Ever since reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, I’ve been captivated by her writing style, especially her otherworldly descriptions, and plan to read as many of her works as I can. My Cousin Rachel appealed to me as the plot seemed similar to Rebecca in some ways–albeit being in a different era–and also because of the title. It’s always curious to read stories in which there are characters with the same name as one’s self.
My Cousin Rachel is narrated by a young man this time, one Philip Ashley, who has been raised by his older cousin to spurn romance and the world of women in general. Philip is only twenty-four, but is already confident that women can offer nothing in life for him, at least romantically. His estate is all men and they don’t worry so much about the niceties of society and it suits them just fine. Set somewhere in the late 1800s, it is likely that both the older and younger Ashleys can live this way because they are very rich men. As we come to see, woe to the rich men who know the ways of women very little.
Philip’s cousin Ambrose is in his forties and due to ill health, must go abroad to Italy for a time. Through letters and secondhand information, young Philip finds that his cousin has amazingly fallen in love and gotten married. Only a year later, he even more astonishingly finds that his uncle is on his death bed. Philip travels to Italy, but doesn’t make it in time, even missing out on seeing Ambrose’s widow. We get a foreshadowing of things to come as Philip gets hints in pieces of letters from Ambrose that the couple relationship was not happy in its latter days. After some time, Philip receives news that the widow, his “cousin Rachel,” will be coming to the estate to stay for a time. At this point, Philip is against her, thinking she drove Ambrose to an early grave and also that she’s upset Ambrose did not leave anything for her in his will. But as I said before, Philip knows little of the ways of women, especially beautiful women, and Rachel is beautiful and able to use it to her advantage.
To say that Philip is young, naive, and stupid is not exaggerating. He is an even more infuriating narrator than the nameless girl in Rebecca. It takes him far too long to realize he has a thing for Rachel and is amazed that everyone in town thinks of her as extraordinarily good looking. Ambrose did him no favors by leaving him so vulnerable, but it is perhaps only women that are truly skeptical of the beauty of their own sex. We are more aware of how it’s used to manipulate than sometimes men are. Philip does one stupid thing after another, and as readers we are left to wonder if Rachel even has to manipulate him at all. He completely loses his senses and seems to care nothing for the future security of the estate he has inherited, including no thought for all of the workers and servants should all the money be drained.
The signs are all there that Rachel has a spending problem, indeed a problem with constantly living to excess. She would be fast friends with The Talented Mr. Ripley in that regard, though it is left in doubt as to whether she understands this is a fault and that she has it. Du Maurier leaves an open ending: Suspicion is deeply cast upon Rachel, but it is also insinuated that she is merely misunderstood and that she herself really doesn’t understand certain kinds of men. You can’t have a one-night stand with a man who has fallen in love with you and lives in a world where people in love get married and settle down. Rachel fails to understand the sharp anger her actions provoke.
As to the question whether Rachel has good intentions or bad, I found it increasingly impossible to care in the light of young Philip’s stupidity. He seems to throw everything Ambrose taught him out the window, and I was left wondering if he cared about his cousin at all. I suppose some men have no defenses against great beauty, and as a woman, that’s rather unsettling to think about. If we are beautiful, will they really give us everything we ask for, let us do anything to anyone at anytime? When Philip finally comes to understand that he is out of control with Rachel, he makes a devastating choice. That he is sorry later makes no difference to her, and we readers are left wondering if she is a figurative angel or devil. Like Philip, we are given no definite answer or assurance.
Although Rebecca is a masterpiece compared to this, My Cousin Rachel would make for quite a drinking game: Take a drink every time Philip refers to “my cousin Rachel.” It gets so egregious that I almost stopped reading the book a couple of times. The atmosphere of the story isn’t as gothic or spooky as its predecessor, and because of the previous work, we kind of know how it will end. The biggest thing I got out of the story was how absolutely ridiculous young and rich men can be. At the end, my sympathy was far more with Philip’s guardian and his daughter than with either Philip or Ambrose. Pride goeth before a fall, and this is definitely a moral tale on two men being far, far too proud of their bachelor status, too proud to understand how weak and vulnerable they made themselves, and most importantly, too proud to understand that the fault here was perhaps not with Rachel, not with her at all. But I’m a little biased. We Rachels have to stick up for each other, after all.