Set in Cornwall, the novel is told in first-person by 24 year old Philip Ashley. Orphaned as a child, young Philip was taken in by his cousin Ambrose, a twenty-something bachelor, and raised on a large country estate. The two bond as father and son, and live in a world devoid of women. Philip returns from school and commits himself to remaining a stay-at-home bachelor like Ambrose.
When Ambrose takes ill, he is prescribed a treatment of good weather... so off to Italy he goes to take in the winter sunshine. Ambrose and Philip correspond and one day Ambrose mentions in a letter that he has met their cousin Rachel, a widow. As one season moves into the next, Philip learns that Ambrose has given up his bachelor ways and married Rachel. Ambrose's health worsens and his letters become more erratic. Then one day he writes:
'For God's sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay it may be too late.'Philip takes off for the continent only to arrive after Ambrose has died and the widow has left town. He returns home in a red-hot rage about Rachel, convinced that she has done wrong by Ambrose. But did she? Throughout the rest of the novel the reader contemplates whether Rachel is a mischievous gold digger who killed her husband, or a grieving widow who has lost the love of her life.
The challenge is that we only see Rachel through our unreliable narrator, Philip. His loathing soon becomes obsession as he finally realises that women have a place in the world. He has been so socially isolated that he cannot understand his desire and shows his affection in a number of ill-conceived romantic gestures. As Philip's love for Rachel grows, he resists gossip from the townsfolk and the warnings from his godfather and his long-suffering, would-be girlfriend Louisa.
I greatly enjoyed My Cousin Rachel for the way in which we readers are compelled to oscillate between Rachel's guilt and innocence. This is the torment, the not-knowing. Often times I get annoyed by books which leave me hanging, but with Du Maurier I loved the ambiguity.
I enjoyed the feminist undercurrent in Rachel's character, her desire to lead an independent life, free of any man, in a time in which women had few options. The acting was fine by all concerned (I especially loved the portrayal of Seecombe, Philip's ancient manservant). The scenery, sets and costumes were also superb.
If the film had a fault, it was in the heavy-handedness of the foreshadowing: Rachel brewing her herbal tisanas, the pruning of the laburnum, and so on. The film opens with Philip's voiceover asking 'Did she? Didn't she?' and ends with the audience left wondering. I will be pondering that for some time.
I would highly recommend reading Du Maurier's novel first for her incredibly sharp writing, her subtle wit and the way she draws the reader in. While the film is enjoyable, the book is more so.
My review of Du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) can also be found on this blog.