My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

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Daphne du Maurier suffers from being a popular writer who is also female. If you write well, people buy your novels and there are actual – like – stories to read in them, then you are probably not going to find yourself as a fully-paid up member of The Canon. And if you’re a woman, you must write women’s books. The logic rarely applies in reverse to male authors. Patriarchy, eh? Anyway, the women’s book/page-turner set-up of My Cousin Rachel is this: orphan Philip Ashley has been raised by his kindly cousin Ambrose on the family estate in Cornwall. But Ambrose’s health is suffering in the damp and chill, so he leaves England for Italy (a reasonably well-worn path if you had the money – Keats did it, for instance). Against all expectation, Ambrose suddenly finds a wife there (his and Philip’s cousin, called Rachel) but then gets ill and dies. Rachel comes to Cornwall – but does not actually appear until page 77. It’s a masterstroke. We all wait. Despite being Ambrose’s widow, the estate is not hers because Ambrose didn’t sign the will – and he sent Philip letters towards his end suggesting his new wife may not be the benign presence he first thought. As a result, Philip is frosty and suspicious, referring to her only as ‘My cousin Rachel’ – at least early on, dropping the first two words only as his attitude thaws. And thaw it must, because Rachel is beautiful, funny, proud and intelligent. Not what Philip expected at all. ‘How simple it must be for a woman of the world…to twist a young man like yourself around her finger,’ muses childhood friend Louise. Philip is furious because he knows he is not bewitched, it’s just that nobody except him understands Rachel, that’s all – and he finds it so enchanting that she knows so much about herbs and plants, including laburnum (one of Agatha Christie’s favourites). Rachel also knows the value of money – but then she understands patriarchy too. The novel begins, arrestingly, with a corpse swinging on a gibbet in the breeze. ‘There is no going back in life,’ muses Philip. He’s right. Death’s everywhere. And by the conclusion, no-one in this strange, unsettling story has won.

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