My Cousin Rachel builds to a sexual crescendo: the climax of the novel occurs when Philip and Rachel have sex in the early morning hours of Philip’s twenty-fifth birthday. On a plot level, this moment is critical. By this point, Philip is in love with Rachel, the widow of his cousin Ambrose (which means that Rachel is Philip’s cousin-in-law). In this scene, he hints strongly that he wants to marry her, and the narration of this scene indicates that Rachel understands what Philip is asking her. Though Rachel does not give a direct answer, du Maurier implies that the pair have sex. Philip misinterprets the act of sexual intimacy as an acceptance of the tacit marriage proposal he has just made. The emotional fallout of this misunderstanding is so intense that it ultimately results in a disillusioned Philip standing complacently by as his former beloved walks to her death. However, the sex scene between Philip and Rachel is even more important on a thematic level because it illustrates the fact that Rachel’s power is rooted in her expression of her sexuality. At the same time, du Maurier explicitly shows that because Rachel’s exertion of sexual power runs counter to social norms (which code women as subordinate to men), Rachel’s power ultimately becomes her undoing. In this way, du Maurier argues that society rigidly circumscribes women’s lives: while reducing women to roles related explicitly to their fertility (wives, mothers), social norms also punish women for enacting their sexuality on their own terms.
Philip is completely bewildered by Rachel’s comfortable, overt sexuality because he has not grown up around women; the only means he has for understanding them is the limited framework handed down to him by society. This social code rigidly constrains women’s sexuality, limiting to expressing their sexuality only in the context of their roles as wives and mothers. Before meeting Rachel, Philip follows his cousin Ambrose’s lead, viewing women as either simpering flirts or insufferable nags. As he begins to know Rachel, Philip struggles to identify what he believes must be the fundamental rules of female behavior. Thinking of the difference between men and women, Philip muses: “We were surely different, with our blunter comprehension, moving more slowly to the compass points, while they, erratic and unstable, were blown about their course by winds of fancy.” Philip views men as more rational in their thinking and their actions. In contrast, women are unpredictable, emotionally unstable creatures. Rachel’s sexual attractiveness and open sensuality make her unique among the women Philip knows—yet Philip is incapable of understanding Rachel beyond the limited definitions of womanhood that society (and, more directly, his father-figure, Ambrose) has handed down to him. Philip thinks of Rachel as his own future wife, Ambrose’s widow, and even a kind of pseudo-mother figure. Since Ambrose was a father figure to Philip, Rachel’s marriage to Ambrose makes her, in effect, a stepmother to Philip, and Philip frequently remarks on the ways Rachel’s mannerisms make him feel like a naughty child. Philip is also obsessed with seeing Rachel wear a family heirloom, a pearl collar last worn by his own mother—as if Rachel were a kind of stand-in for Philip’s own deceased mother. Ultimately, while Philip is captivated by Rachel’s sexuality, he also refuses to accept this sexuality on Rachel’s terms.
Philip’s ambivalence towards Rachel’s sexuality is clearly seen in the pair’s sex scene. Philip interprets this act of physical intimacy as proof of his engagement to Rachel; by agreeing to sex, Rachel is agreeing to marriage. Du Maurier makes this situation especially ironic because Philip is aware that, four months into her pregnancy, Rachel miscarried the child she had conceived with Ambrose and, as a result, is now unable to become pregnant. On a purely biological level, then, any sex that Rachel has is independent from reproduction and growing a family—and, by extension, from marriage. Sexual intercourse becomes solely an act of pleasure. Because of Rachel’s sterility, sex exists definitively on her own terms, and she makes this clear when she tells Philip that her decision to sleep with him was “to thank [him], that’s all,” for gifting her the family jewels. Appalled, Philip reacts by choking Rachel, then repeating his marriage proposal. Philip’s violent reaction emphasizes that he is intolerant of Rachel’s sexual power, even as he is attracted to it; the only way he knows how to respond to Rachel’s exertion of sexual autonomy is by trying to physically overpower her.
In fact, du Maurier shows that Philip is unable even consciously to admit that Rachel actually has power over him. Reflecting on their night together, Philip wistfully claims: “Wonder is mine forever, that a woman, accepting love, has no defence. Perhaps that is the secret that they hold to bind us to them. Making reserve of it, until the last.” Even by the end of the novel, Philip remains woefully unenlightened. In reality it was he who accepted love from Rachel—she was the one who instigated their sexual encounter. Prior to his experience with Rachel, Philip was a virgin. Furthermore, Rachel explicitly announces that she had no intention of binding Philip to her by having sex with him. In contrast, Philip is desperate to bind Rachel to him by physically dominating her. And, of course, Philip’s idea that Rachel is rendered defenseless by the act of lovemaking is ludicrous—du Maurier makes it clear that in the novel’s sole sex scene, Rachel is at the very height of her power.
In My Cousin Rachel, Du Maurier clearly explicates the constraints that society puts on women. Rachel represents the ultimate threat to the societal norm of women being wholly dependent on their male partners. Rachel is determined not to remarry, she expresses her sexuality as she chooses, and she even becomes economically independent by the end of the novel. All these things make Rachel a character who defies the status quo. Philip is incapable of accepting this quality in Rachel, and thus he allows himself to be complicit in her death. Furthermore, du Maurier suggests that society itself is determined to root out and destroy people who pose such a clear threat to social norms: before Philip can enact or even fully form a plan to kill Rachel, the Ashley house itself brings about her end.
Women, Sexuality, and Society ThemeTracker
Women, Sexuality, and Society Quotes in My Cousin Rachel
Somewhere there was a bitter creature, crabbed and old, hemmed about with lawyers; somewhere a larger Mrs. Pascoe, loud-voiced, arrogant; somewhere a petulant spoilt doll, with corkscrew curls; somewhere a viper, sinuous and silent. But none of them was with me in this room. Anger seemed futile now, and hatred too, and as for fear—how could I fear anyone who did not measure up to my shoulder, and had nothing remarkable about her save a sense of humour and small hands?
Once, not so long ago, I had seen other eyes with that same age-old look of suffering. Those eyes too had held reserve and pride, coupled with the same abasement, the same agony of supplication […] it must be because the eyes are the same colour and they belong to the same race. Otherwise they could have nothing in common, the beggar woman beside the Arno and my cousin Rachel.
I looked up, startled, and it seemed to me, as we stared at one another, that she knew now all my fantasies, my dreams, that she saw one by one the faces of the women I had conjured all those months. Denial was no use, protestation absurd. The barriers were down. It was a queer feeling, as though I sat naked in my chair.
“Not unremarkable,” said Mr. Pascoe, flipping the head of a hortensia with his cane, “certainly not unremarkable. Nor would I say, as the girls do, beautiful. But feminine, that is the word, most decidedly feminine.”
“Ambrose was wrong in what he said of women,” I shouted. “At half-past eight in the morning they look very well indeed.”
“Ambrose was not referring to half-past eight,” she called back to me; “he was referring to half-past six, and he did not mean downstairs.”
The voice, so near to tears again, did something to me. A kind of tightness came to my throat and to my belly.
“I would much rather that you hit me,” I told her, “than that you cried.”
“There is a tisana for that too,” she said, “made from the leaves of raspberries and of nettles. If a woman drinks that for six months before the birth, she has her baby without pain.”
“That’s witchcraft,” I said. “They wouldn’t think it right to do so.”
“What nonsense! Why should women suffer?” said my cousin Rachel.
I hoped she had not noticed—I had barely noticed it myself—that for the first time I had not called her cousin, but Rachel. I don’t know how it happened. I think it must have been because standing there, with my arms about her, she had been so much smaller than myself.
She would take great care about her person, when she went calling. Her best mantle, and her new veil and bonnet. I would sit with my back to the horses, in the carriage, so that I could look at her; and, I think to tease me, she would not lift her veil.
Her shoulders were bare. She had dressed her hair higher than usual, the roll of it was looped up and drawn back, showing her ears. Around her neck was the collar of pearls. It was the only piece of jewellery [sic] upon her person. It glowed soft and white against her skin. I had never seen her look so radiant, or so happy. Louise and the Pascoes had been right after all. Rachel was beautiful.
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.”
She did not answer. She went on looking at me, incredulous, baffled, like someone listening to words in a foreign language that cannot be translated or comprehended […] She had not understood what it was I asked of her at midnight, nor I, in my blind wonder, what she had given, therefore what I had believed to be a pledge of love was something different, without meaning, on which she had put her own interpretation.
I tried to think what else I had to give. She had the property, the money, and the jewels. She had my mind, my body, and my heart. There was only my name, and that she bore already. Nothing remained. Unless it should be fear. I took the candle from her hand and placed it on the ledge, above the stairs. I put my hands about her throat, encircling it; and now she could not move, but watched me, her eyes wide. And it was as though I held a frightened bird in my two hands, which, with added pressure, would flutter awhile, and die, and with release would fly away to freedom.
I could not believe it possible that a girl I knew and trusted could have so damnable a mind, and speak—that was the greatest hell—with so much logic and plain common sense, to tear apart another woman like herself.
“Is it your father’s legal mind speaking in you, or you yourself?” I said to her.
“Not my father,” she said; “you know his reserve. He has said little to me. I have a judgement [sic] of my own.”
So we had come to battle. Her words were a challenge that I could not meet. Her woman’s brain worked differently from mine. All argument was fair, all blows were foul. Physical strength alone disarmed a woman.
Then, tears coming to her eyes, she looked at me and said, “A woman can’t suffer twice. I have had all this before.” And lifting her fingers to her throat she added, “Even the hands around my neck. That too. Now will you understand?”
I looked over her head, straight at the portrait above the mantelpiece, and the young face of Ambrose staring at me was my own. She had defeated both of us.
As I lay there in the darkness I was not aware of danger, or of fear. Only compassion. I saw her as someone not responsible for what she did, besmirched by evil. Compelled and driven by the man who had power over her, lacking, through fault of circumstance and birth, in some deep moral sense, she was capable by instinct and by impulse of this final act. I wanted to save her from herself, and knew not how.
I had held it many times, in love, before. Felt the small size of it, turned the rings upon the fingers, seen the blue veins upon the back, touched the small close-filed nails. Now, as it rested in my hand, I saw it, for the first time, put to another purpose. I saw it take the laburnum pods, in deft fashion, and empty out the seeds […] I remembered once I had told her that her hands were beautiful, and she had answered, with a laugh, that I was the first to tell her so. “They have their uses,” she said. “Ambrose used to say, when I was gardening, that they were workmen’s hands.”