Review: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (Novel)

Ever late to the party, this is one of the classics which I haven’t read before. The Book Club I go to decided on My Cousin Rachel this month, partly due to the film now being in cinemas. I’m one of those people who hate seeing a movie based on a book without having read the book. For me, movies spoil the book, rather than the other way around.

I had previously avoided Daphne du Maurier, honestly, because I had been put off by reports of boring plots that went nowhere. Having now read My Cousin Rachel I can say that’s both unfair… and perhaps a little bit true.

Written in 1951 but set in the late 1800s, My Cousin Rachel centres around Ambrose and Philip Ashley and their mysterious cousin Rachael. Philip’s older cousin, Ambrose has raised him since he was a boy and for reasons never explained, is resolutely single. However, on a trip to Florence, he apparently falls in love with and marries his distant cousin Rachel. However, before he can return home with his new bride, he dies suddenly. Philip is left to mourn his loss with letters he received which seem to imply that Rachel had a hand in his death.

Philip’s hatred of Rachel is completely overturned when she finally comes to the estate and he becomes completely infatuated with her. But the question remains – did she have a hand in Ambrose’s death?

Despite my misgivings, I was surprised at how much I loved the book. It’s written in a really accessible way, making it an easy and enjoyable read. All through Philip’s perspective, you’re struck by his character and the unreliability of his narrative. He’s emotional, easily swayed and short tempered. But you warm to him, in my case, in an almost maternal fashion. If there was any character in literature that needed a mother more, it’s poor Philip Ashley. As a friend at the Book Club called him, ‘he’s Peter Pan after he’s grown up.’

And Rachel is a work of art. And a piece of work, most likely. If she is all I think she is, she one of the most manipulative, devious and intelligent character in literature. Whether she is evil, misrepresented by the males of the story, or simply driven by the financial restraints placed on women of the era, Rachel is a tour de force. Fighting for her ultimate goal, financial independence, she shows off her ability in manipulation – both of men and women who would otherwise dislike her – and her understanding of the law and money.

Because I want to discuss the ending, but I know some of you won’t want spoilers, let me round off here by saying that all in all, it was a brilliant book which only had one real failing for me and that was the ending. But despite that, it has still made it into my coveted ‘favourite books list’. It’s well worth the read, especially if you’re looking for a complex, intriguing female character. I thoroughly recommend it!

From this point on, there be spoilers…Spoiler Alert.png

Philip’s obsession with Rachel leads him down a dark path, shunning the support and advice of his friends he does everything he can to secure Rachel his rightful estate and fortune. Only to have her refuse to marry him and take everything he owns. In the end, his fixation on whether or not Rachel killed his beloved cousin Ambrose is enough for him to indirectly cause Rachel’s death.

This is where my one issue with this book rears its ugly head. Despite the entire story being focused around the question ‘did Rachel kill Ambrose?’ we never get an answer. Unreliable hints and clues are dispelled almost as vaguely as they’re introduced. For someone like me who venerates a good murder mystery, it’s a letdown. While the actual ending and Rachel’s death rounded things off in a darkly beautiful way, leaving that critical issue unanswered annoys me.

On the other hand, I completely respect Daphne du Maurier’s decision to end it this way. The subjective nature of a person’s true character and the unreliability of Philip’s account makes it almost unimportant whether Rachel killed Ambrose or not. The fact is, if Rachel is guilty, this is her story. She is the main character. If she’s innocent, this is Philip’s story. It’s a fascinating puzzle to consider.

You’re left with so many questions. Was Rachel guilty or innocent? How different would the story have been from Rachel’s perspective? What was the source of Ambrose woman hating attitude at the beginning of the novel?

I would encourage anyone to add this to their reading list. It’s definietly one of the classics which is well worth the read!

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