Rebecca sits at number eight on fiction classics at Sainsbury books (The Great Gatsby in number one). My Cousin Rachel is a more mature work with echoes of Manderlay. Du Maurier loved her English home so much that even her two daughters took second place to the house and gardens. When du Maurier locked herself in her study to write – they no longer existed. It’s all here, the English upper class that run the world. Ambrose Ashley is a benevolent god and master. His tenants and servants love him and his nephew Philip, whom he treats as a son and heir, as a confirmed bachelor, is beguiled by him. Philip looks and behaves like Ambrose and wants to be like him – when he grows up.
The book begins—and ends—at Four Turnings, where ‘they used to hang men’ at the crossroads. Something is amiss in this English haven of common decency, misogyny and xenophobia.
‘I had no sense of foreboding, when we sat talking together that last evening, before Ambrose set out on his final journey’.
Ambrose does two things that surprise Philip. First he marries a contessa, a widow, in Florence. Then he dies. But before dying he sends for Philip, claiming, in a letter, he’s being poisoned. Philip arrives too late. Ambrose is already interred in a Protestant cemetery, far from home and the contessa, now Philip’s Cousin Rachel, has fled from Florence with no forwarding address. Philip, with Ambrose’s hat, all that is left of the man, swears revenge. He returns home to his inheritance.
Philip, however, is not yet 24, so the house, land, jewellery and family heirlooms, all that Ambrose owned is still, technically, overseen by Philip’s godfather, Nick Kendall.
When Cousin Rachel alights on an Englishman’s home two forces collide. Hate and Love. Nick Kendall counsels Philip on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday when he no longer would have the power of veto: ‘There are some women, Philip, good women very possibly, who through no fault of their own impel disaster’.
Cousin Rachel, like Manderlay’s Mrs de Winters, courts disaster by being too perfect, but more than that, by being beautiful. Du Maurier’s villains float like butterflies with sympathy and tact disarming the protagonist with any sense that they can be dangerous. Cousin Rachel brings joy to Philip, by demanding nothing, asking for nothing, he gives her everything, but as Ambrose’s doppelganger the question remains, will Philip follow the path he took?
The arrival of the mysterious Rainaldi, with his hooded eyes, Rachel’s confidante—they converse in Italian, excluding others—whom Ambrose hated and Philip equally hates, is grit in the pearl of narrative.
Philip comes to know Cousin Rachel better than he should and in doing so he knows himself better. Classic.