Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Cousin Rachel

They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though.

In 1951, thirteen years after the publication of her smash hit Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier began another novel also set on the coast of Cornwall. A story with an air of romance and mystery, a young and unreliable narrator, and a glittering and unknown woman named Rachel.

The Plot:

The story is narrated by Philip Ashley, an young man growing up in the care of his cousin, Ambrose, on a large Cornish estate. Philip worships Ambrose, and their life is happy, if isolated. Being two bachelors, they rarely entertain females and even the house staff is all male. After Philip finishes school, Ambrose becomes ill and is sent to Italy to recover his health. While there, Ambrose suddenly marries the young and vivacious Rachel, a distant cousin and penniless widow of an Italian count. Philip is shocked by this news, but even more shocked when he receives another letter from Ambrose indicating that Rachel might be trying to harm him. Philip sets off for Italy, only to learn upon arrival of Ambrose's death and Rachel's sudden departure.

Philip returns to England convinced that Rachel has murdered his beloved cousin. When she arrives in England, he invites her to the estate with the intent of charging her with murder. Instead, he is instantly smitten with the older and more cultured woman. His infatuation leads him to reckless behavior, even as the suspicions surrounding Ambrose's death continue to mount. Philip is torn: is Rachel innocent and worthy of his home and love, or is she really a murderess only interested in him for his wealth?

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I fell head over heels for Daphne du Maurier's work after reading what is perhaps her most famous novel, Rebecca. The story gripped me from the beginning and found it's way into my top books of 2009. I knew that I had to read more of her books, so when I read the basic plot of My Cousin Rachel, I knew that it would be my next one.

There are a lot of similarities between this novel and Rebecca. Both are narrated by naive young people who suddenly find themselves in incredible situations. Both take place at a grand estate on the Cornish coast. And both hinge on a mysterious woman who's name begins with "R".

Perhaps the biggest similarity is in it's portrayal of that basic human emotion: jealousy. Just as the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter's whole world is wrapped up in Maxim, so is Philip Ashley's world made up of nothing beyond his cousin Ambrose. In fact, Philip has an almost a dog-like loyalty and love for Ambrose. When his beloved cousin suddenly marries, it is obvious that Philip is overcome with jealousy. The rest of the novel is a picture of how that jealousy consumes him and affects his relationships with his neighbors, his workers, and Rachel herself.

But though the novel centers on the jealousy that love brings, nothing consumes it like Rachel herself. She is charming, witty, and full of contradictions. Because we see everything through Philip's eyes, we never get a full grasp of who she really is. Is she a compassionate woman who's life has been one hardship after another? Or is she a gold-digger who will stop at nothing (not even murder) to achieve her aim? We'll never know. Philip is an unreliable narrator, so we can't really trust his judgment. And Rachel's death at the end of the novel prevents him (and us) from discovering the truth. Even du Maurier was never sure exactly what kind of woman Rachel was. It is this question that has kept readers guessing for many years.

All in all, I found My Cousin Rachel to be an interesting read. It didn't grip me like Rebecca did (no Maxim, maybe?), but it is still an intriguing story with characters that keep you guessing, and an ending that will linger with you long after the book is closed. If you like Gothic style mystery/romances, or just plain good story-telling, I can't recommend Daphne du Maurier too highly.

The Movie:

There are two versions of this novel that have hit both the silver and the small screen. In 1983, a mini-series of the novel was made starring Geraldine Chaplin and Christopher Guard. I have not seen this version.

The more popular version is the 1952 film version starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton. This is a decent adaptation, and Richard Burton was great as Philip. I wasn't as excited about Olivia de Havilland's portrayal of Rachel, but it wasn't horrible. Again, not as great as Hitchcock's Rebecca, but an enjoyable film nevertheless.

Trivia: Franz Waxman, who composed the original score for the 1952 version, also composed the original score for Hitchcock's Rebecca. If you pay attention, you can kind of hear similar musical themes in both films.


Anonymous said...

Hard to read the orange writing against a green background. Even with reading glasses on, I can barely make out the print.

Whatever possessed you to use that format of typeset? Perhaps that explains the lack of comments.

And, BTW, I thought Olivia de Havilland was perfect as Rachel in the '52 film version.

bookwormans said...


There is actually a nice background that loads over the green, which matches there brown/orange very well. Perhaps your computer did not load it. Anyways, no one else has ever mentioned it, but I might be able to change that green to white so as to enable everyone to read it better. Thanks.