British author Daphne du Maurier published her tenth novel, My Cousin Rachel
, in 1951. In the spirit of her classic Rebecca
, it is a romantic mystery that takes place largely on an estate in Cornwall. The building up of suspense and the gothic atmosphere are comparable to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.My Cousin Rachel
is set in the nineteenth century and,not for the first time in the du Maurier canon, has Menabilly as its main location. The author was inspired by a seventeenth century portrait of Rachel Carew she saw at Anthony House in Cornwall. Rachel Carew married Ambrose Manaton of Kilworthy in 1690. The novel continues to be celebrated in Cornwall where there is a five mile stretch in the Barton area called the My Cousin Rachel Walk.
Central to My Cousin Rachel
is the relationship of the young Englishman Philip and Rachel, the widow of Philip’s cousin. While Philip has an aura of innocence, Rachel has a worldly persona and might have murdered her husband. Philip is drawn to Rachel, yet he is haunted by suspicions about her and thinks she needs to be saved from herself. The events of the novel have already transpired and Philip is musing over Rachel’s fate and trying to deal with his own guilt. He begins the story of Rachel by telling the reader that after the deaths of his parents,his cousin Ambrose raised him, and that he was raised without women in his life, as Ambrose did not trust them.
It is winter when Ambrose visits Italy where he and Rachel meet. Philip learns that Ambrose and Rachel have married via a letter from his cousin. In time, the letters begin to make Philip feel as if something as gone amiss, likely due to Rachel. This prompts Philip to go to Italy, where he learns that Ambrose has died. The doctors tell him that the cause of death was the same as had taken the life of Ambrose’s father, a brain tumor. Philip does not accept this explanation and promises himself that one day, he will seek his revenge against Rachel. When Philip arrives back home, he learns from Nick Kendall, his godfather, that Ambrose’s estate will not be his for another seven months, when he turns twenty-five years old, so until then, Nick will serve as his guardian. In addition, Nick tells Philip that Rachel is on her way to London to deliver Ambrose’s belongings to Philip. Philip welcomes this visit as an opportunity to confront Rachel and accuse her of being responsible for Ambrose’s death. The only one to whom Philip shares his feelings about the situation is Nick’s daughter, Louise, who is a childhood friend of Philip’s.
Philip is much surprised when Rachel arrives. She is pleasant and pretty, nothing like the formidable opponent he had imagined, and he begins to develop feelings towards her. Rachel tells him that she is returning to Italy, but he convinces her to stay, saying he would like her to help him with the gardens. Since Rachel had shared a passion for gardening with Ambrose, she decides to stay on. In time, Philip plans a Christmas celebration for the tenants on the property as Ambrose had done in years gone by. The butler, Seecombe, helps Philip with some preparations, while Rachel helps Philip with others. Philip selects a pearl necklace from the family’s jewelry collection to give Rachel as a gift, and they share a kiss. The women of the family had worn the necklace for weddings, and Nick is not happy that Philip has given it to Rachel. When Rachel hears this, she tells Nick, untruthfully, that Philip only gave it to her to borrow for the party that night.
Meanwhile, Philip and the butler have given items of Ambrose’s clothing to the tenants as gifts. One of them finds a letter within the clothing that Ambrose had written. From the letter, Philip discovers that Rachel and Ambrose had been expecting a child but had lost the baby. It is also revealed that Rachel was lavish in her spending habits, and that Ambrose had suspicions about the type of relationship Rachel had with her friend,Rainaldi. Ambrose had drawn up a will leaving his estate to Rachel. It would go to Philip only after Rachel’s death. He never signed it, though, as his distrust for Rachel grew over time. Philip makes the decision to use the provisions Ambrose had devised and draws up new papers giving the estate to Rachel until her death or until she marries. Philip returns from his attorney’s office to find Rainaldi at the house. He is insulting towards Philip, and he and Rachel converse in Italian in order to exclude Philip.
Upon turning twenty-five, Philip enters Rachel’s bedroom and puts the family jewels on her bed saying they are now hers. Rachel sleeps with him, and Philip believes this is an agreement to marry him even though he has not asked her. The following day, Rachel asks Nick about the estate, telling him she never agreed to marry Philip, although a drunken Philip had, at one point, announced their engagement. As the plot unfolds, Philip is taken ill, and Rachel tends to him. When he awakens from a period of delirium, he fears that Rachel has been poisoning him. He learns, too, that Rachel has been spending time with Rainaldi in England. Feeling that she has an evil within that she cannot control, Philip decides Rachel needs to be saved from herself. During a dinner party one night, after having learned that the bridge of the veranda at the house was not safe, Philip intentionally does not warn Rachel of the danger when she announces that she is going for a walk there. While she is out, a search is conducted for evidence that she attempted to poison him. None is found, and by the time he discovers Rachel’s innocence, she has met her death falling from the veranda.