‘For God’s sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay it might be too late.’
The first short story of Daphne du Maurier that I read was ‘Don’t Look Now’ which hooked me right away. Next, I read ‘The Birds’ and I knew that I would always love whatever this author wrote. It’s not just the suspense and the twisted ending, but also about how each story crafted in such details. She could take her readers into her own fictional worlds, in such effective dialogues and scenes that the stories look deceivingly simple.
‘My Cousin Rachel’ is the kind of story that will make the reader guesses until the very end. So if you’re the kind of person that has to be satisfied with a proper ending and hate open-ending stories, you might not like it. The book reminds me a lot of Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’.
The narrator, Philip Ambrose, is a young man about to turn 25 years old. He was adopted by his cousin Ashley Ambrose when he was three years old. Ashley Ambrose is a rich man that owns many lands, but he doesn’t believe in marriage and thinks that women are just a nuisance. He brought up Philip to be his successor and his heir, and Philip grew up wanting to always be like Ambrose.
Their house in Cornwall doesn’t have any females in the household. The only female companion Philip has is his godfather’s daughter, Louise, who he grew up with. One day because of his illness, Ashley decided to travel to Italy to spend the summer there. In Florence, Ashley wrote to Philip that he met their relative, their cousin Rachel. Rachel’s father married an Italian woman, and since the marriage, they had been lived abroad. Ashley, who disliked the company of women, found Rachel different from any women he had known, Rachel’s presence never annoyed Ashley. He enjoyed talking to her and found that they shared common interest: gardening. They got married shortly after they met and Ashley wrote to Philip that Rachel and he would go back to Cornwall soon.
However, months gone by and Ashley’s letters became scarce. Philip grew worried; some of the letters Ashley wrote after the marriage said that he had been ill, miserable and (this confused Philip) scared of Rachel. The last letter (the quote above) sent Philip to Italy. But the journey took him three weeks, and by the time Philip arrived at Rachel’s villa, it was empty. Ambrose had died and Rachel, because of grief, had packed everything and left the country.
Coming back to England, Philip swore that he would find Rachel and destroy her. He had no doubt that Ashley died because of her despite the doctors’ diagnosis: brain tumour. Then, one week after his return, his godfather told him that Rachel is in England and wish to meet Philip to return all Ashley’s belonging. Philip was in a rage and plotting ways to revenge Ashley’s dead. In his head, Rachel was the evil one that caused the death of the man he loved.
And dear readers, this is when Daphne du Maurier showed you how expert she was in characterisation. Philip and Rachel’s meeting sets motion in the story. As the reader, I was screaming inside and wanted to shake Philip, ‘wake up, she’s evil!’ but at the same time I look from different point of view, and Philip did sound crazy. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Rachel. Or was there?
‘My Cousin Rachel’ shows a woman who is a product of misfortunes. She is who she is because she needs to survive. If that means she has to marry (she did marry several times), then why not? What makes her a bad person? If she uses her charms to get what she wants, then what’s wrong with it? Don’t we do that all the time too? And if she did have a malicious intention, what was it really? Everything is just a matter of perspectives, and du Maurier expertly plays with our minds until the very end. After all, there are always two sides of a coin.