Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will love his grand home as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries – and there he dies suddenly.
Jealous of his marriage, racked by suspicion at the hints in Ambrose’s letters, and grief-stricken by his death, Philip prepares to meet his cousin’s widow with hatred in his heart. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious Rachel like a moth to the flame. And yet… might she have had a hand in Ambrose’s death?
My Cousin Rachel was first published in 1951 and is regarded by many as du Maurier’s finest work, even though Rebecca contiunes to be her most famous. As you would expect from a du Maurier novel, the detailed descriptions of the beauty of Florence and Cornwall, two very different places, are used to evoke the atmosphere, heightening the sense of unease.
However, it is the ambiguity that is the real stroke of genius and du Maurier excels at it. The story is told from the point of view of Philip Ashley, a young man who has had a very sheltered upbringing and his lack of experience makes for some very flawed observations. We see Rachel through Philip’s eyes throughout the novel but there are hints scattered throughout that all may not be as it seems. After Ambrose’s death, Philip grows suspicious of Rachel’s motives based on distressed letters he has received from his uncle in which Ambrose hints that he is in danger from Rachel but comments from Philip’s godfather reveal there is an hereditary illness in the family which may be causing paranoia in Ambrose. Philip dismisses this and is determined to expose Rachel’s treachery but when she finally arrives in England, he falls for her charms. Philip’s opinion of her very much sets the tone for how Rachel’s actions are perceived, but they are offset by the tidbits revealed by the other characters, often things of which Philip himself seems oblivious.
Is Rachel innocent of all wrong doing? Or is she a murderess who has set her sights on making Philip her next victim? That is the debate that has been raging since the novel was published. I have to admit, my thoughts see-sawed while reading the story and I’m still not sure. The ending doesn’t really help, in fact it raises more questions, which will no doubt infuriate readers who like their plots tied with neat little bows. Thankfully, I’m not that kind of a reader and I loved the fact du Maurier chose to leave her readers hanging. I’m sure subsequent readings of this book will change my opinion umpteen times as to whether Rachel was guilty or just a victim of circumstances.