My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951)
By Nava Atlas | On April 26, 2019 | Updated September 30, 2022 | Comments (0)
My Cousin Rachel is a novel by British author Daphne du Maurier, first published in the U.K. in 1951 and in the U.S. in 1952.
Echoing du Maurier’s masterwork, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel is a romantic thriller. It’s set primarily on a large estate in Cornwall, England, where du Maurier drew real-life inspiration from Antony House.
There she saw a portrait of a woman named Rachel Carew, and the creative spark was lit. So highly anticipated was My Cousin Rachel’s publication that the film rights were fought over even before it was published.
David O. Selznick’s 1940 film adaptation of Rebecca had been hugely successful, giving him plenty of confidence in My Cousin Rachel’s prospects. In 1951, the year the novel was published in the U.K., Selznick sought the film rights.
But his rival, Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox, had apparently secured the rights to the film just twenty minutes before Selznick was set to make his bid. This excellent 1952 film starred Olivia de Haviland in the title role, with Richard Burton co-starring, in his film debut.
You know a story has touched a nerve when multiple television and film adaptations continue to be produced. My Cousin Rachel was aired by the BBC as a mini-series in 1983, and as a modern-day radio play, also by the BBC in 2011.
Most recently, a film adaptation was released in 2017 starring the aptly named Rachel Weisz in the title role. Reviews of this attempt were mixed to negative.
It’s worth seeing both the 1952 and 2017 film versions, but it’s always best to read the book first! My Cousin Rachel was quite well received on both sides of the Atlantic.
Following are two views from its initial publication by American reviewers highlighting the intriguingly ambiguous plot and character of its heroine.
A 1952 review of My Cousin Rachel
From the original review by Harrison Smith of My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier in The Berkshire Review, February 9, 1952:
Some prominent English families have a way of inheriting talent for several generations. The du Mauriers are an example of this trait.
Beginning at age 24, Daphne, its youngest member, had published in the course of five years three literary novels, a notable book about her distinguished actor-father Gerald, and the resoundingly successful romance Jamaica Inn.
The romantic streak in the family is further illustrated by her grandfather, George du Maurier, who was not only an artist but the author of two immensely successful books, Trilby and Peter Ibbetson.
A worthy successor to Rebecca
The best-remembered of all of du Maurier’s books is Rebecca, the classic story of a young and devoted second wife who arrived at Maxim de Winter’s historic country house to discover much that was unexpected, sinister, and mysterious.
My Cousin Rachel may prove equally successful, though to many, the story may not be as appealing. This is for the simple reason that Rachel is years older than Rebecca and is a beautiful but enigmatic, devious woman, half-Italian by birth.
The novel is actually a mystery story to the end, for the reader never knows whether Rachel Ashley is guilty of the murder of her elderly English husband in her Florentine villa, or whether she is equally guilty of an attempt to poison his young cousin and heir in the old family home in Cornwall.
There can be no argument that the fascination of My Cousin Rachel makes it difficult to take time out for eating or sleeping. But the evidence of Rachel’s innocence or guilt will be argued for a long time and will be a subject for the film version as well.
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Quotes from My Cousin Rachel
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The case against and in defense of Rachel
For the prosecution, this beautiful and fascinating woman can be accused of having led a riotous life with her first husband, an Italian count, and of having married the elder Ashley for his more and then poisoned him.
There is a mysterious Italian who follows her to young Philip Ashleys Cornwall home who was likely her lover. The symptoms of the malady that nearly kill this young man, who had never loved another, duplicate the fatal illness of the elder Ashley.
There can be no doubt that Rachel was a skillful seducer of the inexperienced young man of 24, who became so enamored with her that he gave her the family jewels and made a will surrendering his fortune to her upon his death.
Is she guilty or innocent?
The defense can only prove that there is no actual evidence of her guilt, and the final decision will depend on whether the reader falls in love with her, and thus becomes her defender, or loathes her as he or she would a poisonous snake.
This reviewer believes that Daphne Du Maurier has weighted the evidence heavily against the heroine, but is still left in doubt of the author’s own opinion of her guilt or innocence. At any rate, this story once again proves that the author is the most entrancing of living romantic novelists and the ablest constructor of complex and absorbing plots.
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See also: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
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Devil or angel? Another 1952 review of My Cousin Rachel
From the original review of My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier in Council Bluffs Nonpareil, February 1952: My Cousin Rachel is reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier’s best seller Rebecca. Because Rachel, like Rebecca, remains a puzzle to the end. Devil or angel? The reader must decide.
The story is told by Phillip Kendall, a very conscience-stricken and unhappy young man. Phillip has been raised to be a young Devonshire squire by a doting bachelor uncle, Ambrose Ashley.
One winter Ambrose takes off for Italy’s warmer clime, leaving his heir, Phillip, to take care of his properties. In Italy Uncle Ambrose does a startling thing for a man of his advancing years. He meets the beautiful Contessa Sangaletti. She is also, writes Ambrose, a widow and an Englishwoman and a distant cousin of the Devonshire Ashleys.
They are married and settle in Rachel’s villa in Florence. The tone of Ambrose’s letters changes. They hint at dark deeds, mention Ambrose’s failing health, and a sinister Signor Rinaldi, devoted friend of Rachel.
Phillip hastens to Italy only to learn of his uncle’s death, also shrouded in mystery. And Rachel has disappeared. The youth returns to Devonshire and shortly thereafter he has a beautiful and charming house guest — Rachel.
Despite his growing distrust and suspicions, the worldly and experienced Rachel soon has Phillip enraptured — and snared. Phillip becomes suddenly and dangerously ill.
His suspicions of Rachel, backed by those of his childhood playmate Louise Kendall, grow. What Phillip does or does not do about his suspicions is the twist at the end of the tale.