The now defunct Common Reader (a wonderful by mail book company) called Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel a 'thumping good read' and I heartily concur with that description. I tend to be sympathetic towards female protagonists, or if not sympathetic at least I can find some common ground on which to relate to them, but I was very skeptical of Rachel, Countess Sangalletti, as I was reading. All the way to the end I had uncertainties about her as well as young Philip Ashley, the narrator of the story. I should know by now an author is unlikely to let the reader off the hook when they can get away with clouding the story in order to give it nice edges and dark corners, though really I should put it down to the skill of Daphne du Maurier to keep the reader wondering and indecisive about intentions and motivations of the characters. Much is left up to the reader to decide and interpret, but I should really start at the beginning.
Orphaned at a young age Philip Ashley was raised by his uncle Ambrose, a confirmed and somewhat curmudgeonly bachelor. The two are quite content to live in their all-male domain, dogs trailing after them, no heed paid to muddy boots, and evenings spent in the library with pipes in hand. But an illness made worse by the harsh Cornish weather compels Ambrose to seek a warmer and more conducive environment where he can recuperate, so he chooses Italy where he can also search for plants to bring home to his garden.
The unthinkable occurs when Ambrose writes that he has married. In Florence he met a distant relative, a cousin of Italian-Cornish ancestry, who has been widowed. Rachel has a shared love of gardens and is knowledgeable in herbs and plants and their various cures. Philip is shocked by the news and imagines Rachel as plain and homely or possibly something even monstrous in appearance and personality. Letters arrive from Florence only intermittently and over time become stranger and stranger as Ambrose is struck down by an illness, which causes him to react violently and lose all sensibility. There's talk of a tumor resulting in madness that runs through the Ashley family, but in his letters Ambrose accuses Rachel of poisoning him and begs Philip to come to his aid. Upon arriving in Florence, the Sangalletti Villa is closed, Rachel has only just left the day before for parts unknown, and Ambrose is dead and buried in the Protestant cemetery.
It's with heavy heart that Philip returns home, the new master of Ashley Hall and its environs. Already disturbed by what he's learned about Ambrose's death he discovers his cousin Rachel is in England and intends to visit. Rachel is nothing like Philip has imagined. He's shocked by how small and slight she is.
"She was dressed in deep black, which took the colour from her face, ans there was lace at her throat and at her wrists. Her hair was brown, parted in the centre with a low knot behind, her features neat and regular. The only things large about her were the eyes, which at first sight of me widened in sudden recognition, startled, like the eyes of a deer, and from recognition to bewilderment to pain, almost to apprehension. I saw the colour come into her face and go again, and I think I was as great a shock to her as she was to me. It would be hazardous to say which of us was the more nervous, which the more ill at ease."
His impression of her is far from what he imagined and rather than slighting and snubbing her, he finds himself quite taken with her. Beautiful and sophisticated, she's quite unlike anyone he knows. Considering his upbringing Philip is perhaps naive in the ways of women and often petulant in his actions and expectations. Rachel arrives in England with little money and many debts, as Ambrose never wrote a final will including her. Philip was intent on making sure she was kept excluded and planned on sending her away, but instead finds himself infatuated with her. As a matter of fact he ends up spending as much time with her as he can, as well everyone on the estate is impressed by her gentleness and concern and abilities with medicines. Philip's twenty-fifth birthday nears when he will finally come of age and have total control of the family money and estate,all of which he fully intends to give to Rachel. Perhaps that was what she wanted all along.
This is such a gripping read, one that continually turns in on itself as more and more questions are raised, and always there is doubt. Are Rachel's intentions pure? There is talk later of a profligate lifestyle in Italy and her first husband's death in a duel. Daphne du Maurier is never as easy as she appears. At face value is this a tale of a seductress? A woman after the Ashley money and willing to poison to get it? Or is it something else entirely? You wonder at the end just who is manipulating who. It is indeed a sinister tale and du Maurier leaves it up to the reader to decide who is victim and who is the perpetrator. As it was reviewed in the Guardian in 1951--"a consummate piece of story-telling." Indeed!