Monday, June 1, 2009

My Cousin Rachel

In between my travel book reviews I thought I would tell you a little bit about my second Daphne du Maurier read, My Cousin Rachel. Thanks again to Dot ( ), I read another du Maurier classic. It was such an enjoyable book and I can honestly recommend it to anyone who loves well written fiction with a lot of social commentary, hidden meaning and controversial subject matter going on at the same time as the story. It is without doubt an attempt by du Maurier to offer a feminist perspective of a restrictive Victorian society, as it openly alludes to the topic of women's rights and male dominance in cases related to female inheritance and entitlement issues.
The story is set some time at the end of the nineteenth century, the year is not specified. Ambrose Ashley is the lord of the manor and when his nephew is orphaned as a small child, Ambrose adopts Philip and proceeds to bring him up as his own. After the dismissal by Ambrose of Philip's nurse, the Ashley men continue their lives in a completely male household. Ambrose grooms Philip to become his heir and eventually, when Philip reaches his twenties, he begins to run the estate almost entirely by himself. Philip adores Ambrose and his main ambition is to be like him. By this age it is generally agreed that Master Philip looks exactly like a young Mister Ambrose.
Now in his forties, Ambrose begins to suffer with ill health. He is advised by his doctors to travel abroad to warmer climes for the duration of the winter each year. He does this and for two years Philip successfully takes care of the estate whilst his uncle is away. During the third winter when traveling in Italy, Ambrose meets and is enchanted by a lady who happens to also be his cousin. Rachel is a widow and the daughter of an English relative of the Ashley's and an Italian woman. Ambrose loves plants and gardens and each winter on his travels he collects plant specimens to bring back to the garden at the manor. Rachel is also an expert gardener and has in depth knowledge of traditional plant medicines and herbal remedies which she learned from her mother.

After a very short courtship Ambrose marries Rachel. Philip only learns of the wedding after the fact in a letter he receives from Ambrose. He immediately becomes jealous of his cousin and looks on her as a contestant for the affection of his uncle and it is difficult for him to be happy for them. After her previous marriage, Rachel is still working to settle the complexities of her first husband's estate. As a consequence, Ambrose does not return to England in the spring that year, but instead tries to assist Rachel in her efforts to deal with accumulated debts. Another winter comes and goes and Ambrose writes less and less to Philip. At first his letters are cheerful and Ambrose seems devoted to Rachel whom he clearly adores but as time goes on the tone of the letters change and this begins to disturb to Philip. Eventually, a scribbled note arrives and Philip is so worried that he decides to set out to Italy to see his uncle who by now is very ill. When Philip arrives in Florence Ambrose is dead and Rachel has gone, taking with her every last possession of Ambrose's. Philip is determined to hate Rachel as he blames her for his uncles death, believing she may have poisoned him, but, when they finally meet, Philip finds himself as enchanted with her as his uncle was.

Without giving away too much more of the story, what follows is a tale of possession and obsession which looks into the feminine and masculine mind and delves into the world of unreasonable behaviour and reasonable doubt. It is such a cleverly written book. On another note, one thing I found fascinating about this story was when I heard that du Maurier was once asked if Rachel had actually killed Ambrose and she said "I don't know". To me, that is even scarier than if she had.
Let me know if you have read this book and what you thought of it.


  1. Thanks for the mention, I'm so pleased that you enjoyed the book. I think that Rachel is a fantastic character, I love the air of mystery that Daphne Du Maurier creates. Great review!

  2. DuMaurier is seemingly very popular at the moment. I am trying to get to Don't Look Now and watch the film again. I do like the atmospherics in her books. Did you know the Hitchcock film The Birds was based on one of her stories?

  3. Dot, that air of mystery you mention is what I find so compelling about du Maurier's work. Such is her ability to keep the suspense going, I wanted to turn each page faster and faster as I read both Rebecca and Rachel. I also think she does a whole lot more than tell a story or outline a character as she writes. I am not a very analytical kind of reader, I usually take most books at face value, (or perhaps just slightly deeper than that, but not much) however, having read the small amount of du Maurier I have managed so far, I find myself asking a lot of questions about her characters and the social values of the times. I also mentioned when I reviewed Rebecca, that because of the deftness of her writing I suddenly realised, as I was reading, that I was actually willing the bad guy on before I knew what I was doing. Her work is amazing.

  4. Candy, you are right, du Maurier is very popular right now. 2009 is the twentieth anniversary of her death, so perhaps that accounts for it.
    You know, I only just found out about Hitchcock's The Birds being based on a du Maurier short story, I think someone mentioned it recently on their blog. Now, there is an atmospheric movie if ever there was one! I remember seeing the film when I was quite young and being terrified. Not too sure how I got through my mother's film sensor filter to be able to see it, perhaps I was babysitting when it came on tv, but, I did see it and have not been too fond of biggish birds since then.
    Good luck with Don't Look Now. Let me know if you manage to get to it.
    As a new member of the unofficial du Maurier fan club, I am now on the look out for anything du Maurier! I'll let you know what I find.