My rating: 4 stars
Daphne du Maurier cleverly plays with our perceptions of some of the characters featured in My Cousin Rachel by making us constantly doubt their intentions. This is the story of two men, Philip and Ambrose, who were plagued by suspicion. They both fell in love with Rachel even though beforehand they had refused the company of women, whom they characterised negatively.
Philip’s parents died when he was only eighteen months old. He was hence taken care of by his older cousin Ambrose, who always loved him and chose him as his heir. When Philip finished his studies at Oxford, Ambrose started to spend the winters in the south of Europe for health reasons. One year he decided to go to Florence where he fell in love and married cousin Rachel.
After receiving the news, Philip started to harbour feelings of jealousy and became concerned about having to leave the house he always lived in, because he was remembered of the possibility of Ambrose having his own son. More than a year passed and Ambrose didn’t return home. Philip started to become worried about his cousin’s long absence. His apprehensions only increased when Ambrose sent him suspicious letters. He then decided to go to Italy looking for him, but when he arrived in Florence, Ambrose was already dead and cousin Rachel had left the city.
When Philip returned to England, he was convinced that his cousin Rachel had something to do with Ambrose’s death, not believing in him having been a victim of a brain tumour as he was informed. His godfather, Nick Kendall, told him he shouldn’t think that. But Louise, his godfather’s daughter, believed him. She appears to have been in love with him, although he didn’t seem to realise it, maybe because he was not used to be in the company of women and thus didn’t understand them.
Sometime after, Nick Kendal received a letter from cousin Rachel informing about what had happened to Ambrose and saying that she had arrived in England. He decided to invite her to stay at his house, but Philip had the rushed idea of asking her to stay with him instead, in order to have the chance to question her.
Cousin Rachel accepted the invitation. And to Philip’s great surprise she didn’t seem to be the villain he had imagined. She knew a lot about the family’s past and how the house used to be managed. The way in which their first meeting is described depicts such knowledge as something extraordinary. He didn’t find her appearance remarkable at first. She was short, had white hands and expressive eyes. But Philip started to become enchanted by her, as it had happened with Ambrose. Could she have murdered him, though?
We are led to have the same feelings as Philip at first. Before her arrival in England, I already didn’t like Rachel, but then she seems just a normal widow and not a murderer, although there is a suspicion left at the back of my mind, which has a lot to do with the first chapter.
Philip starts the narration of the story by recollecting the day when his cousin Ambrose took him to see the body of a man who had been hung as a penalty for a crime. That happened 18 years before the time of narration. That memory is then connected with mysterious thoughts about Ambrose’s death and Rachel, serving as an introduction to the events to be narrated. There is an enthralling feeling of darkness about it.
“How soft and gentle her name sounds when I whisper it. It lingers on the tongue, insidious and slow, almost like poison, which is apt indeed. It passes from the tongue to the parched lips, and from the lips back to the heart.”
Philip and Ambrose were quite similar, both physically and personality-wise. They were both reserved, shy and unconsciously wished for affection, although at first they showed no desire for the company of a woman.
Rachel was the first woman to live under the same roof as Philip. He was learning how to deal with female company by observing her and musing about her behaviour and reactions. At the same time, he was experiencing feelings completely new to him, which made him leave caution behind.
The tone of the story changes according to Philip’s feelings and suspicions. There is a clear difference between the time before and after him meeting Rachel. And the descriptions of the places seem to sometimes reflect the moods of the characters.
“The glory of the day had gone, and it was colder. Clouds had come across the sky. In the distance I could see the cattle coming down from the Lankelly hills to water in the marshes under the woods, and beyond the marshes, in the bay, the sea had lost the sun and was slatey grey.”
There is a mysterious feeling looming throughout the story that I loved and compelled me to keep on reading. However, the way in which Philip became so in awe of Rachel to the brink of madness was not fully convincing, since I kept wondering why he found her so special. Daphne du Maurier quite successfully played with my perceptions of the characters, but I didn’t connect with their tribulations as much as I was expecting to. Having said that, this is a book that I still quite appreciated reading.