Philip Ashley, the novel’s twenty-four-year-old narrator and protagonist, is a self-proclaimed homebody: “I never had any desire,” he confesses, “to be anywhere but at home.” The physical structure of home plays a critical role in My Cousin Rachel. Growing up in his older cousin Ambrose’s home, Philip had extremely limited interactions with women. Ambrose—a less-than-subtle misogynist—refused to employ female servants and tried his best to never have women visitors, with the exception of the vicar’s wife and daughters at Sunday dinner. As such, Rachel’s femininity makes her an outsider from the moment she arrives at the ancestral Ashley home. On top of this, despite the fact that she is of English descent, Rachel hails from Italy, which makes her even more exotic and out of place. As he falls in love with Rachel, Philip tries fervently to convince both himself and her that she belongs with him in the Ashley home, but he is never able to fully shake his impression of Rachel as a foreigner, with her facial features “like those stamped on a Roman coin.” From the very beginning, the novel marks Rachel as someone who does not belong, and she is inevitably excised at the novel’s close. In a twist befitting a horror film, it is the Ashley estate itself that “kills” Rachel, when she falls to her death from the unstable terrace bridge in the yard. In this way, du Maurier powerfully argues that the insular definition of home and belonging embodied by the aristocratic Ashleys—which, at the beginning of the novel, made Philip seem innocent and even sympathetic—is actually toxic and even deadly, especially to women.
Philip has a deep attachment to his home and the surrounding Cornish countryside. When he returns from Italy after having learned of Ambrose’s death, Philip finds that “sorrow was with me still, but not tragedy. I too was back where I belonged, and the smell of home was all about me.” Philip even takes solace in the notion that when Ambrose died in Italy, “he was not part of that room, or of that house, or of [that] country, but that his spirit went back where it belonged, to be amongst his own hills and his own woods, in the garden that he loved, within the sound of the sea.” Because he is so emotionally connected to his home, Philip is deeply bothered by the news that Rachel will be coming to Cornwall. Even after the novel’s events have run their course, Philip finds himself wishing that Rachel had never stayed in Cornwall and instead “travelled back to the place where she belonged, back to that shuttered villa, musty with memories.” Rachel fundamentally does not belong in Philip’s world, and the appearance of Signor Rainaldi in Cornwall exposes the fact that Rachel was never truly welcome in England. When Philip sees Rachel speaking Italian with Rainaldi, he feels sure that Rachel’s presence “sparkle[d] at the villa Sangalletti with greater brilliance than it had ever done at my dull table.” Rachel’s Italianness makes her a transplant at the Ashley home, much like the warm-weather plants brought home to England by Ambrose and cultivated in his gardens. (Indeed, Ambrose—albeit rather patronizingly—compared Rachel to “a green-house plant, fit only for expert cultivation, quite useless in the common soil.”) Philip has no knowledge of how to care for these plants, and he finds himself similarly alienated by Rachel’s non-English habits, mannerisms, and language.
Yet it is not just Rachel’s continental roots that make the Ashley home fundamentally inhospitable to her: her gender is also against her. Though Philip and the household servants quickly warm to the presence of a mistress in the house, du Maurier suggests that there is a legacy of misogyny that is practically built into the house itself. This legacy means that Rachel’s foreignness stems as much from her identity as a woman as it does from her identity as an Italian. Du Maurier shows this subtly, such as when Philip thinks of Rachel (after she has revealed she does not intend to marry him): “We were strangers, with no link between us. She came from another land, another race.” The phrase “another land” has already indicated that Rachel is not truly English, making it seem as though the phrase “another race” refers not to Rachel’s nationality, but to her gender, as if women belonged to a different branch of human beings than men. Imagining himself fused with Ambrose, Philip goes on to note: “Her eyes, so dark and different from our own, stared at us, uncomprehending.” The first person plural seems to expand to encompass not just Philip and Ambrose, but all men, demonstrating that Rachel, by combination of her gender and her Italian roots, is far too “dark and different” for there to be room for her at the Ashley home.
Thus, over the course of the novel, du Maurier unfolds the argument that, far from being tender and heartwarming, the Ashley notions of home and belonging are actually viciously exclusive and deeply antipathetic to women.
Home and Belonging ThemeTracker
Home and Belonging Quotes in My Cousin Rachel
Master Philip had gone forever. Mr. Ashley had come home. It was a strange feeling. In a sense it made me humble, and at the same time oddly proud. I was aware of a sort of confidence and of a strength that I had not known before, and a new elation. It seemed to me that I felt as a soldier might feel on being given command of a battalion; this sense of ownership, of pride, and of possession too, came to me […] But, unlike a soldier, I would never have to give up my command. It was mine for life.
Then she kissed me. Not as she had done before. And as I stood there, holding her, I thought to myself, “It was not yearning for home, nor sickness of the blood, nor fever of the brain—but for this, that Ambrose died.”