Bina @ifyoucanreadthis has been my Du Maurier reading buddies since last year. We had read 4 Du Maurier novels together and My Cousin Rachel is the last of the 4 novels in Bina’s compilation.
They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though. Now, when a murderer pays the penalty for his crime, he does so up at Bodmin, after fair trial at the Assizes. That is, if the law convicts him, before his own conscience kills him. It is better so. Like a surgical operation. And the body has decent burial, though a nameless grave.
When I first read this first passage of the book, it seems inconsequential to the whole theme about Cousin Rachel. However when you read till the end and look back at this first passage again you will appreciate how superbly brilliant Du Maurier had tied the opening and the end together; and that, is a sign of a masterpiece.
By now, readers of my blog have come to be familiar of the fact that I own a collection of Du Maurier’s books. I wasn’t that smitten by Rebecca but I was swept away by the actions of Jamaica Inn, swashbuckling action and passion of Frenchman’s Creek. My Cousin Rachel was compared to Rebecca in its atmospheric mysterious women and that’s where the likeness stops. Rachel stood now on a class of its own from the lot that I have read and Du Maurier became my undisputable favourite author.
Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley only had his cousin Ambrose’s love and care. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir. But the cosy world the two have constructed is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries – and there he dies suddenly.
Like Philip, all we readers know about Ambrose life in Florence was through Ambrose’s letters to Philips. Written with a disturbed mind and in poor health, he suspects his wife Rachel and wife’s confidante Rinaldi is plotting to finish him.
Upon hearing the death of Ambrose, Philip made a trip to Florence, where instead of enjoying the Italian cuisine and warmth of the Italian people, Philip sees only tanned skin beggars with big black round eyes and brash Italian countryside. Before he could see Rachel, she has turns up in England. In genteel and better manners of the olden days, cousin Rachel was asked to stay in Ambrose’s manor for as long as she wish and soon with her Italian charm and extravagant ways, won the hearts of servants and friends. Unsurprisingly, Philip is attracted to cousin Rachel. Might she have had a hand in Ambrose’s death? And why did came back to England? To visit Ambrose’s English Abode, or for the money?
This is the first book I read by Du Maurier which is written in the first male person.
Although set in a relatively mundane domestic lives of Philips and Rachel, there are enough twists and plots to keep me interested till the end. With unreliable narrator and an unreliable Rachel, the reading experience reminded me of Before I go to Sleep,where you are not sure if what the narrator said is true. Just when you think you have made up your mind about a character then comes an event that thrown you off the hook, in this case Ambrose’s letter did most of the mind poisoning to me. You see, Ambrose may well be right about his bad perception about Rachel, but Ambrose may have inherited his father’s brain tumour disease that made Ambrose not quite himself during his last days. In the book, Rachel was not made out to be pure and innocent. She is a potential gold miner, she has an unexplainable close friendship with Rinaldi and she has been capricious in her ways with Philips. Flirting one moment and cold the next, is she in love with Philips, or it is all in Philips’ head? Here, Du Maurier captures the essence of the unpredictability of mood swings and fleeting affection so aptly. Have we not in our younger days interpret every single attention and care as a sign of something more grandiose, such as true love?
We, the reader, were never quite sure which side we are going to take, because Philip Ashley does not appear to be a sensible young man either. The only sensible person seems to be Lord St. Ives, Philip’s godfather, the guardian of the estate assets and his daughter Louise. Despite many warnings, Philip goes about his financial affairs in a foolish way. I have many of those slap-my-heads and groaning moments “How could you be so stupid, Philips ~??” Makes me want to reach out and throttle Philip’s throat! 😦
The ending was a surprising one, with a well-paced tension leading to the end. I wonder if the reality is a reality that happens only in Philip’s head? And if we are seeing things not for what it is but from Philip’s coloured lenses?
My tutor at Harrow, when teaching in Fifth Form, told us once that truth was something intangible, unseen, which sometimes we stumbled upon and did not recognise, but was found, and held, and understood only by old people near their death, or sometimes by the very pure, the very young. (page 274)
As I wrote this piece I thought I finished the book but I have forgotten to read Sally Beauman’s introduction. It is my principle not to read any introduction to a classic before reading the main text of the novel (Some introduction has been insensitive enough to contain many spoilers!). Going back to the introduction again, it is mentioned that there is a collision of the two worlds – Philip’s and Rachel’s, one that filled with obsession, delusion, jealousy and perhaps genuine love. It is viewed in the context of misogynist and the more liberated, feministic ways of Italian women. Personally I think it speaks volume about the follies of youth and the fact that if we waver in our impression of someone or made our mind up about a person, there are always evidences that can be found to support what you believe.
I was captivated by one of the most intense and suggestive dialogues in Du Maurier’s books. Trust me when I say that Du Maurier’s novels do not disappoint. This one is spell-binding in most parts, a lull in some. I have read it with a certainty that one of my chosen character was at fault and I was proven wrong at the end. In short, I have read it with prejudice. Now that I know the end, I would like to re-read it one day and read between the lines better the next time.
Paperback. Publisher: Virago Classics 2006, originally published 1951; Length: 335 pages; Setting: Cornwall, South West England. Source: Own copy. Finished reading at: 28th January 2012.
She reads novels: There are a lot of loose ends and questions left unanswered at the end of the book, which is something that often bothers me, but in this case I didn’t mind. I liked the way there were aspects of the story that could be interpreted in several different ways. I expect it would have been a good book to read with a group, as the ambiguity would lead to some interesting discussions and theories.
Ti@bookchatter: I cannot believe that this book was originally published in 1951! I read Rebecca ages ago and loved it but I had never even heard of My Cousin Rachel until just a few months ago. I’m so glad I did.
Mel U @Reading Life: I enjoyed My Cousin Rachel a lot. If you are new to du Maurier as I am, then read Rebecca first. If you really like that a lot then I would say My Cousin Rachel would also be something you would enjoy.
Wilfrid Wong: “My Cousin Rachel” is a mystery novel, a masterpiece of its genre. There are layers upon layers that are built onto the story.