Rating : 4/5
Category : Mystery, Romance, Historical Fiction
Year of Publication : 1951
Publisher : Doubleday
Ever since I saw Rebecca by Hitchcock, I became a fan of Daphne du Maurier and her style of storytelling. I ventured into her novels with Frenchman’s Creek which was as different from Rebecca as chalk and cheese. Though slightly disappointed as I had expected a Rebecca-esque novel, I was overwhelmed by her writing prowess. As Lady St Columb fell in love with the enigmatic Frenchman, I found myself falling in love with Navron. No other writer has managed to make a place immortal through her books like du Maurier! You hear Rebecca and your mind races to Manderlay, you read Frenchman’s Creek and Navron becomes etched in your memory as deep as any other character in the book. My Cousin Rachel was no different in terms of the setting – styled from Menabilly (du Mauriers estate in Cornwall), the Manderlay equivalent of My Cousin Rachel, the beautiful estate belonging to the Ashley family set in Cornwall around which the novel revolves.
Orphaned at a very young age, Phillip Ashely is brought up under the care of his cousin Ambrose Ashely who is in his early forties and stubbornly single. Phillip, who is the heir of the Ashely estate, is raised in a household devoid of any feminine presence and considers Ambrose as a father figure, role model and confidante. However, Ambrose sets off to Florence as a cure for his rheumatism where he falls in love and marries their cousin Rachel. Ambrose stays back in Florence with his new bride but falls sick and meets an unexpected end. Amidst the suspicion surrounding the sudden death of Ambrose, his widow Rachel decides to visit the Ashley estate and its heir Phillip. Even with suspicion looming large, Phillip cannot help himself being attracted to this enigmatic woman – his cousin Rachel. But could she have caused Ambrose’s death?
In various literary avenues, I have read My Cousin Rachel being described as a worthy follower for Rebecca. As my experience with Rebecca was just limited to an onscreen experience which can sometimes fail to capture the nuances of writing, I am in no position to comment on it and will refrain from doing so. Personally I felt that My Cousin Rachel is all about conflicts of the feminine and masculine and the progressive and conservative. The Ashely household without any feminine touch is marked by its lack of sophistication and dated attitude towards women. Phillip Ashely, similar to Ambrose Ashely in every matter, though highly critical of women and their activities could not hold his fort against Rachel. The soothing presence of Rachel in the household sends the walls tumbling and Phillip soon follows suit. Every male who Rachel encountered is keen to place her in a cage of their design – the servants (though highly critical of women) are keen to make her the mistress of the house, Phillip tries to put her on a pedestal fulfilling his emotional needs of a mother and wife whereas the society tries to push her into the role of a widow devoid of any pleasure.
The patriarchal attitude of the Ashleys see Rachel, a woman, as something to own. Phillip Ashley’s kindness towards Rachel has its origins not in selfless love but in possession. The price of freedom for Rachel was quite high as financial freedom always went hand in hand with marriage. To add more pressure, Rachel, a foreigner raised in the ways of the European sophistication, is forced to adapt to the highly conservative lifestyle of an English countryside. du Maurier with her exceptional double edged writing transforms the complacent English country side home of the Ashleys to a battleground of sexes and ideology, but it is up to the readers to decide who emerges the winner or even if there is a winner.
My Cousin Rachel is characterized by ambiguity and enigma from the very beginning. From Ambrose’s death onwards, the readers are in a state of perpetual conundrum – did he die of fever or was it a deliberate murder. Not just the readers, du Maurier herself pushes all the main characters together with unsettling suspicions and qualms about each other and makes them figure it out. Each dialogue and expression takes on a new meaning under these circumstances. Every new turn the story takes, the readers are forced to re-evaluate the characters as it contradicts with their previous understanding. In short, du Maurier does not provide a moment of respite to the readers and the characters in this story.
The character development in this novel is exceptionally complex as the narrator in the story is Phillip Ashley, a naïve yet judgmental young man who is in the thick of the plot. As Phillip discovers more about himself and goes through grueling experiences, his outlook sways back and forth leading to sometimes even contradictory information about the other stake holders in the story. Hence, it falls on the readers to come to their conclusion about the people in the story and their intentions. It is definitely to du Maurier’s credit that she has created a fable based on impulsive and inscrutable characters which provides an enigmatic glow to the entire novel.
Overall, a deeply dark and tense tale of epic proportions that will create unrest and folly in the mind of the readers. Daphne du Maurier leaves it to the readers to decide who is Cousin Rachel – a vixen or a waif? Definitely a must read for all lovers of mystery!