My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951)
My Cousin Rachel directed by Roger Michell (2017)
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This is my third Du Maurier book I have covered, I did Rebecca last year, and earlier this year I covered The Birds! I will link to both in case you are interested!
Like Rebecca, this is a slow burn thriller. And while I prefer Rebecca overall, I did really enjoy this one. Like most slow burns, I was reading it at a normal pace, but once I got about 2/3 of the way in I just couldn’t put it down because I had to know how everything would turn out and see when this powder keg was going to explode!
The main character, Phillip, is so naïve and can be so frustrating! But it honeslty makes sense he would be so easily manipulated since he wasn’t raised around any women, and the few women they would have to their home were seen as just someone they had to temporarily put up with. The theme of women being such a mystery, and the stereotypes towards the genders was interesting to read and think about.
I had never heard about this movie before to be honest, and so I assumed it must not be that good since I never hear anyone talk about it. And while the movie doesn’t live up to its potential, I thought the performances were fantastic, it was visually beautiful, and there were some camera angles that add to the atmosphere. It isn’t as atmospheric as I would have liked, and the pacing is very poorly done. It often feels rushed and choppy. I would still recommend the movie though, especially is you like the book. Rachel Weisz really brings the character of Rachel to life and Sam Clefin was also quite good as Phillip.
From here on out I will be getting into the details of the plot, which means there will be spoilers!
Both begin with us seeing that Phillip was orphaned at a young age and his older cousin, Ambrose taking him in. Phillip had a female nanny, but she was soon fired and it was only men who lived in and worked at the house. Every Sunday they would have some guests over, some of which were female, but they were tolerated until they finally left and the men could once more be left to themselves.
When Phillip is in his early 20’s, Ambrose goes to the warmer climate of Florence for his health and writes to Phillip that he has met their cousin Rachel there whom he is quite taken with. He later writes that they have been married and Phillip feels jealous and bothered that Ambrose has married, when all his life he is saying they don’t have a need for women.
After Ambrose has been married for over a year, he writes that he is sick and the last letter sent asks for Phillip to come quickly and that Rachel, his torment, has done him in.
Phillip goes to Florence, but it is too late and Ambrose has died. Rachel isn’t there either, and Phillip then returns to England and vows revenge upon Rachel whom he blames for Ambrose’s death.
In the book and movie, we don’t meet Rachel right away and this was Rebecca-like, where we have a character, we haven’t met yet who’s presence is felt. When we, and Phillip, finally do meet Rachel, when she comes to Ambrose’s, and now Phillip’s, estate, he is surprised for one at how much younger she is. As they talk, she also makes jokes which surprise Phillip and disarm him. He had gone in angry, but by the end of their first conversation he is already softening.
Early on, Phillip tells Rachel of his anger towards her, but in the book acknowledges that he didn’t hate her, but his idea of her and that it is all behind him now. He also shows her the last letter Ambrose had sent, and she says how he was losing his sanity near the end.
Phillip’s childhood friend, Louise (and others) can see how Rachel is able to twist Phillip around her finger without even having to try very hard but Phillip is in denial.
That Christmas, Phillip gives Rachel a set of pearls which his mother had worn on her wedding day and they are the most valuable of all the family jewels. Phillip technically doesn’t own anything until he is 25 and right now he can’t take things without permission of his godfather but he takes them anyway and gives them to her.
When his godfather sees her wearing htem, he later tells Phillip he had no right to take them and give them to someone else. By this time Phillip is in love with Rachel, plus he feels like everything should be hers anyway because Ambrose should have left everything to her in his will but he had never changes his will and so she was left with nothing.
Rachel overhears this though and gives the pearls to the godfather.
April 1st is when Phillip will turn 25 and everything will legally be his. In preparation he makes out a new document giving the estate to Rachel, who should have had it anyway since she is Ambrose’s widow. There is a clause in it though that if she marries, the estate reverts back to Phillip. He doesn’t think this will be an issue though, because he wants to marry her anyway and it will still be hers if she marries him.
He has his godfather sign and witness the document, and the godfather is very troubled by Phililp’s decision and basically realizes his godson is an idiot who is easily manipulated.
That night at midnight he climbs up to Rachel’s room and gives her all of the family jewelry, including the pearls. By the way, the way he handles the jewelry is so frustrating! He has no respect for these expensive pieces! Clearly a rich kid who takes for granted all of the nice things he has.
Anyway, he also gives her the document telling her everything is hers, but before she reads it he tells her in the book how when they first met he had said a house gives him all the love and comfort he needs but he now knows that isn’t true and asks if she understand what he means to which she says yes and then blows out the candle and he loses his virginity to her.
In the movie, he says something about how there is only one thing he lacks in life, and then she blows out the candle and they are together. In both, he thought it was obvious he was alluding to her marrying him, and that her having sex with him was her way of saying yes.
She is then gone almost all day because she went to see his godfather so she could understand for sure what the document Phillip wrote meant. Phillip is upset because he had wanted to have a picnic with her that day, but in both they do take a walk upon her return and are once more intimate (in the movie at least, I don’t think they did it again in the book).
That night Louise and his godfather come over for dinner and Phillip is drunk and makes a toast saying that Rachel will be his wife. Rachel is aghast and once the others have gone, they have an argument. During this fight it is explained that Rachel thought he just wanted to be with her physically and that she did it because she was so grateful to him, not because she was going to marry him.
The next day he meets up with Louise and she basically tries to talk some sense into him, saying she heard Rachel tell her dad that she has no plans of marrying again which means the estate will forever be hers. But as always, Phillip refuses to listen.
Phillip getting sick
And then that night, which by the way he comes home and he sees that Rachel has invited this local woman to come live with them because she’s like, I don’t feel safe being around just you anymore and you know it looks bad that two of us living together and it’s giving you ideas. So I’m going to have Mary stay with us now. And Philip is very upset by by this.
That night he gets sick and then he is like super sick for a long time and delirious and when he comes to in the book, five weeks have passed that he’s been like in and out of consciousness whereas in the movie it had been five days. But also in the book his memory is like very messed up. And so he thinks he and Rachel did get married and so he like is thinking of her as his wife and it’s not until like however many days where he’s like making these comments where she’s like, we are we are not married and not only are we not married, but she tells him that she is planning on going back to Florence and leaving once he is feeling better. Whereas in the movie he’s not confused about them being married but I think she does talk about how she’s going to be going to Florence.
But to talk about more of Ambrose’s letters. So after he recovers from his sickness in the movie, it is after this that he finds another letter from Ambrose that Ambrose had meant to send to him but never did. And in this letter he talks about how money is the way to Rachel’s heart and he straight out says point blank, she’s trying to poison me and she’s killing me. Whereas in the book this is different because he finds this letter like months before his birthday. So he finds this letter saying where Ambrose says she only cares about money, she’s trying to kill me. But Philip kind of dismisses it and he buries the letter in the ground and throughout the months like different sections of that letter will come to his mind.
But again he just like wants to believe Rachel is who he thinks. And so he’s like, you know what? Get that out of my head, it doesn’t matter. But also in the letter in the book Ambrose talks about how he wrote a new will giving everything to Rachel but then he never signed it because he started to doubt her being like, hmm, I think she is trying to kill me for my money so I’m not going to sign this will. And it is after reading this letter that Philip asks Rachel like inadvertently about this will and Rachel has it. And so because they have this will that is what causes Philip to decide to give everything to her once it is legally his. But in the book, like I said, he found the letter months beforehand and then after his sickness he’s is starting to doubt Rachel and so he goes and digs up the letter again and reads through it once more.
But this time he actually is starting to believe the letter whereas before he didn’t want to. So yeah it was interesting in the movie having him get this letter after he’s been sick it definitely makes him seem less stupid because in the book he finds that letter so early on plus other letters too and yet he chooses to just be in denial about it regardless.
But there is a character I haven’t talked about named Rainaldi. And after his sickness he finds out Rachel has been sneaking into town to see Rainaldi and he and Ambrose had both known Rainaldi and both of them just like don’t like him and they don’t trust him and he lives in Florence but he has like visited a few times in England so Philip has met him. Philip sees that Rainaldi has written Rachel a letter. So he later is trying to find this letter because he is like sure that the letter will prove Rachel is untrustworthy.
He’s trying to find the letter in her room and he doesn’t find it. Instead in the book, this is not in the movie, in the book he finds an envelope full of poisonous seeds. This is from a tree on his estate that he know knows this poisonous. And he also knows that Rachel had this same tree on her estate in Florence. And so he’s like wow she used these seeds to poison Ambrose and now she’s been using these seeds to poison me. Which by the way Rachel is often often making like different types of teas and she’s very good with herbal healing and she will make these different drinks for different people in town and like will cure them of their sicknesses.
And so she’s been making these teas for Philip to drink but after he finds the seeds he’s like, I’m good, I’ll pass for now. Which in the movie he shows Louise the letter where Ambrose accuses Rachel of poisoning him. Like I said, he doesn’t find the seeds but he has that letter so he shows it to Louise and then later the three of them are drinking tea and hanging out and Rachel makes a tea for Louise and she offers it to her and she’s like, oh like drink it, drink it. But Louise has just read that letter saying that Rachel poisons people. So I thought this was a great scene in the movie because you can see Louise being like, I really don’t wanna drink this. But then she feels like she can’t say no. But then Rachel Al also offers some tea to Philip but he straight out is like, you know what, I’m good.
Rachel, Philip and Louise are all hanging out and then Rachel says how she’s going to go outside like for a walk or for a ride. Philip and Louise are going to stay in. As Rachel is leaving, Philip tells her like, oh like why don’t you go to this specific area, I think you’ll really like it and it’s an area that he knows is dangerous that could lead to her death. And then while she is gone, Philip and Louise are searching the room trying to find evidence to show that Rachel has killed Ambrose and is trying to kill Philip. And so they’re looking for that letter from Rainaldi and what they find instead is one a letter from the bank which says that she has returned all the jewelry and it is like back in Philip’s name basically.
And so they’re like, oh she didn’t even keep it, she just returned it all and then they find the letter from Rinaldi but in the letter Rinaldi is not like some love letter or something. Instead he was like replying I guess to her saying she didn’t want to go to Florence because of how attached she is to Philip. So Rinaldi is saying like it’s unfortunate how attached you are to him, but if you really want to be around him that bad, if you really that care, if you really care about him that much, just bring him to Florence with you. And these are the only two things they find and both of them show Rachel as being a good person. And so then they’re like, you know, Philip in particular is just like, wait a minute, what? And while they’re searching the room, Rachel goes that dangerous path he suggested and she dies.
And so in the book it ends with her dying and Philip being like, was she even guilty? ’cause I don’t even know anymore. And also by the way, like Ambrose had like this mental health issue with his sickness and we find out that that is genetic and it is just in their family line. So he could have had a legitimate disease. And same with Philip’s sickness. Like if it’s some genetic disease it makes sense that Philip got crazy sick that one time too. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that Rachel had poisoned him but then in the movie, so the book ends with Rachel dying and that’s that. But the movie we then see that Philip later marries Louise and they have children together and in voiceover Philip is talking about Rachel and he’s saying you know like did she, didn’t she like wondering but while he’s wondering this in voiceover we are seeing Louise on the screen and I could be totally misreading this, but it seemed like it was implying that like maybe Louise was being kind of shady but maybe it’s also implying that Philip has a distrust for a woman now too or something.
And so he already had these sexist ideas from being raised with Ambrose but now after his experience with Rachel, maybe he just has a hard time trusting even Louise who has been a good person throughout this whole story. But yeah, so that was a really interesting ending to the movie.
But Rachel’s death I wanted to talk about because it is different from book to movie. So in the movie earlier on, like at the halfway point, Philip is riding and he’s riding along a cliff but the cliff is eroding and it starts breaking and he falls off his horse and almost falls over the cliff and dies but he doesn’t. And so at the end Rachel is getting ready to go out riding and he tells her like Oh go to this area over on the edge because there’s like seal pups and they’re super cute so you should go look at them.
And so Rachel rides over on that cliff and just like it happened with him, the cliff started breaking and she ends up falling and dying. Whereas in the book very close to the end like right before Rachel and Philip and Louise are having tea, right before that they’d been at church or something and a gardener had come up to him being like, oh hey that new garden, there’s a bridge over there and don’t have anyone walk on it because they could fall and break their neck. So it’s very unsafe right now. It was just not subtle at all. Like I expect more from Daphne Du Maurier but she just shoehorned this conversation in there which is just so out of the blue and it’s so obviously going to come into play later.
Like I feel like this conversation about the bridge being messed up could have happened earlier in a way where like the reader almost forgets about it but then it comes into play near the end, you know? But the way she did it, it was just so obvious like, okay, well Philip’s going to use that knowledge and get Rachel to die clearly. And so I, yeah, I just feel like she could have done it in a more usubtle way than the way she wrote it in the book. So in some ways I prefer the movie because when the cliff is crashing in the movie I was just like, oh wow. Like I thought maybe it was symbolic of him about to make a bad choice because this is right before his birthday so I thought it was more symbolic. And so then when it comes into play later I was like oh wow, like I, I didn’t even see that coming.
Is Rachel evil?
But to talk about if Rachel is good or bad, because That’s the big question here. I do think the book and movie handle this differently because I almost think that with the book I lean towards Rachel is evil and she did kill Ambrose and she was trying to poison Philip because for one he found the seeds in her room. But she was also very into the gardening and the new plant when she first arrived. And yes she’s an herbalist and is into all of that, but still I think she also wanted to make sure she got her poison tree. And also in the book someone else mentions like, oh careful of that tree, it’s poisonous. And Philip is like, oh, like Rachel had that same tree in Florence. Whereas in the movie Rachel points out that it’s a poisonous tree. Like if she was using those seeds to poison people, why would she point that out? She wouldn’t want attention brought to it. So the fact that someone else tells him about it in the book again made it seem like Rachel was doing that.
Also in the book, the letter Rainaldi writes to Rachel, he wrote it in English ,and they’re Italian. And so I kind of wonder if she had Rainaldi write that letter to throw Philip off her trail. So maybe she knew that he was snooping around and getting suspicious. So maybe she had Rainaldi write this letter in English because Philip doesn’t speak Italian hoping that he would find it and that he would be at ease and not mistrust her anymore. And then yeah she returned the jewels but, so what she had the whole estate. So it is not like her returning the jewels proves that she was good the whole time but in the movie the letter is written in Italian and so Louise has to translate it for him.
Also in the movie he does not find the seeds. And then like I said in the movie, Rachel tells him like Oh that tree is poisonous, and why would she have done that? In the movie we found out in the end that Rainaldi is gay, it’s because Philip and Ambrose both suspected that he was like in love with Rachel and they had a romance going on, but in the end of the movie we realized he’s gay and so they didn’t have a romance. In the book, I don’t remember that being said. Maybe I missed it but in the book I don’t think they talk about Rainaldi’s sexual orientation. So yeah, I’m not saying that Rachel isn’t still manipulative in the movie and she still wants Philip’s money at least to some extent I just question whether or not she was actually a murderer and whether or not she was even trying to hurt Philip.
And also like why would she have tried to kill him anyway? Because she got the whole estate, all she has to do is not marry him and then she could move to Florence and it still all belongs to her. So I mean I get it would’ve been easier to have Philip out of the way nonetheless, but still it seems like why bother at that point? But to be honest, whether book or a movie, even in the book where it seems Rachel is more guilty, I kind of loved her character, right? Like yeah she was messed up. But there is something satisfying about seeing a woman. Especially we never find out what century this takes place, but clearly it’s takes place you know sometime around the 1800’sI would assume. So it takes place during a time where men are seen as better and they’re the ones in charge.
And so I kind of love reading books that take place in those kind of time periods where the woman manipulates men to get what she wants. Like this isn’t the type of person I would like want to be friends with in real life because clearly they’re a manipulative untrustworthy person. But I love reading about women like this and I’m just like, yeah, yeah like you manipulate those guys, you manipulate those sexists and you show them and you get what you want and you prove them wrong! And so I just kind of love reading books like that. But I did wanna shout out to Louise because Louise really is the hero of this story because she is a great female character who is smart and kind and observant and she says it like it is, you know, she doesn’t sugarcoat things when talking to Philip and she’s actually a good decent person.
So I really did love her character as well. So we really do get two great female characters. One of them potentially evil but still kind of awesome. Not that I’m condoning what she does. It’s just kind of empowering I just love reading about characters like that again even though it’s not someone I would actually be friends with in real life. But anyway, but then we also have Louise who is the more positive good person. But the addition of my cousin Rachel that I read had a 2003 forward written by Sally Bowman and I wanted to share a quote from that forward where she said which by the way, Philip and Ambrose, their last name is Ashley. So this quote says, “the Ashley’s seek to own and control her, their weapons being money and marriage. This male hegemony in a novel deeply concerned with will’s, testaments and inheritance continues after death. And much of the novel explores with great subtlety Rachel’s efforts to resist it. So who was doing the poisoning, the corrupting here? Is it Rachel with her tiasana’s and witchy herbal from Copia or is it the Ashley’s with their conditional gifts of jewel’s, land, houses, money and status.”
And then Philip liked the way he is with Rachel. It did remind me of Adam and Kathy in east of Eden because both characters like they’re so easily manipulated by these women and the times when they show their true selves, the men are just blinded to it because they just want to see the person who they think this woman is, right. And again, from that 2003 forward, Bowman writes, “We hear Rachel speak, yet she remains essentially unreadable. Her feature is distorted by the male gaze of the possessive, jealous and infatuated man describing her. We can never see her because Philip Ashley blind to his own ado impulses obscures her. In which context? The semiotics of the possessive pronoun used in the title is not one feels accidental as that might signal an act of appropriation takes place in this narrative. One that denies Rachel autonomy forced to fit inside the fictive prison. Philip Ashley constructs around her. She cannot be herself, she has to be his belonging and she is merely another item on a long privileged Ashley list. My house, my estate, my money, my family jewels, my cousin Rachel.”
As I said, Philipe grew up in a house where Ambrose cultivated the atmosphere where women were like seen as unnecessary and it was like I said, it was like a weakness if you needed to a woman in your life. And when Ambrose fell for Rachel, he had been in this mindset for so long and so then he meets her and he kind of like becomes so obsessed and Rachel, she’s talking to Philip about Ambrose and his attitude towards her and like his adoration for her and she compares it to religion and she says, “but a man who gets religion can go into a monastery and pray all day before our lady on an altar. She’s made of plaster anyway and does not change. Women are not so Philip their moods vary with the days and nights sometimes with the hours just as a man’s can do. We are human, that is our failing.”
And then this eventually Ambrose becomes disenchanted with Rachel of course to the point that he thinks she is the cause of his death. And Philip has this happen too. Where suddenly he does a total 180 and is like, oh man, wait a minute. Like she’s not trustworthy after all and then it leads to Rachel’s death. But yeah, it is interesting again like similar to East of Eden, how a theme of men seeing women as being inhuman. Like not someone who has their own thoughts and feelings and that will disagree with them and who have emotions and who are unpredictable in a way. And so I just always think that’s interesting to read about.
I wanted to talk about Philip’s dog. So this is not in the movie but in the book before his birthday, his dog dies and he has had this dog for 15 years and while he is gone is like hit by a slab or something and then it dies. Rachel feels so bad for Philip, she’s like, oh, like this was your dog for so long, I feel so sorry for you. Like you know, you have to deal with your dog’s death. This is terrible. But Philip, rather than caring that his dog is dying, he’s just like so infatuated with Rachel that his only thought is like wow, like she feels bad for me. Cool. And the quote from the book reads, “‘Don was your possession. Your very own, you grew up together. I can’t bear to see him die.’ I went and knelt beside her on the floor and realized that I was thinking not of the letter buried deep within the granite slab nor of poor Don so soon to die stretched out there between us. His body limping still. I was thinking of one thing only it was the first time since she had come to my house that her sorrow was not for Ambrose but for me.’
So poor Don, his 15 year old dog who he didn’t even care about in the end. It’s interesting too how that’s phrased right because Rachel, the way she phrased it is like, oh Don was your possession and now you’re losing him.
Book vs Movie
But anyway, onto book versus movie, no dilly dallying here, the book wins. I really loved this book. I gave it four stars but I almost think it deserves a higher rating than that. Again, just so much to think about and I like just barely got into it here really. There are just like so many themes and so much symbolism that I feel like similar to Rebecca, I keep me meaning to read Rebecca a second time because My Cousin Rachel and Rebecca on a second read, I feel like you could just get so much more out of it because there’s just, it’s so thought provoking both of them.
But like I said, I really do like the movie. It honestly is one that I think I would watch again at some point. And I kind of like the changes they made where you feel even more unsure on whether or not Rachel was even evil in the movie. And so I do like those changes and yeah, the performances are fantastic, especially Rachel Weiz, she’s amazing here as Rachel. And again, visually it is very beautiful and their costumes. And so especially if you like the book, I would recommend the movie. But nonetheless the book is the winner here today.