Review: The House on the Strand by Daphne Du Maurier

DSCF1399Before this, I had only ever read one of Daphne Du Maurier’s works, and, rather unsurprisingly, it was her most famous work; Rebecca. I absolutely loved everything about that book, and despite buying several more of her works, it had been years since I read anything else by her. Not anymore! After randomly selecting the next book I was to read, the result was The House on the Strand. The Du Maurier experience was to finally continue!

*I must admit that I have actually read Jamaica Inn since this (review here), but forgot to post this review at my initial time of reading it!*

The House on the Strand  is a science-fiction novel which follows our narrator, Dick Young. Dick is a man tired of working in the publishing industry, and equally as tired of his American wife, Vita, and his two young stepsons. When one of Dick’s oldest friends, Magnus, loans him his house, Kilmarth, a Cornwall estate, Dick eagerly accepts. Yet Magnus is no ordinary man; he is a biophysicist, and he has been working on a new drug, a drug which he wants Dick to test. The drug is described as working much like the hallucinogenic drugs gaining popularity around Du Maurier’s time, yet they are crucially different. Dick quickly realises that the events which happen under the influence of this drug are not merely hallucinations, but are actually memories and events of the past – fourteenth century Cornwall, to be precise.  Dick becomes more and more obsessed with the people of the distant past, following a compulsive need to see the past events reach their unchangeable climax. Yet there is only so much you can invest into the long distant past, before you begin to lose you fragile hold on the present, as Dick soon discovers.

The version of the book I read (and in fact all of the Du Maurier novels I own) are Virago Modern Classics. There is something about their dark, gloomy covers which also provoke a natural setting (mostly Du Maurier’s own Cornwall), which I find myself inexplicably drawn to. Yes, we all know not to judge a book by its physical appearance, but something about the cover of this book promises mystery, supernatural elements, perhaps even terror.

I think the introduction to this edition of The House on the Strand should really be given some credit. Unlike some introductions, this one by Celia Brayfield does not spoil the events of the novel for a new reader. I actually read the introduction before I knew anything about this book (except what the blurb has informed me), and I actually found it to enlighten my reading of the novel. The introduction suggests some subtle aspects of the novel which I may not have otherwise discovered for myself, and they helped enrich my reading with additional layers.

The novel itself actually starts in medias res, with the reader finding Dick submersed in one of his drug induced journeys into the past of Cornwall. This opening was slightly confusing. We do not know Dick, we do not know the surrounding areas, we do not really know anything major about the plot lines. The reader is very much set in a limbo or sorts, which perhaps is a purposeful decision on the author’s part to reflect Dick’s first experience into the past. Daphne Du Maurier can certainly write, and the way she evokes the natural Cornish landscapes, set against this supernatural, almost magical act of the drug and Dick’s now heightened senses, creates quite an unsettling tension.

This sense of confusion continues as Dick and the reader are introduced to the central characters of this fourteenth century past. Although the events of the past centre upon one main family tree, there is a multitude of characters present, from brothers, cousins, wives, to stewards, Monks, and farmers. This does mean that the experience can become quite confusing.. Thankfully, there is a handy map at the start of the book to keep readers aware of the main Champernoune and Carminowe family trees. As expected of a fourteen century Cornwall, the feudal system is heavily in place, and the novel does take a dramatic look at the ways these loyalties can be twisted through the likes of rebellion, adultery, even murder. There is also a heavy religious presence when we find ourselves in the past, with the existence of various Monks of different power, which I did also find slightly confusing. I must admit however, that after reading Rebecca, it is quite surprising how fluidly Du Maurier was able to move to this historical, science fiction tone, and does give justice to her ability as a writer.

On reading this book, I did constantly feel quite unsettled. The description of the Monks, the Abbots, the medieval Gothicism and the underlying suggestion of their corruptness gave an eerie, quite supernatural feel to an already fantastical text. Add to this references of Bluebeard’s chambers in the description of Magnus’s basement laboratory, monkey heads and embryos floating in fluid filled jars, and you achieve an almost grotesquely scientific image along the traditions of Jekyll and Hyde. That is not to say that I found this book terrifying or horrific, but rather that these elements established a slightly creepy tone which made the reader almost sense an impending doom.

The fact that the novel is also set in the picturesque Cornwall, and indeed a place which Daphne herself lived, adds a rather jarring note to this sci-fi. The rich descriptions of the Cornish land and seascapes seems almost at odds with the realities of what Dick and Magnus are attempting to achieve through scientific experimentation, and hightens the feeling that Magnus’s work is incredibly against the natural order. You can definitely tell that Du Maurier was well aware of Cornwall and the surrounding areas, as well as its history. Amaller details such as historical Cornish names all work together to create a novel which has certainly had time and hard work invested into it.

Despite Du Maurier’s successful research, I found myself facing several issues with her work. One of the main aspects I struggled to overcome was the fact that I did not feel involved or connected to any of the characters. Despite the book being narrated in first person from Dick, I did not really feel that I truly knew him, and did not warm to him. That is not to say that novels need to have likeable characters – quite the opposite. But I do think that there needs to be some sort of personal or emotional involvement with at least one of the characters, and I was not able to achieve this at all. I did not dislike Dick, Magnus, or even Vita, but neither did I feel connected to them. Instead, I felt that I was being held back at a distance from these characters. Whilst this could be reflective of how the past has completely taken over Dick, and he is no longer truly involved in what he views as the mundane aspects of the present, I still felt a clinical, cold detachment.

The same must also be said of the characters which we find in the past. I did not feel that I was able to really sink my teeth into any of the characters, and I did not feel that I was particularly championing any of them to reach a satisfying conclusion in their lives. Instead, the majority of this novel I spent in a strange place of disconnect, not able to settle in the present twentieth century Cornwall, but neither at home in the fourteenth century version. Perhaps that is the point, and Du Maurier wants us to feel ourselves split between the two temporal spaces as Dick does, but unlike Dick, the past did not really grip me and hold me in its deadly vice.

The plot generally progressed quite slowly, and for large proportions of the book nothing massively riveting occurs. I am sure that if this kind of scientific drug ever came into creation, and like Dick we found ourselves transported to the past, that the physical proximity to the past would make us feel more similarly to Dick in his obsession to relive the events. Yet sadly, this did not transfer successfully to the reader, and I continued to feel detached as a secondary viewer.

The last fifty to one hundred pages certainly drew me in more than the previous pages, and I felt that Du Maurier really started to hit her stride and acclimatise to the tone of a science fiction novel. I started to feel intrigued and uncertain of the end result, which did keep the interest and sustain the suspense. Despite this, it was still not enough to make me feel completely immersed in the story, and I still feel that the novel would have benefited if, like Dick, we could have been fully drawn into the past.

What I think this novel is very successful at, alongside the evocation of twentieth and fourteenth century Cornwall, is examining the way in which both past and present interconnect, and in many cases infringe upon each other. We may not feel it ourselves, but we can clearly see that Dick is so completely absorbed by the past, that even when he is in his present day life, his thoughts and even his way of viewing the surrounding environment never stray far from a historical point of view.  The novel also explores the way that the very landscape itself is connected between the past and present.  For example, this paragraph states that:

‘Now, watching the express disappear round the bend in the valley, I observed the terrain from another angle, and realized how the coming of the railway over a hundred years ago must have altered the sloping fields, the line literally dug out of the hillside. There had been other disturbers of the peace besides the railway. Quarries had scarred the opposite side of the valley on the high ground where the tin and copper mines had flourished a century ago….’ (p. 57).

By connecting so vividly to the past, Dick is able to see what the modern eye would miss. In many ways, Dick becomes a historian, looking for the clues of the past, and able to decipher the way the land has been changed and adapted to suit the needs of the locals as time has progressed.

Through Dick, Daphne Du Maurier is able to show insight into the Cornish past and present, and her knowledge shines through.  Whilst I do feel in certain places of the novel that the writing of the book did not necessarily come naturally to her, or at least not as naturally as Rebecca, I did still enjoy the read.  This book is certainly a far cry from the likes of the often romanticised Rebecca, and shows that Maurier was well aware of  the tropes which are associated so closely with certain genres.  Du Maurier seems highly reluctant to be pinned down and confined to a certain type of novel, and I am very curious to try out more of her works to see how they vary in comparison.

Publisher: Virago

Rating: 3*/5*


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