Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel (1951)
The 1951 Club is the latest in a series of events put together by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, which encourages us to read books published in a particular year. Please visit Simon’s blog for links to other 1951 books — this builds up a wonderful picture of a particular moment in time, through the combination of famous and obscure choices.
My Cousin Rachel is a masterfully ambiguous novel of psychological suspense, one that begins with the question “Was Rachel innocent or guilty?” It ends with the same question, but adds to it the question of the narrator’s own guilt and complicity in the final tragedy. Much more than a simple “who done it” in the external sense, this is a story that delves into the secrets of the human heart and that may make us think about the complex sources of our own motivations and actions.
That narrator is Philip Astley, who has been raised by his much older cousin Ambrose on their family estate in 19th century Cornwall. When the seemingly contented bachelor Ambrose ventures abroad and there marries another cousin, the half-Italian widow Rachel, Philip immediately is consumed with jealousy; later, upon receiving some cryptic notes from Ambrose, he becomes suspicious. He journeys to Florence but finds that Ambrose has suddenly died and his widow vanished.
Philip is determined to seek revenge upon Rachel, but before he can do so, she arrives in Cornwall and turns out to be nothing like the demon of his imaginings. In fact, he is soon completely entranced by her himself. As he descends further into passion, Rachel becomes even more of an enigma. What are her true intentions and feelings? Who is she?
Rachel may indeed be a manipulative and greedy woman; but what the first-person narration masks, and the reader slowly comes to realize, is that Philip may be more than a match for her. Having grown up without a mother, and even without a nurse — Ambrose sent the last one packing when Philip was three years old — and apparently never having recognized sexual love or desire, he has remained stunted in his own emotional life. (As a sign of this, he is incredibly callous and insensitive toward the neighbor girl who obviously is in love with him.) When Rachel bursts upon Philip with all her feminine wiles he is utterly unable to cope with them in a mature way, and the worst kind of unrecognized feminine qualities rise up within him: jealousy, possessiveness, pettiness, impulsiveness, and finally violence.
The result is to shatter them both, and leave Rachel a question forever, an image seen through Philip’s fractured mind. Who is the villain of this piece? Perhaps both, or neither. The Gothic shadows are never dispelled.