My Cousin Rachel Book Review: Daphne du Maurier Strikes Again

SPOILERS: My Cousin Rachel is another of Daphne du Maurier’s finest works. Find out my thoughts on the plot, and whether it lived up to Rebecca, right here…

At the very beginning of it all, my blog began with a lonely post; a book review of Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. Nearly three years on, and my lack of reading over the years has urged me to read at least one book a month this year. It seems only fitting, therefore, that my first book review of 2020 should be another of du Maurier’s works don’t you think?

My Cousin Rachel is, arguably, du Maurier’s most popular novel. It’s been adapted and readapted into film after film, and it’s no surprise when we consider the tense feeling of uncertainty it ignites throughout the story.

So, if you want to discover a little taste of the My Cousin Rachel plot, and my thoughts on the storyline, don’t go anywhere…

My Cousin Rachel Book

My Cousin Rachel Plot

Daphne du Maurier books are known for their tense, atmospheric nature, and My Cousin Rachel is certainly no different. With a plot surrounded by intrigue, suspicion, and mistrust, it really is no surprise that it’s a firm favourite amongst her fans.

Unlike Rebecca, where our protagonist is an unnamed female character, this time, our lead is a young heir named Philip. Philip is next in line to receive his much-beloved Uncle Ambrose’s fortune and property. However, little does he know that, on Ambrose’s departure to Italy for his health this winter, they would never see one another again.

When Ambrose arrives in Rome, his sights are set on his distant cousin, Rachel. Rachel’s beguiling character whisks the middle-aged bachelor off his feet, and they are married within a few months.

Philip’s jealousy gets the better of him, as he whiles away the time back at home, and his suspicions of Rachel are, at first, unfounded. Then, Ambrose’s letters become more and more agitated and confused, and Philip grows concerned for his uncle. He soon makes the decision to take a trip to Rome to ensure Ambrose is safe and well…

…too little, too late.

When Philip arrives in Rome to find his uncle dead, his thoughts run wild about what Rachel might have done to him. However, Rachel is nowhere to be found, until she turns up at Philip’s door on his return to England.

Despite Philip’s prejudice, Rachel’s arrival changes his impression of her, and he soon finds himself in a similar position to his late uncle. Will Philip make the same mistakes as Ambrose, or will he steer clear of Rachel’s feminine wiles?

A Cat, A Book, and A Plant

Daphne du Maurier’s Feminist Message

My Cousin Rachel, like many of du Maurier’s books, received a lot of criticism at the time. That said, despite being a female writer throughout the 20th century, she made a real mark on the scene.

Du Maurier is known to be a bit of a feminist writer, hence her many stories about women overpowering men. However, what is interesting about her works is the clear lack of voice that her female characters have.

In Rebecca, for example, it was interesting to note that her protagonist and narrator was given no name. Similarly, the infamous villain, Rebecca herself, is also given no voice to plead her innocence. Like many women during the 20th century who had no voice, Rebecca is a true tale of women’s lives twisted by the male gaze.

Similarly, in My Cousin Rachel, du Maurier focuses purely on Philip’s narrative, filling the readers’ head with suspicions of Rachel from the start. In fact, the reader is provided with almost no opportunity to give Rachel the benefit of the doubt, as the seeds of “murder” are planted in our head from the very beginning.

Because of this opening narrative, even when Philip’s suspicions are removed, the reader remains suspicious of Rachel’s motives. Rachel is painted as the classic evil temptress from the very start, and her track record of moving from man to man immediately draws us to the conclusion of murder from then on.

My thoughts? To me, it seems that du Maurier’s general attitude towards her female characters, and the unfair narratives they are given, acts as a commentary on the wider world around her. By planting this seed of doubt on Rachel’s character from the very beginning, du Maurier harks on the general depiction of women throughout history as the femme fatale. Without a voice to plead their case, the patriarchy is able to blame women for its transgressions.

My Cousin Rachel

Was Rachel Poisoning Philip in My Cousin Rachel?

So, the question is, was it murder, as well as attempted murder, all along? I have to say, as a feminist myself, I wanted to give Rachel the benefit of the doubt. I tried so hard to see through Philip’s narrative, but the laburnum plants in Rachel’s drawers told a different story.

However, I did wonder whether it was a little cliche to believe that a woman like Rachel would succumb to using a “woman’s method” of murder. Perhaps she was protecting herself, and attempting to build up a tolerance to the laburnum plant’s poison by consuming it in small quantities herself.

Or, perhaps laburnum is not as dangerous as Philip is persuaded. Maybe Rachel just liked the plant, and enjoyed collecting it… who knows?

At the end of the day, it’s clear that du Maurier’s narrative was designed to make us feel uncertain and confused, throughout. We are uncertain of Rachel’s motives, as well as her innocence. We are also unsure of the clarity of Philip’s narrative due to his prejudice of women and Rachel from the start. That’s what makes the tale so intriguing, from beginning to end.

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My Thoughts and Rating

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading My Cousin Rachel, so much so, that I picked up two more of Daphne du Maurier’s novels from Waterstones the first opportunity I got.

That said, I can’t deny that it didn’t blow me away as much as my first taste of du Maurier’s books. Will I ever read a novel as beguiling as Rebecca? We’ll see…

Rating: 7.5/10

Have you read My Cousin Rachel, and want to give your thoughts on the story? I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments below – thanks for reading!

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