Philip feels guilty about how unhappy Ambrose’s marriage has rendered him and tries to hide his disappointment. Meanwhile, his neighbors, including the vicar’s wife, Mrs. Pascoe, whom Philip detests, rejoice in the news. Only Seecombe, the steward at the Ashley house, feels as gloomy as Philip. He laments: “A mistress in the house will have everything upside down, and we shan’t know where we are.”
Seecombe’s uneasiness about having a mistress in the house shows how women have been coded as an inherent threat to the Ashley way of life. Du Maurier will ultimately use this fact to show how society at large is also feels threatened by a woman in power, especially in romantic and sexual contexts. Furthermore, in claiming that a woman will have “everything upside down,” Seecombe belies a deeper belief that women are irrational or backward in their thinking. Philip will express similar modes of thought later in the novel, via his interactions both with Rachel and with Louise Kendall.
In a conversation with his childhood friend Louise Kendall, Philip reacts particularly snappishly to the topic of Rachel. This prompts Louise to ask Philip, “You aren’t jealous, are you, by any chance?” Philip vehemently denies being jealous of Rachel, but when his godfather, Nick Kendall, mentions that an heir produced by Ambrose and Rachel would significantly alter Philip’s life, Philip admits that he is, in fact, experiencing “the jealousy of a child who must suddenly share the one person in his life with a stranger.”
It is important to note that Philip characterizes his jealousy as that of a “child,” as his journey over the course of the novel will be a coming-of-age story, with sexual awakening at its center. The nature of Philip’s jealousy is also significant. He is jealous of Rachel because he feels she has displaced him as the primary object of Ambrose’s attention and affection. As the novel unfolds, Philip will become “jealous of” Rachel in a different sense of the word: that is, being overly protective of one’s possessions.
Philip finds himself miserably imagining what Rachel will be like. He hates all the versions of her he invents, from “middle-aged and forceful” to “simpering and younger than Louise.” Soon, Philip receives a letter from Ambrose, which states that he and Rachel will spend the remainder of the summer in Italy in order to sort out the massive debt left to Rachel by her first husband, Sangalletti. Philip feels relieved until Mrs. Pascoe suggests that “perhaps […] Mrs. Ashley’s state of health forbids her travelling,” implying that Rachel is pregnant. Annoyed, Philip willfully misinterprets Mrs. Pascoe’s comment, replying: “Ambrose mentioned in his letter that [he and Rachel] had spent a week in Venice, and both of them came back with rheumatism.” Crestfallen, Mrs. Pascoe responds that Rachel “must be older than [she] thought.”
Philip’s project of imagining different versions of Rachel will continue even after he has met and fallen in love with her. Rachel’s multiple, shifting identities are a large part of what make her such a mysterious, threatening, and unknowable character. The fact that Philip will continue to find Rachel elusive even after he has gotten to know her well suggests that it is impossible to ever truly know someone. Du Maurier implies that people are always engaged in a project of imagining different versions of each other, even when they are face to face.
Mrs. Pascoe’s comment causes Philip to imagine yet another version of Rachel: “The nursery receded, and I saw the drawing-room become a lady’s boudoir […] and someone calling to Seecombe in a testy voice to bring more coal, the draught was killing her.” This image of Rachel makes Philip feel immensely comforted, as though “[his] home was still [his] home.”
Philip feels extremely relieved to picture Rachel as a post-menopausal woman, which alludes to the power that women of childbearing age possess. On a practical level, Rachel represents less of a threat to Philip if she is past the age of childbearing, because she will not produce an heir who would “steal” the Ashley fortune away from Philip. On a psychological level, Philip’s fear of Rachel being of childbearing age suggests that women’s sexuality (and their ability to have children) gives them significant power over men. As the reader will learn, though Rachel is only thirty-five, she is unable to have children due to a medical condition. Yet she will still exert enormous influence over Philip both emotionally and financially.
Time jumps forward to the winter, and Philip begins to receive anxious, nostalgic letters from Ambrose, filled with “a kind of loneliness that struck me as strange in a man but ten months married.” Philip notices that Ambrose’s tone when he writes about Rachel has become suddenly “formal […] and cold.” Ambrose also mentions that he has been experiencing frequent headaches.
The change in Ambrose’s letters foreshadows Ambrose’s decline and death. Furthermore, Ambrose’s headaches are an important plot detail. Philip will experience headaches of his own, and will spend much of the novel trying to determine whether Ambrose’s illness was the result of a hereditary brain tumor or of foul play. The fact that Philip is unable to parse and understand Ambrose’s cold tone suggests the limitations of the written word as a means of communication. Philip’s difficulty in accounting for Ambrose’s “strange loneliness” further implies that truly understanding the emotions of another person is, in some ways, an impossible task.
Philip does not hear from Ambrose throughout the spring, and he begins to grow worried. In July, Philip finally receives a letter from Ambrose; it is incoherent and paranoid. Ambrose writes that he trusts none of his Italian doctors, all recommended by someone named Rainaldi; he also says that Rachel “watches [him] all the time,” and it is “better [to] keep silent.” Alarmed, Philip shows the letter to his godfather, Nick Kendall, who reveals that Ambrose’s father died of a brain tumor. Kendall worries Ambrose might be suffering the same fate, and he suggests that Philip make a trip to Italy.
Rachel’s eyes will become a recurring symbol throughout the novel. Here, Ambrose depicts Rachel as a sinister, stifling force, and her watchful eyes represent that power. As Philip gets to know Rachel over the course of the novel, he will rely heavily on her eyes to gauge her true feelings, reading in them by turns laughter, love, and cold impenetrability. By amassing these many different depictions of Rachel’s eyes—and by never entering Rachel’s point of view in the narration—du Maurier pushes back against the platitude that “eyes are the window to the soul,” suggesting instead that people often superimpose their own feelings or desires onto others.
On a July morning, Philip sets out on his journey to Italy; as he is driving away from the estate, a servant rides up with a letter. It is from Ambrose, and it reads: “For God’s sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment. If you delay, it may be too late.” Philip is devastated by the letter, as he knows there is no way he can make it to Ambrose until mid-August.
The phrase “Rachel my torment” will become an important refrain in the novel. Ambrose’s final letter to Philip is also important because of its ambiguity, which leaves Philip to construct his own interpretation of what has happened between Rachel and Ambrose. This is the first instance in the novel where Rachel is depicted as a villainess, and Philip will struggle with this image of her through much of the novel.