A few years ago, a friend shared with me his Classics Challenge The idea was to read books written no fewer than 50 years ago in select categories, which he assigned as the year progressed. I was very diligent the first couple of years but, I have to admit that I wavered a bit lately. Not sure where I am on the 2017 Assignments, Ron, but I’m back with Gothic Fiction/British Fiction/Woman Writer/Suspense/Classic Made Into A Movie.
Is that a category?
I have wanted to read Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel for some time. Not sure why I haven’t pulled it off the shelf before now. I adored Rebecca and have read it multiple times. Frenchman’s Creek intrigued me and I also liked both Mary Anne and Jamaica Inn. But when I saw this title in New Releases, I was confused … I quickly discovered it was the new movie release edition, featuring none other than Rachel Weisz of The Mummy and Runaway Train fame on the cover. (For those of you purests, the 1952 film starred Olivia de Haviland.) Now that I’ve finished the book, I have the new movie on my to watch list.
I adore gothic fiction with its eerie shadows, candlelight and hints of subtle machinations just out of my line of sight. As a teen, I read Phyllis A. Whitney and Victoria Holt with abandon. So, this novel had my name written all over it.
The plot is told in first person by 24-year old Phillip Ashley and is exceptionally well-crafted. You glimpse where it is going, but instead of a straight paved path to the denoument, you have one set in Cornwall in an undefined year with dirt laden roads and carriages, exotic plant life and the sound of the surf pounding against rock. At least, that’s the imagery that I imagined.
Like Girl On A Train, the story is told by an unreliable narrator. Phillip is naive and has led a sheltered life, raised by his much older cousin after both of his parents are tragically killed. No, we never learn what happened to them. But, when the tale begins, seven year old Phillip and cousin Ambrose (age 27) have just gone to see a hanged man. The tale trapped me right there.
So begins a gothic Daphne du Maurier tale. Her books are resplendent with vivid imagery and description. Every word selected with the intent to ensnare you and leave you questioning your senses. She was meticulous with this creation.
Phillip and Ambrose have lead a very solitary bachelor life somewhere in Cornwall sometime in the 19th Century. The author admits to choosing to be purposefully vague with time and location. Ambrose apparently has some health issues so he travels in the colder season. And during one of his trips abroad goest to Italy, meets a distant cousin of his, Cousin Rachel.
It is clear quickly that Ambrose is fascinated and drawn to Rachel. His letters to Phillip become less frequent. And Phillip, like a petulant child, takes great dislike to this interloper. As you can probably surmise, Ambrose eventually marries Rachel. Then, begins the intrigue. Ambrose falls ill, hinting in a hastily penned letters to Phillip that perhaps something is rotten in the state of Denmark … er … Italy. Phillip races to his aid only to find he is too late. Ambrose is dead. Rachel has shut up the villa and disappeared, and his only access to information is a seemingly sinister “lawyer-type” named Rainaldi, to whom Phillip takes an immediate dislike.
Now, strangely, Phillip and Ambrose — though cousins — bear a strong resemblance to each other. Just keep that in mind as the plot grows gothic-er.
Of course, Cousin Rachel asks permission to come visit Phillip, who is determined to hate her and malign her face to face. Encouraged by his childhood friend — the very wise Louise who is the voice of reason throughout the novel — he prepares to call her out. But, upon meeting her in a chilling scene set in her “boudoir” where it is uncertain if Cousin Rachel sees his face or the shadow of her former husband, Phillip immediately finds himself attracted to this woman … an attraction that turns rapidly from infatuation to possessiveness and jealousy.
Rachel charms everyone on the estate … everyone but Louise who glimpses something more sinister in her. But, she’s the only one. Now, I’m not one to malign a woman. Women are too quick to turn on each other. And Phillip’s obsession and possessive tone make it impossible to define beyond reasonable doubt of Cousin Rachel’s true motives. Is the atraction mutual? Is it genuine? Is there something spinning behind her brown eyes, her lace veil and well-tailored mourning attire? Hard to truly say for certain. But, less I give too much away, there is an inheritence, which dear cousin Ambrose neglected to provide to his wife. And Rachel captivates everyone like a clever spider weaving a web.
“But a lonely man is an unnatural man, and soon comes to perplexity. From perplexity to fantasy. From fantasy to madness.”
Cousin Rachel is fascinatingly crafted. Even Daphne du Maurier admitted her attraction and confusion regarding this chimera of a character. Is she wicked? Is she simply doing the best she can to survive in a male dominated world? Is she manipulating everyone? Does she genuinely care for Phillip? Was there a murder in Italy? Is Phillip sucker-punched or does he see love and intrigue where there is none? These are questions I leave to the reader to determine an answer to based on their own reading of the tale.
My Cousin Rachel will draw you into its suspenseful, darkly woven pages. Unlike Jamaica Inn, it is not overdone. At least I don’t see it that way. And, as I type with the movie soundtrack playing over my phone, I find myself very satisfied with the book. Oh, Phillip’s whining and self-centered outlook wore on me while Louise’s words ring with wisdom beyond her young years. But, these differing views served to blend the lines between what was real and what he thought was real.
“There are some women, Philip, good women very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster. Whatever they touch, somehow turns to tragedy.”
But is any of the Tragedy Cousin Rachel’s doing … or does it occur in the mind of a spoiled, self-centered man who knows little about women with exception of their role in fulfilling his own whims and meeting his personal desires? Ah, therein lies the rub.
I happen to like characters like Rachel — women who refuse to be defined or dominated, who turn occurrences to serve them or their needs. Women who know how to work a room. Women who are clever, playing life like a chessboard. Women who leave you wondering exactly what they want and who they truly are. Like du Maurier, Ambrose and Phillip, I fell for her charms. But, like Louise Kendall, I watched fascinated as her actions played out with artful finesse.
And that is why My Cousin Rachel remains a classic tale that will leave you riveted and wondering until that final sentence and perhaps even afterward.