The drama of revolution

The Glass-Blowers
by Daphne du Maurier

I love du Maurier but she was pretty prolific and sadly I think that her lesser known titles are, well, lesser works than the famous ones. At least, that’s been my experience so far. I enjoyed this book and its still better prose than some writers will manage at their peak, but like I’ll Never Be Young Again this wasn’t the captivating read I had hoped for.

An 18th century family saga of the Bussons and some du Mauriers, with an acknowledgement to people who helped the author do family history research, I am divining that this is loosely based on what du Maurier discovered about her ancestors, though how much of reality was used and how much made up I cannot tell. It is set in France just before and during the French Revolution and covers the politics and social upheaval of the time in some detail for a relatively slim volume. Du Maurier has her family of master glass-blowers thoroughly embroiled in the changing times, with family disputes over politics that at first seem minor becoming life-changing, even deadly, as the revolution progresses.

The story is told by the elderly Madame Sophie Duval née Busson to a long-lost nephew, so there are certain facts we learn early on out of order, such as when she last saw the brother whose son has now resurfaced. But for the most part it’s a linear narrative, starting with her parents’ marriage in 1747. In the early chapters it’s all about the hardworking industriousness of the Busson couple and to be honest I found it a little tedious being told what great people they were. Mme Busson, Sophie’s mother, is modern enough to want to learn alongside her husband how to run a glass-house but not so modern that she ever takes any interest in politics (unlike her children, later on). I found her very idealised as a character, but then I suppose the story is told from the perspective of a daughter who always idolised her so that does fit.

It all gets more interesting when the Bussons’ children start growing up and developing characters that are less perfect than their parents. There’s Robert the eldest son, with his love of frivolity, rich people and grand schemes. There’s Pierre, admirer of the philosophy of Rousseau, who wants to help those less fortunate than himself. There’s Michel who suffers from a terrible stammer and is an ardent republican. There’s Edmé the youngest daughter, tomboyish in her wish to put her country and socialist ideals before all else. And there’s Sophie, who for the most part simply wants to emulate her mother by running a glass-house with her husband and keeping out of politics. Except she doesn’t really keep out of it; for much of the book she comments on the political situation with a tone of “I know better” and I don’t just mean hindsight.

I don’t know a great deal about the French Revolution but I do think du Maurier has done an excellent job of combining facts, dates, names, etc with prose that evokes unease or suspicion or terror or heartbreak at the appropriate moments. I could completely believe in the riots borne out of a whisper campaign based on nothing at all. I could believe in the switches of allegiance based on the mood of the country and the limited evidence available.

However, the revolution is a big subject, as is a family saga, and this isn’t a big book. I enjoyed it but I think the content was squeezed in at the expense of any real description or insight. Some of the human drama is skipped past, such as the many couples in the book falling in love. But there are some moments when du Maurier uses brevity beautifully, such as the deaths of young children, which are handled with few words, but aching sadness.

Du Maurier was such an able writer that I will continue to read all her work that I can lay my hands on in the hope that I will find something that lives up to the promise of Rebecca. To which end I am hoping that nothing will come up to prevent me from taking part in the Discovering Daphne readalong hosted by Savidge Reads this October.

First published 1963 by Victor Gallancz.

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