Having seen the movie Rebecca (and who knows, maybe I read the book too), I was happy to listen to the audiobook of My Cousin Rachael. The story is told by Philip Ashley, brought up by his beloved uncle Ambrose after his parents died. They live in a completely male household and lavish their love on the estate that Philip will inherit. By the time Philip is in his early 20s Ambrose has health issues requiring him to be in a warmer, dryer climate than the Cornish countryside in the winters. While in Italy, Ambrose meets the quintessential temptress Rachel. They marry and within a year, Ambrose’s health deteriorates; he dies without ever returning to England.
This is the point where I should give the SPOILER ALERT.
Philip receives letters that indicate Ambrose’s distrust of Rachel after a few months of happy marriage. He dies believing that she has deceived him with her Italian friend Rainaldi, that she was giving money to Rainaldi, and that she was poisoning him. When Rachel came to England, Philip invited her to visit, though he blamed her for Ambrose’s death. But Rachel is more than a mere temptress, she is thoughtful and generous and commands any room with her wit. Soon Philip is smitten and gives her a generous but not unreasonable allowance from Ambrose’s estate. And thus he begins the repetition of Ambrose’s experience.
Rachel is portrayed as kind and thoughtful as long as she needs to be; cruel and selfish when she can be. It’s never clear that she murdered Ambrose, but when Philip became severely ill, he suspected her of poisoning him too. His suspicions didn’t stop him from turning over the estate to her when he came of age, believing that she would marry him. After he finally was clear she would not marry him, he effectively killed her by not warning her of an incomplete construction project on the grounds.
The book begins with Philip telling that Ambrose showed him a hanged man named Tom Jenkin when he was a child and ends with him noting that they no longer hang people in that particular location. I thought this meant he was hung for her death until I listened to the beginning of the book again which makes it clear he lives that lonely peculiar life that Ambrose had except without a child to care for. He says,
I still have the house to cherish which Ambrose would have me do. I can reface the walls where the damp enters and keep all sound and well and in repair, continue to plant trees and shrubs, cover the bare hills where the wind comes roaring from the east. Leave some legacy of beauty when I go if nothing else. But a lonely man is an unnatural man and soon comes to perplexity, from perplexity to fantasy, from fantasy to madness and so I swing back again to Tom Jenkin, hanging in his chains. Perhaps he suffered too.
This is one of those books that make me want to shout warnings to the character. I found it unnerving to listen to without knowing what would happen, so I read the plot outline when I was about two-thirds through the book. Then I could just enjoy the writing.
Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel, Doubleday, 1952, 348 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library and from Amazon.