with her husband’s debts. Then a letter arrives in which Ambrose announces that he’s now married to Rachel. This would be news indeed from anyone, but coming from Ambrose, a confirmed bachelor in his 40s who generally dislikes the female sex and swore he would never marry, the news is unexpected. Philip is shocked and feels displaced by the news. Meanwhile the locals are titillated by the thought of a new bride on the estate, and everyone looks forward to Ambrose’s imminent return:
What shamed me the most was the delight of his friends, their real pleasure and true thought for his welfare. Congratulations were showered upon me, as a sort of messenger to Ambrose, and in the midst of it all I had to smile, and nod my head, and make out to them that I had known it would happen all along. I felt double-faced, a traitor. Ambrose had so tutored me to hate falsity, in man or beast, that suddenly to find myself pretending to be other than I was came near to agony.
Spring moves into summer, then autumn and finally winter. Still Ambrose stays abroad kept by constant delays, and finally after more than 18 months abroad strange, incoherent letters from Ambrose begin to arrive. Philip decides to go to Italy and determine exactly what is going on, but he arrives too late. His beloved cousin Ambrose is dead, and Rachel has disappeared. There are some very peculiar circumstances to Ambrose’s death, but the will, which had been changed to Rachel’s favour remains unsigned.
Some time later, Philip receives word that Rachel is coming to visit. This will be an awkward visit as Philip is now master of the estate while Rachel inherited nothing. Philip is determined to hate her, and yet when she arrives, she is nothing as expected….
My Cousin Rachel is essentially a mystery, and the mystery surrounds Rachel herself. What sort of person is she? Is she evil incarnate, is evil unfairly ascribed to her, or does she land somewhere in the middle–a flawed human being with a few bad habits? That’s for the reader to decide as we line up evidence and argue for each case. Also, can we rely on Philip’s observations? Is he an unreliable narrator? Philip is certainly not as overtly unreliable as McGrath’s Edward Haggard in Dr Haggard’s Disease, but he’s emotionally involved with the situation. Is he capable of making clear judgements?
My Cousin Rachel is a marvellous novel–much more complex than it initially appears. This is a story that tells no absolutes and guilt rests only on impressions:
I wondered how it could be that two people who had loved could yet have such a misconception of each other and, with a common grief, grow far apart. There must be something in the nature of love between a man and a woman that drove them to torment and suspicion.