Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 17, 2020

The Glass-Blowers, by Daphne du Maurier

This week is #DDMReadingWeek hosted by Heaven Ali and I needed very little encouragement to dig out some titles by Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989) from the TBR.  I read the Cornish novels Rebecca (1938), Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and Jamaica Inn (1936) a good while ago, and more recently though not reviewed here The Parasites (1949), and The Flight of the Falcon (1965).  Here on the blog there are reviews of Rule Britannia, (1972) and The Scapegoat (1957).  But in paperback and Kindle I have these five still to read, (the first four graphically illustrating BTW L to R Penguin’s cover design fads.)

I chose to read The Glass-Blowers (1963) because it’s the saga of an 18th century family in France during the Revolution, and it’s a persuasive refutation of the idea that Du Maurier was ‘just’ a romance novelist.  For a convincing article about the belated recognition of Du Maurier’s place in the pantheon of English writers, see this article at Five Books.

It was from the article at Five Books, that I realised that the characterisation of Robert-Mathurin Busson du Maurier in The Glass-Blowers owed something to Du Maurier’s biography, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, published just three years earlier in 1960.  According to Oxford University’s Laura Varnam:

In the preface to her biography, du Maurier says the trouble with Branwell is that he couldn’t distinguish reality from fantasy. That’s why she calls the biography the ‘infernal world’ of Branwell Brontë, (1960) borrowing a phrase from Charlotte—he was completely taken over by this imaginative life and it ruined him.

[…]

It is this story about the relationship between imagination and fantasy. He doesn’t always make the best of the opportunities he’s given and he allows himself to be taken over by his imaginative world. […] He mythologises his own failure.

Surely this is the genesis of Robert’s story as narrated by his sister Sophie?  He is his own worst enemy, as Branwell Brontë was, and he invented an entire history to mask his own shortcomings.

The novel begins in 1844 after Robert’s death when a chance meeting in Paris leads to Sophie’s meeting with his adult son, newly arrived from London and in search of his French origins.  Louis-Mathurin Busson introduces himself as the son of a man who—en route to restoring the family fortune lost during the Revolution—died tragically in 1802 after the Peace of Amiens (when Britain recognised the French Republic).  Sophie reveals herself as his aunt, and sets him straight about his illusions.  ‘Your father Robert was first and foremost the most incorrigible farceur I have ever known’ she says, and departs, promising to write to him with the true story.  Four months later, with the bulk of this novel forming her narrative, she puts down her pen…

That narrative begins in 1747 when the outsider Magdaleine Labée marries into the closed community of glass-blowers in the village of Chenu.  In time, through hard work and a willingness to learn, she earns the respect of the community, and bears five surviving children.  Each of these represents a response to the revolutionary fervour which gripped France in the 18th century:

  • Robert, the eldest, whose fanciful ambitions never match reality, becomes an émigré in London.  Just as he fails with each attempt to manage his own grandiose glass-blowing enterprises and flees to London to escape imprisonment for bankruptcy, he also picks the wrong side to support in the revolution once he’s there.  He becomes a Mr Fixit (with an invented aristocratic past) to the émigrés plotting the restoration, so when the Republic survives all attempts to destroy it, any return to France for him is highly risky;
  • Pierre is an idealistic dreamer, fond of reading the philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau.  His exasperated father sends him overseas to make his way, but he returns, penniless, but goes on to become a progressive lawyer supporting oppressed victims of an inequitable society;
  • Michel goes successfully into the family business, but, swept up in the fervour of the revolution, joins the National Guardsman and descends into savage violence;
  • Edmé, who marries for money, abandons her husband and becomes an extremist who believes that the only way to ensure the success of the revolution is to eliminate all opposition entirely; and
  • Sophie, who marries Michel’s great friend François, and as witness to it all, is the voice of reason.

Civil wars set families against one another, sometimes brother against brother, and the civil war in France was no exception. Du Maurier’s accomplishment is —as Mercè Rodoreda’s was in her novel of the Spanish Civil War, In Diamond Square,—to credibly render the experience of women during the chaos and terror.  Du Maurier also shows the impact of the civil war in the provinces., and how for the ten years of instability, progressive idealism and dreams of equality wrestled with conservative desires for the restoration of order and stability and the divine right of kings.  Sophie’s narrative is divided into four stages which represent the decade:

  • La Reyne d’Hongrie
  • La Grande Peur (The Great Fear)
  • Les Enragés (The Enraged Ones/The Fanatics)
  • The Émigré

In my search to find a translation of La Reyne d’Hongrie—which would make sense if it meant The Reign of Hunger (i.e. causation for the revolution) but it seems not to.  My French dictionary gives Hungary as a translation of Hongrie, and Google Translate persistently asked if I meant ‘reine’ for ‘reyne’ i.e. queen—I came across an introduction by Michelle de Kretser, which raises another motivation for the novel:

Pride plays its part in Sophie’s decision to disclose her family’s story. Louis will learn that his father was a bankrupt, once jailed for his debts, who emigrated to avoid a second prison sentence. He will learn that he comes from a family of “ordinary provincial folk” and that his father had no right to the aristocratic name of du Maurier. What I find interesting is that Sophie considers this rather sordid story morally preferable to the glamorous tale concocted by Robert. Half a century after the Revolution, she remains true to its spirit. It is better, in her view, to be a bankrupt than a royalist, better to be an artisan than an aristocrat. She wants Louis to know that his father emigrated because he feared the loss of his freedom, not the loss of his privileges. Her condemnation—and by extension du Maurier’s—of a corrupt and indolent aristocracy is absolute.  (Introduction to The Glass-Blowers by Michelle de Kretser, 2004, followed by 20 pages from an edition published by Little, Brown & Co*).

As Balzac showed in so many of his stories in La Comedie Humaine, Du Maurier also shows in The Glass-Blowers that the aftermath of the civil war did not heal breaches in long-standing loyalties or the breakup of families.  Livelihoods were lost, and the instability from the incessant purges made everyone uncertain and afraid.  For Sophie, it means the loss of her hard-won standing amongst the workers:

What distressed me most was that the goodwill amongst us all was lost.  Hostility, for no good reason, could be sensed in the workmen’s lodgings and on the furnace floor, and I could feel it with the women too.  The camaraderie, instilled into the workmen when Michel first took over as master of the foundry, had vanished, and whether it was conscription, or the toll of the civil war, or the limit of their wages, nobody could say — these are things that are never put into words.  (p.248)

Within her own family, there is grief over the death of one of the children, shot in the closing moments of the war; grief at the end of a family business and the traditions it represents; grief over the failed ambitions of the revolution itself; and uncertainty amongst the more fervent about what to do next.

Here and there Du Maurier’s feminism surfaces.  When her husband suggests that the firebrand Edmé could transcend her grief that her revolutionary dreams were shattered by marrying, Sophie thinks to herself:

I thought how lacking in intuition men could be in persuading themselves that mending some stranger’s socks, and attending to his comfort, could content a woman of thirty-eight like my sister Edmé, who, with her quick brain and passion for argument, would — had she lived in another age — have fought for her beliefs like Joan of Arc. (p.287)

Indeed!

From the distance of centuries later, Wikipedia tells us that:

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789 and ending in 1799. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, was the catalyst violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, as equality before the law the Revolution made a profound impression on the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history. (Wikipedia, the French Revolution, viewed 17/5/20, lightly edited to remove unnecessary links & footnotes).

Du Maurier, writing in 1963, had a less sanguine view: Sophie assesses Michel and Edmé’s failed dream of a glass-house, where the workmen and the masters shared the profits like this:

Like other ideals, before and since, like the revolution itself and its spirit of equality and brotherly love, the attempt to put it into practice failed. (p.259)

Perhaps she was thinking of the Cold War, and the trashed ideals of the Russian Revolution under the Soviets…

* I traced the text back to a school in Bengal, which appears to have ignored the copyright warning at the beginning of the book:

In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at permissions@hbgusa.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights. [Underlining mine].

Author: Daphne du Maurier
Title: The Glass-Blowers
Publisher: Penguin, 1963, (1972 reprint)
Cover illustration: Charles Raymond
ISBN: 0140024034 / 9780140024036, pbk., 312 pages
Source: Personal library, OpShop find


Responses

  1. This sounds like a fascinating novel, I do think du Maurier does history well, she understands its connection to the present and how in the end everything is connected. This is definitely one for my list. Great review.

    Like

    • Thank you, and thank you for the stimulus to read it!

      Like

  2. I still haven’t read anything by du Maurier even though many look appealing, especially this one.

    Like

    • Well, if you’re at all interested in the topic of civil war and revolutions, this is the du Maurier to read!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, certainly the French Revolution, yes.

        Like

  3. I rather liked those older, simpler Penguin covers. I only know her best known stuff, so it’s good to hear what else she produced.

    Like

    • Yes, I like them too. And let’s not get started on that dreadful period at Penguin where they used stock photos for everything, appropriate or not!

      Like

  4. Oooh, sounds good – and with my interesting in all things French Revolution I may have to track down a copy…;D

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  5. What a striking line-up of cover images! I don’t have this one on my shelves, but I think it sounds quite interesting. And surprisingly relevant given the perspective on families being severed by political opinions, which seems all-too-relevant given what’s been going on in our southern neighbour under the 45th POTUS. These divides don’t readily (ever?) heal. Also, the quotation about mending socks made me smile, as did your simple retort!

    Like

    • Middle England, by Jonathan Coe is also good on political divides in the modern world, it shows the pernicious effects of the Brexit debate.
      In Australia, conscription debates have been dividing families since WW1, and in my own family, disagreements about Vietnam have caused persisting breaches.
      The socks, yes. Though earlier in the book when Sophie mourns the loss of her first baby, which she knows is nothing unusual but still requires “endurance and spiritual fortitude”, she talks about her husband’s useless attempts to give comfort. And I take this to mean what is surely still true, and nothing to do with gender, that people simply do not understand overwhelming grief and that no matter what you say and do, it’s always wrong. It is wrong because when the grief is at its worst you cannot take away the unendurable, you cannot even offer a little relief from it, and only the bereaved will know when the possibility of comfort begins, so tentatively, to emerge.
      The bereaved has to learn that, and so do the people trying to offer comfort, and not judge each other for it.

      Like

  6. Oh! More books to read :-) Thank you so much. Lisa. I’ve only read a couple of her novels, so have quite a few ahead of me.

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  7. I had no idea such a thing existed at Daphne du Maurier week. I’d have taken the week off work to exclusively read her books if I’d known!

    Like


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