In The House on the Strand, an historical novel meets a sci-fi novel.
The two don’t get along well.
Dick Young gladly accepts the offer of longtime friend’s Cornwall estate, Kilmarth, for his family for the summer. Dick and Magnus were in university together and remained close until Dick’s marriage.
Dick’s wife, Vita, disliked Magnus from their first meeting.
Magnus, an academic researcher, has secretly stumbled upon a drug that takes people back in time.
Magnus wants Dick to take it and report his findings.
The first dose transports Dick back the Kilmarth environs in the 14th century. Each time he takes a dose, he becomes more interested in the historical figures than in his own era.
When Magnus is found dead, apparently after attempting to commit suicide, the story twists to a halt.
Daphne du Maurier provides diagrams showing who married whom, but readers need a guide to who is sleeping with whom to make sense of the historical part of the book.
The 20th century portion makes more sense, but even though du Maurier has Dick narrate the story, both plots feel detached from him. Sadly, Du Maurier’s characters have no more personality than figures in someone else’s nightmare.
The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, 1969. Book club edition, 308 pp. 1969 bestseller #10. My grade: C.
Mary Anne is a novel about Mary Anne Clarke and the scandal that she precipitated in nineteenth century England. It was penned by her great-granddaughter, author Daphne du Maurier, who may be suspected of a bit of bias.
A precocious child, to keep the family fed Mary Anne passes her proofreading work off as that of her ailing stepfather.
She marries an scapegrace who prefers the bottle to work. To support their four children, Mary Anne writes gossip columns until she discovers more lucrative employment for her brains and body. Before long, she is mistress of Frederick Duke of York, second son of King George III.
Mary Anne revels in her powerful role but piles up debts furnishing the amenities the Duke is used to. To supplement the Duke’s allowance, she begins pedaling Army promotions — and preparing her own downfall.
Although the characters are historical figures, not one of them seems real. Du Maurier fails to provide plausible explanation for the critical pivots on which the story turns: Mary Anne’s family relationships.
Probably the most interesting aspect of the duMaurier’s account is that although the Duke’s enemies accept his adultery, they are scandalized that he pushed through promotions knowing his mistress was bribed to use her influence with him. He was forced to resign as Commander-in-Chief.
Your life will be none the worse if you leave Mary Anne on attic shelf.
By Daphne du Maurier
1954 bestseller #2
My grade: C-
Hungry Hill is a novel book jackets refer to as a “sweeping saga.”
It’s what I call a stupendous bore.
In 1820, John Brodrick opens a copper mine at Hungry Hill near Doonhaven. A local man resentful of English takeover of Irish land, predicts the Brodericks and their estate will come to ruin. Daphne du Maurier spends the rest of the book showing the prediction come true.
Each succeeding generation of Brodericks is more foolish than the last. By 1920, there’s nothing left but chimney stacks and regrets.
Du Maurier fails to do more than just sketch characters and settings. The Dame tells us what we’re supposed to see, but it’s like looking for pictures in clouds. The facts are so flimsy, we can see any projection we wish.
The story line is equally superficial. We’ve seen all these plots before: The loving wife dying in childbirth, the mine-owner falling down his own mine shaft. The whole novel gives the impression of paper dolls manipulated by a child mouthing lines from her storybooks.
When John Henry realizes that he, like all the Brodricks, cares for nothing but his own comfort, it’s too late to do any good for the family or for du Maurier’s poor readers.
By Daphne du Mauier
Doubleday, Doran 1943
1943 bestseller # 8
My grade: C-
My Cousin Rachel is a murder mystery. The mystery is whether there was a murder at all—or whether there might have been two.
Philip Ashley tells the story. His bachelor cousin Ambrose, who brought him up as his heir, goes off to Italy for his health. While there, Ambrose meets and marries a half-Italian distant cousin, Rachel. Ambrose’s health deteriorates and he dies abroad, but not before sending Philip letters full of dark hints that Rachel was trying to poison him.
Philip is fully prepared to hate Rachel, but when she arrives in England on his doorstep, he is as smitten as Ambrose. Before long, he has turned over to her the family estate, the family jewels and his own virginity.
The tale is dark and sinister in the tried-and-true English manner, all polished mahogany and deviled kidneys for breakfast. Rachel in her mourning dress is appropriately bewitching and mysterious, as befits a leading lady of foreign birth. But Philip is simply a twit, a condition caused, perhaps, by growing up entirely without hormones.
Daphne Du Maurier writes well enough that you will keep turning pages, but when you’re finished you’ll wonder why you bothered.
My Cousin Rachel
Daphne Du Maurier
1952 Bestseller #4
My grade: C
The Parasites is matter-of-fact tale about “those horrible Delaney children” who grow into what the husband of one calls “parasites.”
The Delaneys’ parents were celebrities, she a dancer, he an opera singer. The children are half-siblings. Maria is his, Niall is hers, Celia the only legitimate child of theirs.
Maria becomes a successful actress. Niall settles for composing popular ditties better suited to his talents than the great music he yearns to write. Celia foregoes an art career to care for Papa.
When Maria marries the Honorable Charles Wyndham she makes sure dear Niall and dependable Celia are always around. Before long, relations between the conventional Charles and the Delaneys reach a crisis.
Daphne du Maurier has Celia narrate some of the story, occasionally referring to herself in the third person. Du Maurier gives other parts to an omniscient narrator. Flashbacks add to the confusion.
The shifts make it hard to know what is going on among the Delaneys, but if it’s what I suspect, I am just as glad I don’t know for sure.
The novel’s most serious flaw is the Delaneys themselves: Parasites are not appealing creatures.
by Daphne du Maurier
1950 bestseller #6
My grade: C
Rebecca is Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novel, and with good reason.
The book’s narrator meets Max de Winter at Monte Carlo. He is twice her age, widowed, wealthy. She’s kind, unaffected, middle class. They marry on the spur of the moment and, after a brief honeymoon, Max brings her home to Manderley.
The young woman isn’t prepared for a husband with an estate to run, or for the social hostess role she’s supposed to assume, a role Rebecca (the first Mrs. de Winter) played superbly.
Fortunately, the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is more than capable. She’s also more than a little sinister.
I won’t spoil the story for you. Let me just say the novel takes the standard features of the Gothic mystery romance and puts them in twentieth century garb with spine-tingling success.
The story that untangles is a sordid, nasty business, but told with a reticence appropriate to the innocence of the narrator.
Du Maurier refers to her heroine by name just once in the book. That technique makes readers identify closely with the storyteller.
After all, her story could just as easily have happened to them.
This isn’t great literature, but it’s great story-telling.
Give it a five-goosebump rating.
By Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, Doran, 1938
My grade: B+
Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat is a novel of suspense in the romantic tradition that the Dame’s mid-2oth century readers expected. There’s the requisite isolated setting, suspicious deaths, and a confusion of locals who know more than they are willing to tell.
The story begins when a depressed London professor of French history bumps into a Frenchman in Le Mans who could be his twin. The Frenchman slips his look-alike a sedative and takes off with the Londoner’s possessions, abandoning his own personal effects and his identity as Compte de Gue.
For reasons unknown even to himself, the professor takes up the role of the Count. As John takes responsibiity for the ne’er-do-well count’s family and business, he finds temporary relief from his own misery and isolation. Before long, however, the charade comes to and end, and the hero comes to himself.
Du Maurier is a clever writer, if not a brilliant one. Readers who can accept the implausible premise of the plot will find the novel keeps them interested to the end, despite its wooden characters and preposterous action.
All told, The Scapegoat is a good novel for a rainy night when there’s nothing good on TV.
By Daphne du Maurier
#7 on the 1957 bestseller list
My grade: C-