17. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
From the author of Rebecca, there's another unresolved Gothic "mystery" novel. I'd never heard of My Cousin Rachel until I found it in a bargain pile at Barnes & Noble. I was a fan of Rebecca, so I bought it for roughly $5.
I would say du Maurier's books are actually not mysteries in the conventional sense. To anyone with a sense of intuition, it's clear from the first chapter who did it. The question is why. du Maurier is a queen of eerie setting and grey characters.
In My Cousin Rachel, there are two contrasting Great Houses. One is the hereditary Ashley home, which Philip Ashley will inherit after the death of his beloved cousin Ambrose. This home is in du Maurier's native Cornwall, a family home turned well-cared-for bachelor pad. The other home is the Italian villa of Ambrose's wife Rachel, where he dies. That home was once the scene of luxury, but was depleted to satisfy debts. Both homes are suffused with extravagant gardens, a passion of Ambrose and Rachel both.
This book concentrates on a young man, Philip Ashley, instead of a young woman. After Ambrose's death, he blames his as yet never-met cousin Rachel. But when Rachel comes to Cornwall, he can hate her no longer. Eventually, he also falls in love with her.
There are a couple interesting points to the story that make me wonder what the author is trying to say. Philip, raised by Ambrose, has never been around women much, and is a complete stranger to their ways. Much is made of this. It is clear that Rachel takes advantage of Philip, as she had of Ambrose. And yet, it is Philip who initiates his own destruction, it appears to me. Is du Maurier criticizing men or women or both? Does she believe it is dangerous for women to have power?
And finally, there is the fact that Rachel is something of a witch doctor, a particularly feminine art. Rachel is often described as "small" and "feminine.' Is du Maurier saying it is in the nature of a true woman to be destructive?
There is much to be dissected here, in a story that is obvious enough on the surface. It is true to the Gothic form, which I clearly need to study more.