Reconsidering My Cousin Rachel

April 19, 2016
It’s funny how some writers go in and out of style. Some storytellers are flaming hot properties in one decade, and out of print in the next.  You never can tell who will outlast their lifetimes.  Taylor Caldwell, Edna Ferber and Thomas Chastain were royalty on the mid-century best-seller list, but I doubt if they’re remembered at all today beyond Ferber’s writing the source novel for Showboat.  Daphne du Maurier fares a little better because of Rebecca and because a biography suggesting she was a lesbian but beyond that and a couple of short stories that were adapted into films, her name doesn’t ring many bells.   That’s a shame because she was a prolific writer with more than thirty books to her credit and no one else created “mood” with words as well as she did.  If you think I’m thinking of Rebecca again, I’m not.  Her greatest “atmospheric” novel is, for me, My Cousin, Rachel.
Rachel is a novel about the damage caused by doubt.  In the beginning, Ambrose Ashley and his nephew Philip are completely sure of their spots in the world.  Ambrose is the master of a Cornish estate and the guardian of Philip, his heir.  Their lives are bound by the responsibilities and rewards of landed gentry and the largest difficulty is Ambrose’s rheumatism that acts up during the winter. Ambrose leaves to spend the coldest months in Italy and soon Philip starts getting letters from his uncle mentioning a widowed cousin in Florence named Rachel. Rachel is clever, Rachel’s good company, Rachel was poorly treated by her late husband…the letters go on and on until Ambrose announces he’s married Cousin Rachel.  Instantly, Philip’s place in the world is overturned by a woman he hasn’t even met. Rachel keeps his only real family far away and her child could disinherit him. Reason enough for Philip to dislike her but then Ambrose joins in his doubts. Soon, Ambrose is writing of his deteriorating health and untrustworthy doctors and finally states, “…Rachel is my torment.”  Philip goes to Italy as fast as he can but it’s too late. Ambrose is dead by the time he arrives and Cousin Rachel is gone.
Daphne du Maurier
Although everyone else agrees Ambrose’s death was caused by a brain tumor, Philip suspects his cousin, Rachel, committed murder. No one is more surprised to learn, when they finally meet, that Rachel is exactly as Ambrose first described her. She is  kind, good-humored and unselfish and Philip begins to question his beliefs. After he and Rachel start sharing their common grief, Philip starts falling in love. Rachel is grateful for Philip’s presents but she doesn’t return his romantic feelings. He gives her still more extravagant presents, as proof of his devotion, but these don’t change her mind. Misunderstandings and mischance start to increase as Philip’s obsession with Rachel grows until, like his late uncle, he realizes, “Rachel is my torment.” But Philip never determines and neither do we if Rachel is a good or evil person.  Is she an innocent victim of poor judgment and circumstances or she a guileful manipulator? Does she take advantage of Philip or do his actions actually dictate hers? The author leaves us without any easy answers.
The themes of duality and obsession run through Daphne du Maurier’s work; perhaps that’s what continues to keep them relevant. Our world runs over with love-hate relationships and obsession is honored as much as it’s vilified. Maybe the world of today accepts a few more shades of grey. If so, it is due in some part to this obsessive writer who spent much of her life in Cornwall and chose ambiguity as her badge of honor.  Lady Browning, a/k/a Dame du Maurier, we are in your debt.

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