Set during some point in the 19th century in Cornwall and partly in Italy this is a story about love, betrayal, deceit, and one startling act of revenge. Narrated by Philip Ashley, in his mid-twenties, raised for most of his life under the guardianship of his cousin Ambrose. The two men are very much alike in looks and personality. During a trip to Italy, Ambrose falls in love with a stunningly beautiful woman and ends up staying in the warm and sunny climate for the good of his eroding health. When after a span of time Ambrose's letters to Philip reveal that something is amiss but details are scant, Philip decides to travel to the villa Sangalletti. Upon his arrival Philip is told that Ambrose has died. More devastating news is to come as not only has a burial already taken place but the widow has packed up house and moved on. I wasn't even at the page fifty mark yet but already had Rachel's card marked; not just her but her sly friend, Signor Rainaldi too.
So let's get it all out there. What exactly is the state of the relationship between the Signor and Rachel? They both have the same aquiline features and while this might be down to a regional attribute I did wonder at times if they were related. Or are they simply partners in crime? In any case, I feel quite strongly that Rachel knew exactly what she was doing when she slowly seduced Philip during her visit and reeled him in. The way she coldly brushes him off once he signs over the house and showers her with a basket full of jewels was maddening. Frankly, I don't buy the story that she had every right to turn against Philip when out of frustration he grabs her around the neck. I wanted to do worse than that to her myself! Also, could Rachel say that she was continually being controlled by men when it was her decision to visit Philip in Cornwall and then stay for months when she had a home to go to in Italy? This argument doesn't sit well with me. But how does Rainaldi fit in with the scheme...accomplice, puppet master, lover, someone who carefully watches over Rachel in order to reclaim any debt she has cost him?
In my version of the story, Ambrose was clearly being poisoned by Rachel and she was using the same modus operandi with Philip. The poisonous laburnum seeds tucked away in her drawer made things quite clear and both Ambrose and Philip's symptoms were comparable. She got away with it once but not twice. Which leads me to the matter of a weak bridge over a sunken garden.
When Louise and Philip find a sketch of Ambrose tucked away on Rachel's desk with a notation to 'remember only the happy hours' they wonder if they have misjudged her. I think it is entirely possible that Rachel could have been genuinely in love with Ambrose but her overriding motivation is greed. She has a taste for the finer things in life and little concern for budget. Also, Rachel equates ownership with power; something that as a woman she would continually attempt to attain. There were two sides to Rachel and she was quite capable of acting out of love but in the end, when needs must, she was capable of murder for financial gain and with that, power.
Now, as for Rachel's death...is Philip responsible? He didn't warn her about the unsafe condition of the bridge but it should have been dealt with by the workers on the estate as soon as it was discovered. In any case, I think Philip was leaving a horrible accident up to chance. He allowed Rachel to go for her walk and if she fell to her death, it was more to do with serendipity than him actually placing her directly in harm's way. If you go back to the beginning of the novel though we see that Philip carries Rachel's fatal fall with him but has put it into a box, so to speak...
'There is no going back in life. There is no return. No second chances. I cannot call back the spoken word or the accomplished deed, sitting here, alive and in my own home, any more than poor Tom Jenkyn could, swinging in his chains.'
My fondness for this story waxed and waned at different points. I asked a colleague the other day if she had ever read My Cousin Rachel and she replied that she had but it was during her early twenties. Possibly the best age to read a story centred around a manipulative woman and a naive young man in the throes of first love. Having said that, the last quarter of the book was a tense page-turning event that had me on the edge of my seat and the lasting impression is a good one!
There is a copy of Rebecca languishing on the shelves upstairs and now I look forward to reading it sooner rather than later. Thanks to Miranda for her excellent choice of story for a book club read with its many situations to mull over and for introducing me to Daphne du Maurier.
Daphne du Maurier