My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier was born in London to Muriel Beaumont, an actress, and Sir Gerald du Maurier, a famous actor and manager. Du Maurier’s family connections (her paternal grandfather was renowned cartoonist and author George du Maurier, and her paternal first cousins were the Llewelyn Davies boys, who inspired the children’s classic Peter Pan) helped launch du Maurier’s early success as a writer. Despite the popularity of her work, du Maurier chose to live away from the spotlight, spending most of her life in Cornwall in the west of England, where she rented, restored, and fell in love with the historic estate of Menabily, widely known as a template for Manderley, the setting of du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca. Du Maurier married Lieutenant General Frederick Browning in 1932, and the pair had three children, whom they raised at Menabily. Du Maurier wrestled with her sexuality and her gender throughout her life. Though she remained married to her husband until his death, she harbored an unrequited love for Ellen Doubleday (the wife of her American publisher and the model for the character of Rachel Ashley) and likely had an affair with actress Gertrude Lawrence. As a child, du Maurier created a male alter ego named Eric Avon, and into adulthood she felt she was a “disembodied spirit,” made up of a female self and a male self, who was responsible for her creative energy. Du Maurier penned more than ten novels, several collections of stories, and many works of nonfiction, including a memoir of her father. She was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1969, and she died in 1989 at her home in Cornwall, at the age of eighty-one.
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Historical Context of My Cousin Rachel

Du Maurier deliberately keeps the temporal and geographical settings of the novel ambiguous. The novel is insular in scope, with most of the action taking place at the Ashley estate, or in the mind of the narrator, Philip. Because of these factors, the novel does not reference specific historical events. However, the time in which My Cousin Rachel was written and published does impact some of the attitudes that appear in the novel, especially those about gender. My Cousin Rachel was published in 1951, placing it in the midst of a western world bending to stifling, traditional gender roles. Such conformist attitudes are particularly clear in Ambrose and Philip, who both have staunchly misogynistic views of women and feel perplexed (and even threatened) by Rachel’s independence and sexuality, which goes against the societal grain. Du Maurier’s novel was published a decade before the aptly titled “sexual revolution,” which began in the United States in the 1960s but took an additional ten to twenty years before it was embraced in Britain.

Other Books Related to My Cousin Rachel

Du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca (published in 1938), explores many similar themes to My Cousin Rachel, including sexuality, identity, and the social status of women. Like My Cousin Rachel, Rebecca features a mysterious female lead, the late Mrs. Rebecca de Winter. As modern Gothic fiction, Du Maurier’s work has its roots in the Gothic tradition of the late eighteenth century, which is epitomized by the novels of Ann Radcliffe, author of The Italian and The Romance of the Forest, among others. Du Maurier’s attention to her character’s psychologies is particularly reminiscent of Charlotte Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre, published in 1847. Other writers of modern Gothic fiction include Eleanor Hibbert (pen name Victoria Holt), author of Mistress of Mellyn, and Phyllis A. Whitney.
Key Facts about My Cousin Rachel
  • Full Title: My Cousin Rachel
  • Where Written: Cornwall, England
  • When Published: 1951
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Modern Gothic
  • Setting: The Ashley estate, somewhere along the Cornish coast in western England; the villa Sangalletti, in Florence, Italy
  • Climax: When Philip and Rachel have sex, which occurs in the early morning hours of Philip’s twenty-fifth birthday
  • Antagonist: The novel does not have a clear antagonist. Philip, through whose eyes the reader sees the action of the novel, wavers between viewing Rachel as a good woman who has been manipulated by her advisor, Signor Rainaldi, and a scheming villainess. Du Maurier never reveals whether Rachel did, in fact, murder Ambrose Ashley and attempt to do the same to Philip, instead leaving it in the reader’s hands to pronounce judgment on the mysterious Rachel.
  • Point of View: First-person

Extra Credit for My Cousin Rachel

Du Maurier: A Director’s Muse. Du Maurier’s writing has long been admired for its “cinematic” quality. Alfred Hitchcock directed film versions of two of du Maurier’s novels, Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. In addition, his 1963 classic, The Birds, is based on du Maurier’s short story of the same name. Most recently, Roger Michell directed a 2017 adaptation of My Cousin Rachel, a character he describes thus: “as exotic as a glass of iced prosecco, as sweet as panettone, as dangerous as a stiletto.”

Walking in Rachel’s Footsteps. The “My Cousin Rachel Walk” is a five-mile trail along the Cornish coastline that encompasses some of the setting of the novel, along several locations central to du Maurier’s Rebecca.