22 April, 2008

The House on the Strand, by Daphne du Maurier. Book review

First published 1969. Edition reviewed, Virago, 2003, ISBN 1-84408-042-0.

The House on the Strand is set in the area around Tywardreath (whose name translates as ‘the house on the strand’ and gives the book its title) on the south coast of Cornwall, in the 1960s and in the early fourteenth century. The 1960s characters are all fictional. The characters from the fourteenth century are historical figures from the region, known from records such as tax rolls.

In 1960s England, Dick Young is a failed publisher unhappily married to an American wife who is pressuring him to move to New York. Reluctant to leave England but with no clear alternative, Dick is at something of a loose end. When his boyhood friend Magnus lends him his house of Kilmarth in Cornwall for the summer on condition that he tries out a mysterious new drug, Dick readily agrees. The drug transports him back in time to the early years of the reign of Edward III in the fourteenth century. There he encounters Roger Kylmerth, his predecessor at Kilmarth house, and the bewitching Isolda Carminowe. Dick is drawn into their lives, loves, plots and rivalries, witnessing an attempted rebellion, adultery and murder. Soon the magnetic pull of the past begins to obsess him, threatening his real-life family, his health and even his life.

The narrative is recounted in first person by Dick, and the two plots are skilfully intertwined as he moves between the fourteenth century and his real life. Isolda’s romantic story unfolds in a series of vignettes, always leaving Dick desperate to find out what happens next. His attempts to find out more about Isolda and her world from surviving records and ruins ensure that the thread of the fourteenth-century storyline also runs through the present-day parts of the novel. Tension in the contemporary story is maintained by Dick’s growing realisation that his obsession with the past threatens to unravel his own real life, his fear that the drug might have toxic side effects, and the mystery when Magnus himself goes missing. An attractive feature of the novel is that both plots are resolved by the end. The reader is shown what happens to Roger and Isolda, and although Dick’s fate is not spelled out the reader isn’t left in much doubt.

As always with a Daphne du Maurier novel, the descriptions of the Cornish landscape are marvellous. The area around Tywardreath is brought vividly to life, both in the 1960s and in the fourteenth century. Details of fourteenth-century life in the vanished priory at Tywardreath, in the manor houses of the local aristocracy and in Roger’s simple farm at Kilmarth, are skilfully and convincingly drawn. A further dimension is added by the time-travel element in the novel, as the landscape has changed dramatically between Isolda’s time and Dick’s own time. Dick’s bewilderment at finding the familiar valley fields of his own day replaced by estuaries and tidal creeks in the fourteenth century, his struggle to locate the manor houses of Isolda’s world when all that remains is a few hummocks in a field or an ancient barn in a farmyard, and the sinister intrusion of the modern railway, all reinforce his sense of dislocation and add to the atmosphere of suspense.

Dick is not the most appealing of narrators. He comes over as rather selfish and irresolute, eager to shirk his real-life responsibilities and escape into a vanished private world. In the fourteenth century he is unable to touch or interact with any of the characters – however passionately they have engaged his feelings – and so he is condemned to the role of passive observer. In his real life, his obsession with the past makes him increasingly irritable, unreliable and erratic. His wife Vita, whom we see only through Dick’s eyes, is drawn as shrewish and interfering because this is how Dick sees her, but I can sympathise with her increasing irritation and anxiety. The characters of the fourteenth century world are sketched in, revealing themselves only through their actions and words as observed by Dick. I often dislike the claustrophobic effect of a first-person narrative, especially if I don’t warm to the narrator, but in The House on the Strand the unusual narrative structure was something of a saving grace. Dick’s passivity makes him fade into the background in the fourteenth-century narrative, an ideal observer through whom the reader can watch the people of Isolda’s world.

My usual problem with time-travel or time-slip novels is that I get interested in one storyline, usually the historical one, at the expense of the other. The House on the Strand was no exception, and I found Isolda’s story far more gripping than Dick’s. At times it was an irritation to be taken back to the 1960s – which I suspect was part of the point, as it effectively conveys Dick’s own resentment at being forced back to his real life. I found the idea of drug-induced time-travel unconvincing to say the least, and the attempts to justify it with vague fluff about brain chemistry made it worse. Give me a magic ring, a wardrobe, an insistent ghost or no explanation at all, any time. Perhaps it sounded more plausible in 1969 when the book was written.

For me, The House on the Strand stands out not as a time-travel story or even a historical, but as a superb evocation of the writing process. Dick’s glimpses into a vanished world remind me of the process of writing a historical novel (though, fortunately, most of us rely on our imaginations without the need for toxic drugs or a basement full of pickled monkeys). The sense of having entered a different world and watched its inhabitants. The jolt when summoned back to the real world, and the tendency to drift between the two, to the occasional consternation of family and friends. Piecing scenes together into a story, using the limited information in place names and surviving records, and trying to recreate a vanished landscape in the mind’s eye – what was this field like before the railway was built? where exactly was the priory? where did the coast and rivers run? All this is very recognisable, and is what draws me back to the novel time and again.

Has anyone else read it?


Gabriele Campbell said...

Haven't read the book but it sounds interesting.

Sometimes I wish time travel would be possible - with a safe return ticket. I don't think Germania in 9 AD was such a fun place to stay for the rest of my - probably short back then - life. :)

Looks like Dick has married the wrong woman. Someone who thrives in NY and a Cornwall countryside lover do ill fit together. It reminds me of Prince Charles whom I always pitied for being stuck with a London partylife and shopping girl while he feels best at home farming in Highgrove and hunting around Balmoral, or with a good book in front of the fireplace.

Anonymous said...

I did read it years ago, when I was a teenager, and I must admit that it bored me to tears. I liked "Rebecca" and "My Cousin Rachel," however.

Unknown said...

I read this book nearly 30 years ago ( bit of an age giveaway. I really loved it at the time but I've always been a big du Maurier fan.

Unknown said...

I think I might read it again!

Kathryn Warner said...

I absolutely love this novel. I've read it 4 or 5 times now. I love the description of the enormous changes in the Cornish landscape between the 14th and 20th centuries, I love the 14th century characters, the tension between Dick and Vita, Dick's growing obsession with the 14th century, even Dick himself - unsympathetic though he undoubtedly is. I love every word of it, and every time I read it, I get completely caught up in the story again.

Carla said...

Gabriele - a curious feature of the time-travel in House on the Strand is that Dick doesn't physically travel back in time. Although everything he sees and hears is in the 14th C, he is actually walking about in the real world. This has all the danger of walking unheeded into roads, railway lines, etc, but unusually for a time-travel story he's never at risk of being attacked by a historical warrior. And yes, he definitely seems to have married the wrong woman, and I wonder vaguely how that came about, since they seem so ill-suited.

Cinderella - Hello and welcome. Rebecca is one of my all-time favourites, along with Jamaica Inn and Frenchman's Creek.

Carol - Me too. She can tell a gripping story with complex characters, and place it in a landscape that's so real you can practically hear the seagulls, and do it all in beautiful prose. Amazing. I read her books time and again, and they never lose their magic.

Alianore - the landscape change was one of the things that I particularly liked too. I remember being staggered that an estuary could disappear in only a few centuries. I don't like Dick, but a character doesn't have to be sympathetic to be convincing, and he's certainly that. It captures me every time, too, as do most of Daphne du Maurier's novels - she has that gift.

Bernita said...

I believe I did a long time ago. She is always superb.

Thank you, Carla, for your good wishes.
Unusual having a constable as a chauffeur to bring him home and a police escort as well.

Rick said...

Du Maurier is out at the edge of my radar, but a lot of this sounds interesting - mainly the 14th century part, and the changes in the landscape over time.

Doesn't almost any time-slip story, or college-kids-fall-into-Faerie story, have a built in tension between the colorful past and the quotidian present? Bernita is very unusual, so far as I know, in having a time-slip in which the character has an exciting life in our time as well as the other.

Carla said...

Bernita - glad to hear your husband got home safely.

Rick - you may well be right, though I confess I don't read enough time-travel/time-slip to have a valid opinion. I guess it would be an effective way of contrasting the character's experiences in the different situations, and perhaps also chimes with readers looking for escapism?

Rick said...

Carla - I don't read enough time-slip et al. either to do anything but bloviate. I've never let that stop me before. But you made the most basic comment: This is all about escape, or who would be reading it in the first place.

Escape is funny. Take a domestic soaper about a couple's deteriorating marriage and bad relationship with their kids - the sort of thing I'd instantly zap to the next station - give it lots of witty dialog and set it in 1183, and suddenly I love it.

For that matter, for most of du Maurier's readers, Cornwall in any era might as well be halfway to Faerie. (Especially Cornwall!)

Drug-induced time travel probably made cultural sense in 1969. He does not actually go back in time - only his perceptions do, and that was the era of "doors of perception" and a lot of semimystical hype about LSD, peyote, et al. You might be the worst audience for that gimmick. By your own admission you're a scientist of some sort; if it is bioscience and especially anything having to do with pharmaceuticals, 40 year old hype reads like alchemy without the panache.

Carla said...

Actually that's one of the very interesting aspects of House on the Strand, that Dick is actively seeking escape. At first he gets it just by going to Cornwall (as does another of du Maurier's characters, Dona in Frenchman's Creek), and then by using the drug. He can choose whether or not to take the drug and travel back to the 14th century, though he doesn't know exactly what he will find when he gets there, just as a reader chooses to pick up a book. In the (limited) time-slip novels I've read before, the time-travelling character is more often thrust back in time either against their will or without conscious intention on their part. Perhaps that's why his marriage and personal situation is shown as so unsatisfactory (to him), as it explains why he would be so eager to get away.

The witty dialogue helps no end (are we by any chance talking Lion in Winter here?). Relationship drama doesn't generally do a lot for me, but apply Dorothy Parker's pen to it and I'm hooked. From what I see of it (not, admittedly, very much) TV soap doesn't have the same effect. It's not the setting, because the historical soap par excellence The Tudors didn't grab me any more than Coronation Street does. Don't ask me why.

You're quite right that drug-induced time travel likely made more sense in 1969 (think I conceded that in the review!), and the book makes reference to things like LSD trips. In a way that makes the 'modern' half of the story as much a period piece as the 14th century part :-) I skipped over it and just treated it as a species of hocus-pocus dressed up in pseudoscientific language. There's still a lot of it about, only the buzzwords change :-) One of the characters in the novel says cheerfully that the public will believe anything if you make it incomprehensible enough (His direct descendants probably work in marketing now). It's sort of left open as to whether the drug really does take you back in time or is merely a hallucinogen that happens to show 14th-century scenes instead of pink elephants.

Rick said...

We are indeed talking Lion in Winter re witty dialogue. I'll admit that if I got trapped for a couple of minutes by a modern-setting domestic drama that well written, I might get pulled into it, too.

I'd guess that The Tudors didn't grab you because, in spite of a flourish of strumpets, it probably wasn't the least bit convincing even as an alternate Tudor-verse, let alone the real ones.

Lion in Winter makes an interesting counterpoint, because while we know their public acts in fair detail, we really know almost nothing about Hank II and Ellie as people, even what they looked like. The play/movie sort of take over the historical framework and create the illusion of familiarity.

One more drug-induced thought: perhaps du Maurier runs into the common problem of writers who introduce science fiction elements, but don't know any of the literary gimmicks SF writers have learned - including simply bluffing through without explaining anything.

Carla said...

Rick - I suspect you would, the difference perhaps being in the willingness to give it a go in the first place, which depends on the perceived interest of the subject matter.
Re The Tudors, not quite. Shakespeare In Love probably isn't very historically accurate either but I thought it was marvellous.
That's a good point; a really effective portrayal of a historical character can 'become' the reality, even if the real individual may have been nothing like that. Shakespeare's Richard III leaps to mind. It's a very creepy thought when writing about real people.
Correct me here - you know more about this than I do - but is it something of a feature of 'hard' SF that it does explain how things work, whereas 'soft' SF is much more inclined to invent warp drive and dilithium crystals which might as well be magic by another name? Or is that a misconception? I prefer no explanation over a pseudoscientific one. (Gandalf never explains how he can light a fire in a snowstorm and I swallow it whole, but dilithium crystals sound faintly silly)

Rick said...

Carla - You might have thought The Tudors was marvellous if it had been witty, or simply actually fun, like Charles Laughton's Private Live of Henry VIII ages ago, or any Errol Flynn Elizabethan swashbuckler.

A very creepy thought - This is what always strikes me as a bit spooky about any portrayal of obscure historical people. Not just negative ones. In reading about Louis XIV I was startled to find out that D'Artagnan was a real person. (So were the other three, though incredibly obscure.) Talk about the literary figure taking over! It still feels a bit like Sherlock Holmes intruding into the history of Edwardian England.

Hard science fiction tries to stick to realistic or plausible assumptions, not necessarily explain them. (Especially as the audience has grown more sophisticated.) If a character is going to Mars, all I have to say that she is anticipating 8 months of boredom, and I have said a lot about interplanetary travel.

The problem is much like historical fiction, or the more realistic elements in fantasy. You can simply say that it will take characters 3 months to reach Acre, or they can argue over the faster, cheaper trip by round ship or the safer, more comfortable one by galley - depending on plot points or desire for local color.

If you're doing something non-realistic, whether outright magic or magi-science, you're usually better off just bluffing right through it.

I always did wonder, though, why they clearly had gunpowder in Middle-Earth but never used it in war, not even the bad guys.

Carla said...

Rick - absolutely. I might have judged it prematurely (although subsequent comment doesn't make me think so), but it struck me as aiming to be glossy and bland. I don't suppose Robin Hood was much like Errol Flynn but the film is at least fun to watch :-)

Spooky, yes, very. Invented history doesn't tug at the conscience in the same way (am I being fair?) Even with entirely imaginary characters, a historical is still set in a real society.
The historical figures in House on the Strand are as obscure as d'Artagnan etc, not much more than names in rent rolls and the like.
Nit-pick alert - isn't Sherlock Holmes set more in late Victorian England than Edwardian? In the first story Wtason has just been invalided out of the Second Afghan War, which is 1880-something.

Thanks for the clarification. Re gunpowder and Middle-earth, the short answer is that Tolkien wanted it that way :-) Saruman did use it in warfare to mine the wall at Helm's Deep, so a longer answer might be that (a) the technology of making big explosions (as opposed to fireworks) was limited to Saruman and hadn't yet spread, (b) it was in very short supply so even Saruman couldn't make enough gunpowder to use it for cannons and the like, and (c) missile technology hadn't come on far enough to provide a long-distance delivery mechanism (shells, bombs). Maybe a rough equivalent to the position in the Hundred Years War, where gunpowder had been invented but it was still archers and knights who mattered?

Rick said...

Glossy and bland - Exactly the impression I got just from seeing the ads: that they were merely filling a time slot, not really out to seriously mine the Tudors for their ghastly entertainment value, which is considerable.

I think you're being fair - invented history doesn't tug at the conscience the same way, only on its own internal terms. Imaginary people in a real setting don't usually have that effect on me, because there are no shadowy individual doppelgangers. ("What was X really like?") Some settings are an exception - fictional characters on the Titanic are figuratively surrounded by actual walking ghosts.

You're probably right about Sherlock. Except as a story treats battleships or electric railways, the late Victorian and Edwardian eras rather blur in my mind as the last timeless Once Upon a Time era, with a whiff of modernity but not yet the modern world's troubles. (Did the ladies twirling their parasols as they walked along the harborside even notice, around 1905, when the battleships suddenly turned gray?)

I think your short answer on Tolkien and gunpowder is the best one. The rationalizations don't quite hold up, because Tolkien didn't really lay groundwork for them. Since his day, fantasy and SF have semi-merged, but Tolkien was not thinking like a science fiction writer. Fireworks have been disassociated from the military uses of gunpowder for so long that I don't think he related the two at all; they were simply a timeless if rare feature of village life.

The Shire is something of a different place than the rest of Middle-Earth anyway, and among timeless Once Upon a Times it feels like a later one, broadly Austenesque, premodern but postmedieval. Whereas beyond its borders the world feels much earlier - earlier even than knights & castles, very loosely early rather than high medieval. You know, wolves in the forests and wandering paladins.

Carla said...

Rick - Tolkien's Shire is uncommonly peaceful, since the inhabitants have the good sense not to fight each other and the good fortune to live a long way from anyone who might fight them. I read that as the crucial difference between the Shire and the rest of Middle earth; the absence of any significant violence, threat or danger. Since we associate earlier periods with more warfare (rightly or wrongly), this contributes to the Shire feeling 'later'.

I rather think the Victorian and Edwardian era had its own troubles :-)

Rick said...

Carla - I believe you're right. It comes through to me as as the hobbit gentry being country squires, not "lords" with knights or retainers. There are also a few sophisticated features that flow from peace and prosperity, like having a public post.

An aside that postal service was a huge and under-appreciated innovation, like broadband for the 18th century. Imagine being able to write a letter to someone a long ways off, and simply mailing it instead of having to find a traveller going that way and hope it gets there.

Carla said...

The postal service might not have been as under-appreciated as all that when it first started, though I agree wth you that people quickly got used to it and took it for granted! One of Jane Austen's heroines goes all gushing over the astonishing fact that the post office clerks can deliver letters from one end of the country to the other and wonders how they do it. Her husband replies witheringly that they are paid to, and I think she is one of the sillier characters in the novels (which is saying something; can't remember who she is, unfortunately), but nevertheless it may indicate that people were still impressed with the idea of a postal service when Austen was writing.

As an aside, I remember when email was a similar novelty. When it was first introduced to the company I worked for at the time, it only operated within the building, and it was common practice to send an email and then walk down the corridor to see if it had got there. Similarly with fax - when the university department I worked in at the time got its first fax machine, everybody gathered in the secretary's office to watch it send the first fax, with a running commentary: "Ooooh, it's taken the paper! Ooh, look, a light's come on! Listen, it's dialling, it's dialling....!" (Yes, I daresay that dates me, though office technology comes late to cash-strapped UK universities.)

Rick said...

The husband's answer was pretty reductionist - sure they are paid, but it is quite an organization for that time. But you don't sound like you regard Jane Austen characters in general as the fastest coaches on the turnpike.

The saddest thing about email is that I remember when it was all stuff I wanted - from friends, or forums I followed. Not only no spam, no work related stuff or unpaid bills.

Carla said...

No, I wouldn't say that applies to her characters in general, but she does excel at portraying mannerisms and foibles, and several of her secondary characters are very silly people beautifully, if mercilessly, captured. Mrs Bennett from Pride and Prejudice leaps to mind, as does Robert Ferrers from Sense and Sensibility (I seem to remember he could occupy the better part of a day in choosing a watch, which makes Bertie Wooster look serious-minded), and of Mrs Palmer in the same novel the author herself says of Mr Palmer "...through an unfortunate predilection for beauty he now found himself the husband of a very silly woman", or words to that effect. Actually, now I think of it, the reductionist husband's comment above sounds like the sort of thing Mr Palmer would have said.

I daresay people said the same about the post once upon a time. You don't get any mention of junk mail in WH Auden's Night Mail. Plus ca change and all that.

Rick said...

Ah, I see your point - Austen's thick characters could be very thick indeed.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read this book but I've heard of it and your article makes me want to read it.

I really enjoy historical fiction and I've just finished reading one that others might be interested in. It's called "El Tigre" and it's written by John Manhold. It's set in the late 19th century, mostly in and around the Americas, through Texas and California in gold rush times. What I liked about it was there was plenty of action, a nice amount of romance, the story moved at a steady pace and most importantly, it will full of historical facts that were seamlessly woven into the storyline. Definitely worth a read if you come across it.

Carla said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carla said...

Rick - I'd say not so much thick as silly, which isn't quite the same thing.

Peter - Hello and welcome. Glad you enjoyed the review, and if you read House on the Strand do let us know what you think - as you can see from the comments it provokes different reactions in different people.

Anonymous said...

This novel is, without a doubt, my favourite novel of all! I read it for the first time in 1971, when I was fifteen and ill with strep throat. I found the book in my house. Apparently, my father had purchased it several years ago and had then forgotten about it!

I know it sounds surprising; but reading this book was the turning point of my life! I am now a college professor of the Humanities; but I also have several degrees in History. For some reason, after I read this book all my goals changed!

What was it about this book that so captured my imagination? For one thing, the historical research that Du Maurier conducted in order to write the book was first rate. Late on, while researching my dissertation for my PhD, I encountered the "Lay Subsidy Roll" from 1328. Sure enough, all of the fourteenth century characters from the book were included on the list!

The book has haunted my ever since and, despite my busy schedule, I try to read it every year in the Spring. If you have a chance to read it, take it! You won't be sorry!

Carla said...

Hello Maryanne and welcome. Wow, what a ringing endorsement of the novel! Amazing that it should have changed your life. I agree with you that the historical research aspect is a great strength - I imagine that Dick's attempts to reconstruct the past landscape are very similar to Daphne du Maurier herself when she was recreating places like Navron and Menabilly for her novels.

Anonymous said...

Having recently 'discovered' Du Maurier and her works this was the most intriguing book of the three i've read so far (others being Jamaica Inn & My Cousin Rachel). Without giving too much away to others who haven't yet read the book, i'd be interested in your thoughts about Dr Powell and the ending - the last few sentences confused me.

Carla said...

Paulalou - Hello and welcome. My interpretation was that Dr Powell knew what was about to happen to Dick, medically, but didn't want to tell him. Does that help? Email me at the address in my profile if you want to discuss the ending in more detail without the risk of spoiling the surprise for someone else.

AndyChips said...

I've just finished reading BBC7's full serialisation of this fabulous book. I was utterly mesmerised from the start, although one has to concentrate to remember some of the numerous historical figures involved. Although Du Maurier's explanation of time travel is fairly unconvincing, it was not spoilt at all by this. The storyline is so good. She is very good at portraying Dick as relentless in his avoidance of dealing with his failing marriage and being completely obsessed with the past events and the drug.
I too am slightly confused about the ending. What did the doctor know, and what was about to happen to Dick as he tried to pick up the phone?

Anonymous said...

I actually live in Tywardreath and know every spot mentioned in the book. In fact my house is either on or very close to where the Gratten is described in the book! Although it took about 100 pages to really get going, I thought it was an fantastic book. The way the drug sends Dick's life spiralling out of control is so clever. I thought maybe my opinion would be biased, because I was able to read the book whilst looking at one of the views that Dick experiences when he takes one of his first, and also his last trip, but it seems as though many others have also been entranced by this book.

Carla said...

Andy C - yes, I agree that the somewhat unconvincing explanation of the time travel doesn't detract from the story at all. I think the ending is probably deliberately left slightly open for the reader's interpretation. My interpretation is that the doctor knows what the drug is and what its side effects are likely to be, and that they are not good. Beyond that I think you can probably choose what you want to imagine.

Anonymous - Hello and welcome! It must be amazing to live right in the same area and to be able to look at the same landscapes. I agree it's a fantastic book. The slow start is, I think, part of the appeal, because the suspense builds up slowly. Daphne du Maurier is the mistress of creating suspense; few if any writers do it better.