The 1951 Club: My Cousin Rachel

Posted April 12, 2017 by Lory in reviews / 39 Comments

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.

Back to the Classics Challenge: A Gothic or horror classic
Classics Club List
The 1951 Club

The 1951 Club: My Cousin RachelMy Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Published by Harper and Row in 1951
Format: Hardcover from Giveaway

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39 responses to “The 1951 Club: My Cousin Rachel

  1. I bought this to read on a night time flight across the Atlantic hoping it would keep me so engaged I wouldnt think how uncomfortable I was or how long the flight was. It was a disappointment sadly-the first have was good but I thought there could have been more suspense and menace involved.

    • I agree, it was not that kind of suspense novel. The lack of inner action on the part of the narrator actually starts to feel stifling.

  2. This is my favorite of the du Maurier books I’ve read. It’s just so delightfully ambiguous from beginning to end. I love that we never find out the truth about Rachel and just end up doubting the narrator more and more.

    There’s a movie version coming out later this year. The trailer looks great, but I’m skeptical that a movie can retain that ambiguity that makes the book so brilliant.

    • I’m skeptical about that too. When you put something on the screen, it fixes it as a single reality.

  3. Aside from Rebecca (THE BEST!) I really liked this one and The Scapegoat. And a few short stories, but then some of her other work is so weird I can’t even get through it!

    • After this one I was enthused and went on to read The Parasites, which was…different. Another narrative experiment, though it didn’t wow me so much.

  4. I saw the trailer for the new movie recently, and realized that I don’t really remember how this book ends! I remember being very wound up by this story though, and definitely found it intriguing.

    I love the idea of reading books from a particular year too!

    • It’s so interesting to see all the books that came out in a particular year, once a certain amount of time has passed, as a picture of that era.

  5. I’ve been working my way through all of du Maurier’s novels and this one is probably in my top four, along with Rebecca, The House on the Strand and The Scapegoat. I can’t remember very much about it now, but I know that I loved the ambiguity of the ending!

  6. “Masterfully ambiguous” is a perfect description of My Cousin Rachel. I am more fond of Rebecca, but perhaps only because I read it first.

    I do want to try some of her lesser known titles as well at some point, but maybe with lowered expectations since I didn’t love Jamaica Inn the way I wanted to.

    • They all seem quite different from one another! As I mentioned above I read The Parasites next and it was not the same sort of thing at all. However, I like authors who keep trying new things, even if they don’t always succeed for me.

  7. My wife read this and really liked it.

    Your commentary makes it sound so appealing. The characters and situations make me want to read this. It

    • It certainly draws you in to the characters and their situation. Hope you’ll give it a try!

  8. Oh, this sounds like it was a good choice! I have to get to one of her books sometime. Have you read any of her others? How do you think it compares?

    • I’d earlier read Frenchman’s Creek and Jamaica Inn, and enjoyed both of them — more Gothic/romantic historicals set in Cornwall. After this one I read The Parasites, which is a strange novel without a narrator (or else there are three?) about a trio of half-siblings in the theatrical world. I do like how she experiments with storytelling.

  9. I love this book so much. A couple of years ago, I read My Cousin Rachel when I was on vacation. I couldn’t put the book down, and after I was finished, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Have a great weekend, Lory!

  10. I’ve been wanting to dive into Daphne du Maurier’s work for a while but there are just so many great authors on my to-read list I haven’t had the time yet. I’m looking forward to seeing the upcoming film adaptation of this one, though I am a little hesitant to watch it before reading the book.

    • Hm, I think I would advise reading it first. Otherwise the pictures might get too fixed in your mind, and Iose their ambiguity (unless the filmmaker is more of a genius than I would expect).

  11. Hahaha, man, with the movie coming out soon(ish?), I feel like I’m seeing this book everywhere I look! I read it a while ago and remember enjoying it but of course it suffered by comparison with Rebecca. (Which is kind of funny, now that I’m thinking about it. “It’s so different to Rebecca,” said the book blogger blithely.) I guess I should reread!

    • That suffering-by-comparison thing can be a drag. Sometimes a reread after a good long interval is the best way to give a book a chance to stand on its own merits.

  12. This club sounds like such a fun idea! I love reading multiple books on the same topic, beginning to get more familiar with that topic and starting to make connections, so the idea of focusing on a particular year definitely appeals to me.

    • It’s been a very interesting exercise! I need to go read more of the reviews from this year. It’s especially fascinating to see the obscure titles some people come up with, and which help to complement the more well-known books like this one.

  13. Hi Lory – this is the first time I’ve been to your blog. Hello!! I participated in this meme too but was so slow at reading the books that I am very late to the party. I have always meant to read Du Maurier. This books sounds way more complex than I ever thought it would be. Thanks for the heads up.

    • Welcome, Alex! Yes, it was more complex than a simple mystery, with many layers of meaning and implication. I think that’s what makes it a favorite with many people.

  14. I own a copy of this one, which I bought after reading & loving Rebecca. I need to make it happen. 🙂

    • I also had my copy for SO LONG after winning it in a giveaway! I’m really happy I finally read it (now I need to read Rebecca).