The chapter opens with Philip remembering his last night with Ambrose, before Ambrose “set out on his final journey.” Philip says that, in the moment, he had “no premonition that [he and Ambrose] would never be together again.” Ambrose was preparing to go abroad for the third successive winter on his doctor’s recommendation. Philip would be staying behind at the Ashley estate, which he says he enjoyed, since he has always been a homebody.
Philip’s strong connection to his physical home—both the natural landscape of Cornwall, and the Ashley estate itself—is a central theme of the novel, and he associates his home with a powerful feeling of belonging. It’s significant that Philip admits he did not feel a sense of foreboding before Ambrose’s departure, even though in retrospect, he thinks he should have. This suggests that the concept of fate in which Philip seems so strongly to believe is somewhat of a false construct—in other words, fate is a sense of order or logic that can only be imposed on one’s past, but cannot actually be perceived in the moment.
Philip describes his childhood in Ambrose’s home. Since he was orphaned at eighteen months of age, Philip grew up with Ambrose. Ambrose dismissed Philip’s nurse when Philip was three, because it angered him to see Philip spanked. From that point on Ambrose never employed a woman, as he was “mistrustful” of them. Philip recalls Ambrose as affectionate and well respected by his tenants and fellow aristocrats—“despite his idiosyncratic opinions on women.” Philip always preferred being at home with Ambrose to being at either of the schools he attended, Harrow and then Oxford.
Philip excuses Ambrose’s misogynistic beliefs as “idiosyncratic,” rather than seeing them for what they are: evidence of a deep-rooted prejudice against women. Over the course of the novel, it will become clear that Philip shares much of his cousin’s misogyny; for both Ambrose and Philip, the only acceptable woman is Rachel. This suggests that, in some strange way, Ambrose and Philip do not consider Rachel a “real” woman. While it is difficult to say why this is, it seems that Rachel’s confidence in her sexuality—a trait that society finds permissible almost exclusively in men—might mean that Ambrose and Philip view her as existing in her own category, which is at once unfeminine and hyperfeminine.
Ambrose began wintering abroad after Philip finished his schooling. While away, Ambrose enjoyed collecting foreign plants to bring back to England and cultivate in his garden. For his third winter, Ambrose decided to go to Italy. On the night before he left, Ambrose and Philip sat together in the library. Ambrose expressed the wish that Philip were coming to Italy with him, and gave him instructions for how to further develop the garden. When Philip asked, “Why not you?” Ambrose gave the cryptic reply: “Same thing. It makes no odds. Remember though.”
This moment is the only point in the novel at which the reader is able to see Ambrose in “real” time. Otherwise, Ambrose’s character is revealed predominantly through his written letters. Ambrose’s ambiguous instructions to Philip to prioritize the Ashley gardens highlights how important home is to him and, by extension, to Philip. Ambrose’s comment also suggests that he sees something of himself in Philip, just as Philip will later feel that he is a reincarnation of Ambrose. The fact that Ambrose seems to share this belief shows that the overlap in Philip and Ambrose’s identities is not (entirely) a product of Philip’s imagination.
Ambrose leaves for Italy, and Philip spends time at home visiting with his godfather, Nick Kendall, and his daughter, Louise, a childhood friend of Philip’s. In November, Philip receives Ambrose’s first letter, announcing his arrival in Italy; his second letter arrives from Florence, and mentions, for the first time, a woman he refers to as “cousin Rachel. Rachel is distantly related to the Ashleys, and is a widow of an Italian nobleman named Sangalletti. Ambrose writes that Rachel has offered to show him the gardens of Florence, and Philip feels glad to know that Ambrose “had found a friend.”
Ambrose’s second letter formally introduces Rachel, depicting her as “sensible” and “intelligent.” These qualities will take on increased, even distorted significance as Philip begins to fear that Rachel might be a cold, calculating gold-digger—perhaps even a murderer. Philip’s positive reaction to Ambrose’s news is also worth noting because it marks the beginning of Philip’s mercurial feelings about Rachel, whom he loathes and loves by turns.
In another letter, Ambrose continues to praise Rachel, saying: “She is extremely intelligent but, thank the Lord, knows when to hold her tongue. None of that endless yattering, so common in women.” Philip is surprised by his cousin’s interest in Rachel, and chats about Rachel with Nick and Louise Kendall. Louise comments, “She must be very charming for Mr. Ashley to take notice of her […] I have never heard him admire a woman yet.”
While Ambrose praises Rachel’s intelligence, he also adds that she is different than other women. This shows that Ambrose is still a misogynist, despite his high regard for Rachel; he admires her even though she is female. Furthermore, Ambrose claims to appreciate Rachel’s intelligence, but he seems more enthusiastic about the fact that she keeps her mouth shut, which suggests that he doesn’t genuinely respect Rachel or value her as an equal. Louise’s description of Rachel as probably “very charming” sheds further light on this, because it implies that Ambrose might be assigning “intelligence” to Rachel as a kind of euphemism for sex appeal. As the reader will come to see, Rachel is intelligent, charming, and sexy, which makes her a formidable character indeed.
After not hearing from Ambrose for several months, Philip receives an Easter letter from him. In it, Ambrose announces that he and Rachel were married two weeks earlier and are now in Naples on their honeymoon. Ambrose writes: “Why she has chosen me of all men, a crusty cynical woman-hater if ever there was one, I cannot say. She teases me about it, and I admit defeat. To be defeated by someone like herself is, in a sense, a victory.” Philip, who has just turned twenty-three, feels “numb with misery” at the news of his cousin’s marriage, as if the only thing he has to look forward to was “a new world of strange experience that [he] did not want.”
Ambrose’s letter acts as a kind of “breadcrumb”—a clue about Rachel’s true nature, which the reader might notice more clearly in retrospect. Ambrose notes that he has no idea why Rachel has chosen to be with a “crusty cynical” misogynist like himself. The reader will later find out that Rachel may be out to profit from the Ashley fortune—a possibility that gives this letter, and Ambrose’s comment, more significance. It is also worth noting how profound a threat Rachel represents to Philip’s way of life. Her entrance into his life will ultimately introduce him to a “new world” he cannot even imagine yet.