When Miranda chose this for our first Old Fashioned Girls Book Club, I was delighted to have the opportunity to revisit a novel that has long haunted me. Despite the effect it had on me the first time, I had forgotten just how absurdly good it is, and was surprised by how addictive I found it from the very first page. I first read it years ago, when I was a teenager; my mum bought it for me after I devoured Rebecca, and I remember finding it one of the most frustrating reading experiences I’ve ever had. Re-reading it brought rushing back that sense of feeling utterly disempowered by the narrator, and infuriated at not being able to work out the truth of the situation being described. As I closed the pages, I was absolutely exhausted with the emotional strain of it all, and still no more decided upon whether I thought Rachel was evil or innocent than I had been the last time I read it. I had hoped that a second read would highlight previously unnoticed details, and reveal more of a concrete trail of evidence than I had spotted before, but it didn’t at all. Du Maurier’s genius in this novel is in her decision to leave the reader just as uncertain as her narrator; the mysterious Rachel’s true personality is not something that can ever be solved with satisfaction, and so the reader shares completely in the torment of the men who loved and lost her.
The novel opens with the harrowing image of Philip Ashley, the narrator, remembering watching the blackened body of a hanging man swinging when he was a child, having been taken to see it as a lesson by his cousin and guardian Ambrose. Philip has never forgotten seeing that man, someone he had seen regularly in the local town going about his business, brought to this decaying ruin through a crime of passion. It haunts him especially now that he sees himself as a criminal, and he spends the novel explaining how he too is a man condemned thanks to his relationship with his mysterious, beguiling and irresistible cousin Rachel.
Philip, an orphan, was brought up by his much older bachelor cousin Ambrose, whom he adores and admires with an unquestioning devotion. Ambrose owns an impressive mansion and several hundred acres of land near picturesque Bodmin in Cornwall, which Philip knows will all one day be his. He and Ambrose are passionately interested in everything to do with their estate, and so satisfied are they in their own company and surroundings that they have little time or need for others. Ambrose has never sought a wife, and Philip does not anticipate seeking one for himself either, despite everyone thinking that he will eventually marry his godfather’s daughter Louise, who is Philip’s only real friend. They are perfectly happy in their strictly male-only establishment for many years, until Ambrose’s health begins to fail and it is recommended that he goes to the continent for the winter. Ambrose goes and returns without incident a few times, but on what will be his final trip abroad, Philip is surprised to find Ambrose writing to him of a distant relative, Rachel Sangalletti, the widow of an Italian Count, whom he has met in Florence. They seem to be spending a good deal of time together, and Philip is shocked and much upset when Ambrose writes to tell him that he has in fact married Rachel.
Some months pass, with Ambrose’s letters becoming less and less frequent, and Philip is angry at the thought that he has been forgotten by the cousin he loves so much. However, Ambrose’s letters contain increasingly strange comments, and when Philip receives a letter suggesting that Ambrose is in danger from Rachel, and that she is somehow killing him, he leaves immediately for Florence, only to find on his arrival that he has already died, and Rachel has fled. With Ambrose’s cryptic last letter weighing heavily upon him, and suspecting foul play, Philip confides in his godfather, who reveals that Ambrose’s father died of a brain tumour and it seems likely that Ambrose succumbed to the same fate. Philip is not so certain and is determined to blame Rachel, but when she turns up in England, wanting to come and stay at the home that would have been hers, Philip cannot in all decency turn her away. He is determined to hate her, but he is surprised by what he finds in the woman his cousin loved and seemed to despise in equal measure. Rachel is beautiful, intelligent, kind and loving, full of charm and grace and compassion for Philip. Quickly he falls under her spell, and finds himself falling in love, but will this woman be the undoing of him as she has his cousin, and is she quite as innocent as she initially appears?
The growing relationship between Philip and Rachel is fascinating to read, but also infuriating, as it is clear that Philip is an unreliable narrator and cannot be trusted to report the facts. He is possessive and controlling; Rachel is always ‘my’ cousin, a belonging of his, and his obsession with her and desire for her to behave in a way he deems acceptable is disturbing. Does Rachel really behave in the way he depicts her to? Does she mean to come across in the manner Philip perceives her? He is so inexperienced with women, so childish and self centred; can he really understand or attempt to know what a woman is thinking or feeling? Can he be trusted to read a woman’s words or actions with accuracy, given that he has so little knowledge of them? Even so, he is also very convincing in his portrayal of the events, and at the same time as damning Rachel, can see her as an innocent too, and recognise his own paranoia. Just as I decided that she was a horrible, manipulative and deceitful woman, with her eyes purely on the Ashley fortune, I would have seeds of doubt planted in my mind and be able to see an entirely different side to her. It is interesting that a woman is considered untrustworthy and suspicious when she chooses to spend money extravagantly, assert an unpopular right to what is legally hers, or enjoy a close platonic friendship with a member of the opposite sex. If Rachel had been a man, would a reader respond in the same way to her? I wonder. Ultimately, Philip finds Rachel utterly unknowable, and she therefore remains so to the reader right up until the end, too. I could discuss her for hours, dissecting her words and actions until I was blue in the face, but still I don’t think I could come to a conclusion I would be satisfied with. As characters go, Rachel has to be one of the most thought provoking and skilfully written I have ever come across, and if you want to read a book that will have you sitting on the absolute edge of your seat and tearing your hair out by the end, then this is the one for you. I know I shall never quite be able to get Rachel out of my mind!