Trips to the Past
So much for writing about the Camino over the last few months! (I have been working on something else, related to my adventure and separate to this blog though so all is not lost.) Meanwhile, my latest article has been published in Slightly Foxed - about the novelist Daphne du Maurier. The journal has been kind enough to let me publish it simultaneously on my blog but do have a look out for the journal itself which is a wonderful read for yourself and a great gift as a subscription.
This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 59, Autumn 2018.
The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Single issues from £10; annual subscriptions from £40. For more information please visit www.foxedquarterly.com
Trips to the Past
When I was 7 I was sent to stay with my grandparents in the seaside town of Broadstairs, where I was seen and not heard, learned good table manners and pretended I was a landlocked mermaid. I also read books, for what else can an imaginative little girl do when television is forbidden and conversations rarely take account of her age?
My grandmother was not a reader and so there were few books in the house, just some nineteenth-century novels which had belonged to her mother, and a single shelf of books in a glass-fronted cabinet containing The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, coffee-table books about the Yorkshire Dales, the Lakes and Cornwall, and Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. I fell on the latter, and I have read it many times since.
Set in Cornwall, it is a brilliantly compelling story told in recognizable du Maurier style: civil disturbance lurks in the background; it has a frustratingly passive narrator; and it deals with that all too painful subject, unrequited love. But whereas some of her novels hint at the supernatural, this one is a true time-travel story.
Dick Young is staying in Kilmarth, the large Cornish house of his eccentric friend from Cambridge days, the scientist Magnus Lane. Ostensibly using the holiday to decide whether or not to take a publishing job in the United States, Dick seems actually to be in escape mode, running from a tricky marriage and from his future. A more profound escape is offered him in the form of some experimental potions Magnus has been brewing in what he calls ‘Bluebeard’s Chamber’. One dose and Dick finds himself standing in exactly the same building, but 650 years earlier. Shadowing an apparent alter ego Roger Kylmerth, he observes the noble families of that period, their love affairs, their betrayals, their political choices and, in several cases, their deaths. But Dick can do nothing to intervene: if he so much as touches one of these apparitions, he is propelled violently back to his own time with disturbing side effects that include nausea and episodes of paralysis.
Over the next few weeks Dick takes several trips back into the past, and ‘trips’ is the right word. This novel, one of du Maurier’s last, appeared in 1969, and later in the story the secret potion is compared by a doctor to LSD. Dick, however, believes he is actually living the experiences through Roger. Magnus, most of the time at the end of a phone, tells Dick that he too has had these experiences and encountered the same people. For the reader, or at least for me, it doesn’t really matter how Dick gets back to the early fourteenth century. I found I was more interested in his increasing displacement from his present-day life and was impatient for him to leave the nagging of his unpleasant-sounding wife and disappear into medieval Cornwall.
Dick’s ‘other world’ as he calls it is not a safe retreat, however, but a place of constant danger, full of disease, murder and political intrigue. Because Roger, Dick’s guide, is steward to Sir Henry and Lady Joanna Champernoune, it is their story that Dick initially follows until he finds himself getting to know members of the extended family, including Sir Otto Bodrugan and his lover Isolda. Both Dick and Roger become obsessed with this affair: we witness Otto and Isolda’s secret meetings and their inevitable tragic end.
Gradually Dick becomes unable to distinguish between the two worlds, finding that back in the 1960s he starts talking about events from the faraway past as if they had happened only moments ago. The dangers of the drug become clearer as Dick, like both Roger and Otto, falls in love with Isolda; Magnus dies in a particularly violent way while on a visit to fourteenth-century Cornwall; and Dick nearly kills his own wife, thinking she is someone from the past. Dick is an unpleasant man in many ways – selfish and misogynistic, refusing to take responsibility for his own life – but it is a testament to du Maurier’s writing that one is able to sympathize with him.
Back in modern-day Cornwall, Dick begins to explore the reality of his visions. He tracks down family records in the local library; he finds evidence of births in the church records; and he wanders through the twentieth-century Cornish landscape, using an Ordnance Survey map to link present-day buildings with those of the past. He is particularly fascinated by the story of Kilmarth/Kylmerth, the house in which he is staying, which was, it turns out, his alter ego’s home centuries ago.
Dick’s interest in the building echoes that of du Maurier herself. The novel is set in the house in which by 1969 she was actually living, and she too explored the local records and maps to create a story with a basis in historical fact. Two years earlier Philip Rashleigh, the owner of the house called Menabilly which du Maurier had rented for twenty-five years, had decided he would not renew her lease, and had suggested she move to the dower house, known by then as Kilmarth. An early inspection of Kilmarth showed her that a previous tenant had been a professor who kept animal embryos in the basement, the source perhaps for the character of Magnus; she also discovered that the foundations of the house dated back to 1329 and that various members of the local gentry had been involved in a plot against Edward III; all the families described in the past of the novel were real, as was Roger Kylmerth. At the end of the novel, du Maurier shows the reader evidence of her own research, including a map of the local area linking past and present, plus a (real) family tree of the key players.
The House on the Strand is not the only du Maurier novel to feature a house and its secrets in such an important way: Menabilly provided the setting for both Rebecca (as Manderley) and The King’s General. In all three novels, the buildings are presented as storehouses of memories, not just for the people alive at that moment but also for those who have once occupied them. The ghost of Rebecca can only truly be laid to rest once Manderley is burnt down.
A few years after writing The House on the Strand, du Maurier gathered together her early diaries in Myself When Young. In them she explains her fascination with the buildings in which she lived:
Who can ever affirm, or deny that the houses which have sheltered us as children, or as adults, and our predecessors too, do not have embedded in their walls, one with the dust and cobwebs, one with the overlay of fresh wallpaper and paint, the imprint of what-has-been, the suffering, the joy? We are all ghosts of yesterday, and the phantom of tomorrow awaits us alike in sunshine or in shadow, dimly perceived at times, never entirely lost.
These words also make me realize why the novel has exercised such a hold on me. It is inextricably linked to my three-month stay with my grandparents: when I read The House on the Strand now I find myself simultaneously in du Maurier’s Cornwall, past and present, and in Grandma and Grandpa’s house on Westcliff Road, Broadstairs, in the 1970s.
Once my grandparents had died I didn’t return to Broadstairs for many years. When, suddenly wanting to explore my own past, I did go back, the sense of déjà vu that Dick describes so well – those echoes across time of memories in landscape and in buildings – made sense to me. Grandma’s front door, no longer green, was open as I approached the house, so naturally I went in. Removal men were in the process of emptying the place, so I took advantage of the chaos to look around. Like Dick, I was in my own present, my own past and the imagined past of the previous hundred years when the house had first been owned by our family: some walls had been knocked down and the garden was a different shape, but the memories were still there. For a brief moment it seemed that nothing had changed and that Grandma was sitting in her chair, passing me her copy of The House on the Strand and telling me to take good care of it.
Sophie Breese continues to be fascinated by ghosts and is currently tracing the story of her French parents-in-law’s thick-walled medieval house in a village in the Dordogne.
© Sophie Breese, Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 59, Autumn 2018.