I first read this wonderful novel many years ago, and was absolutely delighted to find it amongst Mums books this week. Daphne Du Maurier is a thrilling author to read, especially for the first time, but in reading a second time I found just as much pleasure in this very powerful book, more so in many ways, I was a teenager the first time around – this time, I found the plot and character development, the complexities, and the emotions affected me on another level altogether. Basically, I devoured it during a bus ride up to London to renew my passport and finished it on the way back – simply couldn’t put it down!
Ms Du Maurier first published My Cousin Rachel in 1951 when she was at the height of her powers as a novelist. It is narrated in the voice of a young man, Philip Ashley, who has been brought up by his older cousin, Ambrose, in a purely male, very dogs and pipe smoking gruff landed gentry type of environment – there are not even any female staff on the estate, and the neighbouring ladies, the vicars wife and daughters for example, are treated with condescension. Although there is no actual time context, it is probably set around the end of the 19th or very early 20th century, definitely before motor vehicles or telephones. The use of the male voice is fascinating when one knows it is a woman writing, and it is done with skill – Ms Du Maurier conveys just the right level of pomposity and arrogance together with a wariness of women and their machinations – which devious and tangled web Ambrose becomes ensnared by in Italy. Philips reaction to the news that his cousin has succumbed to the charms of their cousin Rachel is one of shock and bafflement.
When Ambrose dies mysteriously, Philip is already right out of his comfort zone, travelling to Italy in response to a desperate and bewildering letter from him. He misses the funeral, and his cousin Rachel who has already left – he is told what happened by the Italian servants and Rachel’s ‘man of business’, the enigmatic and slippery Signor Rainaldi. Returning to the safety of his Cornish estate, by now convinced that Ambrose has been poisoned by Rachel, he is shocked to discover that she is on her way to Cornwall.
And now the novel begins to seriously twist and turn, as the older, very exotic and lovely Rachel begins to work her magic on him. From being certain that she is evil personified, he gradually falls under a fatal spell of attraction to her, and the tale of the seduction is told exquisitely – as the reader, we are almost led to believe we can see what she is up to, while poor Philip, completely unaccustomed to the company of a beautiful, intelligent and seductive woman, let alone sex, is soon in up to his neck and ready to hand over his entire inheritance. And then….. well, the plot thickens, and I really cannot say any more without ruining it for you!
The character of Rachel is multi faceted. Her small hands and exotic profile are mentioned often – her ability to charm everyone she meets, the fact that she has a ‘past’ – she has been married twice, miscarried a child, and almost certainly had lovers and lived a shall we say exciting life in Florence – all add seasoning to this seduction. Philips childhood friend, his godfathers daughter, Louise, can only watch in despair as he succumbs. One has to have a degree of sympathy for the character of Rachel – a woman alone with no independent means in those days would be relying on her wits, looks, anything she could use to secure her future. But one also has to feel a little sorry for Philip on whom the tables have been turned when he realises that a night of unbridled passion which he assumes means marriage is not how Rachel views it at all. Classic Du Maurier plot twisting, with a very strong feminist vein to it.
Seriously, this is a brilliant book, I think better and more complex than the more famous ‘Rebecca’ although I adore that too. I have Mums copy here ready to gift forward, so if you would like to add it to your collection, please get in touch either here or on the Facebook page, and I shall send it to you with love. In case after reading this, you’d like to read the book but Mums copy has already been claimed, here is an Amazon link for you to purchase a copy…or go to your library…either way, if you have not read this, do so! A fabulous, strong female writer at the height of her talent. Right up both Mums and my alley!