Obsession and mystery in ‘My Cousin Rachel’

Philip Ashley is raised by his older cousin after his parents die when he is three years old. It’s a nearly idyllic life for the two bachelors, except that Ambrose’s ill health forces him to go abroad to escape the damp, cold Cornish winters. But everything changes when Ambrose, while spending a winter in Italy, writes to Philip that he has met and married a distant cousin, Rachel, and plans to stay in Italy.

Soon the tone of Ambrose’s letters changes into incoherent ravings that seem to indicate Rachel may not be the ideal wife. Philip travels to Italy to see what’s happening, but when he gets there Ambrose is dead and Rachel is gone. He goes back home and when Rachel shows up in England a few weeks later he grudgingly invites her to stay on the estate. His ulterior motive is to somehow humiliate her in retaliation for what happened to Ambrose, but he finds himself drawn to her beauty and charm despite himself. But is she simply weaving the same sly web that she ensnared Ambrose in, with the estate’s riches as her ultimate goal?

Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (1951) is Exhibit A for me that I don’t need to like the characters to enjoy the story. Both Philip, an impossibly young and naïve man, and Rachel, a woman who never says what she means, are infuriating in their own ways. More than once I contemplated how satisfying it would be to just knock their heads together with a solid thunk. Philip acts like a jealous brat and Rachel acts by turns like a patronizing older sister and a coy lover. The only character I had any sympathy for was Louise, the daughter of Philip’s godfather. She’s clearly in love with the stupid oaf Philip, and has to first suffer his oblivious dismissal and then his growing infatuation with Rachel without recourse to a big rock to throw at both of them.

The ending is ambiguous in terms of deciding once and for all whether it’s Philip or Rachel who commit the greatest sin, which I thought worked perfectly. And the descriptions of the Cornwall seaside are lovely and make me want to visit someday. I think I’ll pass on any offers of tea, though. Just in case.

Published by Julia

I learned to read before I started kindergarten, and I haven't stopped yet.

2 thoughts on “Obsession and mystery in ‘My Cousin Rachel’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: