My Cousin Rachel | Study Guide

Daphne du Maurier

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My Cousin Rachel | Plot Summary

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Summary

The Ashley Men

In the early 19th century, a young English landowner on the Cornwall coast, 25-year-old Philip Ashley, begins his tale of the preceding year's events with a reflection on an event from his childhood. His beloved cousin and guardian, Ambrose Ashley, had taken him to see the decomposing remains of a man executed for killing his wife. The adult Philip ruminates on the story to come: would things have turned out differently if Philip and Ambrose did not look so much alike? Or if he, Philip, had been a different kind of man? Was Rachel guilty or innocent? Finally Philip imagines if he could go back in time, would he see his fate superimposed on that of the hanged man?

Ambrose has been Philip's whole world and entire family since he took in his younger cousin, orphaned at 18 months. Somewhat shy and misanthropic, the Ashley men preferred not to have women in their lives or home, not even as servants. In the recent past, doctors have told Ambrose to spend winters in warmer climates. Although Philip misses him during the times he has been away, they write extensively, and life has gone on as usual with Philip managing the estate.

Italy and Cousin Rachel

The third winter Ambrose goes to Italy and meets another cousin, Rachel, who shares his love of gardening. Half Italian, she is the widow of an Italian count, and Ambrose helps her with her financial affairs. After a break in his regular letter writing, confirmed bachelor Ambrose writes he and Rachel are married, and he is happier than ever. Shocked, Philip cannot help but feel jealous and dreads sharing his home with a woman. Even worse, his godfather, Nick Kendall, points out he may be expected to leave and make room for a future heir. Philip is relieved when the newlyweds cannot return to England for the summer.

By the next winter, Ambrose's letters are gloomy, and he complains of headaches. In summer, Ambrose writes of being watched constantly by Rachel and not trusting the doctors. He believes she is killing him. Nick fears Ambrose is undergoing a personality change resulting from a brain tumor, the cause of Ambrose's father's death. Philip, however, fears Ambrose may be the victim of a plot. Philip must go to him in Italy. As Philip leaves, an even more frightening letter arrives in which Ambrose writes, "She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment."

Philip in Italy

When Philip arrives at Rachel's villa, servants tell him Ambrose has died and Rachel has left. They show him the courtyard where Ambrose used to sit and watch the fountain. Philip notices a laburnum tree with seed pods scattered on the ground.

He then visits Signor Rainaldi, Rachel's adviser, who reads Ambrose's letters and tells Philip the tumor likely caused mental disturbance and paranoia. Rachel was a devoted nurse, never leaving Ambrose's side. Rainaldi also informs him Nick is now Philip's guardian until he turns 25. Philip finds Rainaldi cold and guarded and dislikes him intensely. Suspecting foul play, Philip vows to make Rachel pay for Ambrose's suffering and death.

Rachel in Cornwall

Even in mourning, Philip is happy to return to his home, which he will be glad to have to himself. Nick reads Ambrose's will, which has no provision for Rachel. A week later, Rachel arrives unexpectedly in Plymouth, asking how to relay Ambrose's possessions to Philip. He invites Rachel to stay at the house, intending to confront and accuse her of responsibility for Ambrose's death.

Contrary to his image of Rachel as large, loud, and demanding, Philip sees Rachel as small with big eyes. She knows all about him, his family, his land, and even his dog. He smiles at her funny stories in spite of his intentions to be cruel and cutting. Her graciousness and humility set him at ease, and his hostility toward her dissipates, as she is neither what he expected nor what he expects women to be. Finally, he tells her about his trip to Florence and shows her Ambrose's frightening letters. She realizes Philip must have hated her. When Rachel cries, it is the first time Philip has seen a woman in tears. His response is to burn the letters, saying the woman he hated does not exist. She says Philip was right to hate her and she had been jealous of him, too. They agree to let go of their prejudices. Philip will not hear of her going to stay with Nick and makes excuses for her to remain.

Everyone in the neighborhood is eager to get a look at Rachel. At Sunday dinner, Rachel is a skilled hostess; Nick and the Vicar and his family enjoy the lively conversation. Louise sulks, however, as she observes Rachel's influence on Philip, whom she expects—or wants—to marry (a fact Philip is unaware of).

Rachel and Money

Later, when Rachel mentions giving Italian lessons to their friends and neighbors, Philip realizes she might truly be penniless and immediately arranges with Nick to provide an allowance for her. They agree it would be shaming to Ambrose and the estate for his widow to hire herself out like a spinster. When she finds out about the allowance, Rachel seems mortified, saying the comment about the lessons was a joke. Philip does not believe her. She later accepts the allowance to avoid dishonor to Ambrose.

Philip escorts Rachel to visit the tenants, whom she easily charms, offering them herbal remedies. During a rainy spell, they sort through Ambrose's clothes. When she cries, Philip holds her and calls her "Rachel." Then, he finds a scrap of a letter from Ambrose warning Nick she will spend her way through the whole estate and fortune unless he takes precautions. Philip burns the letter but not before Rachel recognizes the handwriting. He makes light of it. She talks of Ambrose withholding money over time and Rainaldi giving her money to pay the servants—fueling Ambrose's hatred of Rainaldi. Philip tells her to put it behind her, saying, "This is your home."

After months of harmony and kind attention from Rachel, Philip selects a pearl collar from the family jewels to give Rachel for Christmas. He knows his mother wore it for her wedding day, but only the bride of the heir can keep it. Rachel thanks him, and they kiss. Nick reprimands Philip for taking the collar before his rights of inheritance allow it and demands he ask Rachel to return it. Furthermore, he informs Philip Rachel has overdrawn on her allowance, and he has heard from trusted friends her reputation for overspending suggests she would burn through the Ashley fortune in a matter of months if given access. Philip is furious and instructs him to cover the overdraft and raise the allowance. He refuses to ask for the pearls, but Rachel overhears and gives them to Nick.

Soon after Christmas, an unmailed letter from Ambrose turns up in his old coat. Ambrose complains of headaches and fever. He says Rachel lost a baby and is unable to have children. This loss turns Rachel away from Ambrose and toward Rainaldi, who gives her money—the only way to her heart. Ambrose drew up a new will but never signed it. His symptoms have become more varied than his father's, and he closes the letter wondering if they are poisoning him.

Philip's Birthday

Three weeks before Philip's birthday, Rachel mentions leaving. Because he desperately wants to make her stay, he has a document drawn up giving the entire estate to Rachel as soon as it becomes his on his birthday in the belief she will not leave her own property. His excitement is soon squashed by an unexpected visitor, Rainaldi. Philip is irritated by Rainaldi and his attempts to persuade Rachel to join him in London. She promises not to make plans until after Philip's birthday.

On the day before his birthday, Philip signs the transfer paper and removes all the jewels from the bank. So elated he cannot control himself, he climbs into Rachel's window in the first hours of April 1 and showers her with the jewelry. He tells her he knows what his life is missing, and she turns out the light. After their night together, he awakens believing he has proposed and she has accepted. Later he says, "I love you." The transfer document is unopened on her breakfast tray.

Philip is disappointed Rachel is out all day. When she returns, not very happy, she tells him she went to see Nick so he could explain the document. Philip tries to reclaim the festive mood by drinking too much at dinner, with Nick and Louise present, and announces his and Rachel's engagement. Rachel denies it. After the Kendalls leave, Philip tries to extract a promise from Rachel. When she refuses, he tries to strangle her by putting his hands around her throat. She retreats in fear.

Philip has understood Rachel to have accepted his proposal. The next day, Louise speculates maybe Rachel had accepted until she read the document saying she would get everything anyway, only to lose it again upon marrying. She believes Rachel is in England only to target Philip for money. When Philip gets home, he discovers Mary Pascoe has come to stay, at Rachel's invitation, because Rachel does not feel safe alone with him.

Philip's Illness

Philip, who has been swimming at midnight in chilly weather and riding in storms, goes to bed with a chill and develops a fever accompanied by hallucinations. When he wakes from his delirium, weeks have passed, and he believes he and Rachel are married. She had tended him during his illness, but he does not remember clearly. He is very weak, but when he gets outside he sees the laburnum in bloom. Tamlyn tells him about its poisonous seeds, saying they sometimes kill cattle. Philip recalls the laburnum tree in the villa courtyard. Later, he weeps when he realizes there was no wedding. Philip asks Rachel to stay a few more weeks.

Guilty or Not?

As Rachel prepares to leave, Philip learns she has been meeting Rainaldi at a local pub. Philip asks her to invite Rainaldi to the house, and it becomes clear Rachel and Rainaldi are making plans together. Rainaldi confesses his intentions toward Rachel. Philip's fever returns, and he makes the connection with Ambrose's fever returning after Rainaldi's appearance. Philip searches Rachel's room and finds laburnum seeds and pods. He also checks his herbal drink but cannot detect evidence of poison.

The foreman of the sunken garden project—Rachel has been re-landscaping the garden—tells Philip at church to warn everyone not to walk on the planks for the bridge because they will not bear weight, and someone could break their neck. Back at the house Rachel makes herbal drinks for Philip and Louise, but Philip will not drink his. When Rachel goes for a walk to the sunken garden, Philip says nothing about the bridge. In her absence, Louise and Philip search Rachel's room and find no evidence confirming guilt or innocence. Philip tells Louise to ring the bell; there may have been an accident. He runs down to the bottom of the garden where Rachel's broken body lies in a pile of rubble. She calls him Ambrose just before she dies.

My Cousin Rachel Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Ambrose suspects his new wife, Rachel, of treachery.

Rising Action

2 Philip, worried, travels to Italy to save Ambrose.

3 In Italy Philip learns Ambrose is dead and Rachel has gone.

4 Back home Philip learns Ambrose left nothing to Rachel.

5 When Rachel arrives in Cornwall, Philip falls for her.

6 Philip arranges a generous allowance for penniless Rachel.

7 Rachel spends the night with Philip after receiving jewels.

8 Philip increases Rachel's allowance after she overdraws.

9 A lost letter reveals Ambrose's fears of Rachel and poison.

10 On his 25th birthday Philip gives Rachel his possessions.

Climax

11 Philip nearly chokes Rachel when she refuses to marry him.

Falling Action

12 Recovering from a long illness, Philip notices laburnum.

13 Like Ambrose, Philip relapses after adviser Rainaldi visits.

14 Philip finds laburnum seeds and pods in Rachel's drawer.

Resolution

15 Philip lets Rachel die with no proof of guilt or innocence.

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