A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Oh dear. It seems that I always volunteer myself as the contrary voice for Vulpes theme weeks – or, at least, that’s what I did back when I was just a Guest Fox, during one of the Poetry Weeks. “Who is this joker,” I hear you ask. “Does he like any bally books at all? Is he some sort of interloper from a movie blog? Is this Fake News?”
Well, I promise I do love lots of books and types of books, and I’m not hide-bound to certain genres or periods. But I have something of a blind spot when it comes to historical fiction. And this came to the fore, yet again, when I read The House on the Strand (1969) by Daphne du Maurier for my book group recently.
Now, I love Daphne du Maurier. I’ve read a handful of her books – Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Frenchman’s Creek, and The Flight of the Falcon – and I have loved them in in decreasing order in that list. Indeed, I actively disliked The Flight of the Falcon. And – guess what? – it’s one of her historical novels. (It’s also one that nobody’s heard of, which probably isn’t either a coincidence or a sadness.)
So, I was excited to read The House on the Strand. I’d heard it was a ghost story, of sorts. That sounded fun, given du Maurier’s deft hand with the gothic, and a genius for ambiguity and readerly uncertainty that would leave Henry James weeping into his hands and wishing somebody had introduced him to a full stop earlier in life. And I really liked the opening paragraph:
The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green colour of the land. There was no softness anywhere. The distant hills did not blend into the sky but stood out like rocks, so close that I could almost touch them, their proximity giving me that shock of surprise and wonder which a child feels looking for the first time through a telescope. Nearer to me, too, each object had the same hard quality, the very grass turning to single blades, springing from a younger, harsher soil than the soil I knew.
So far, so good. As I read on, I gradually realised that was happening. Our hero (Richard Young, though I thought he was a woman for the first few pages – the first person narrative doesn’t give much away) has time travelled to the 14th century. He is watching the movements of people long dead, in a complex web of marriage and affair and family.
Richard is staying in the Cornish house of his friend Magnus, in Magnus’ absence; he is a scientist who has managed to create potions that will transport the taker back to the past. Not just any past, but the same scenes and the same people – both Richard and Magnus, it transpires, have seen the same horseman lead them across the fields and towards the house that is still standing more than 600 years later. The time traveller can be seen, wandering through modern day Cornwall – but they see only ancient Cornwall. (Somehow, there are never newly built houses in the way.)
In the modern day, Richard has a strained relationship with his wife Vita, though he gets on well with his two stepsons. They’ve only been married for a couple of years, but already seem rather to loathe each other. We’re told that they love each other, but there is very little evidence of this – she is mostly an impediment to the experiments he wishes to perform. But I really enjoyed all of this stuff. The novel goes back and forth between present and past, and all the things in the present are engaging, enjoyable, and with du Maurier’s signature tension. When we go to the past? Not so much.
It doesn’t help that the number of characters and their relationships are very confusing. There’s a family tree in the back, and a map – both always feel like warning signals to me. They essentially admit ‘you probably won’t understand this book without some clues’. Even with them, I never really worked out what was going on. More to the point, I didn’t care.
It also doesn’t help that Richard can’t interact with any of the people in the past. Early on, we are told that he mustn’t touch them for fear of what will happen. Much like Chekhov’s gun, I thought we must eventually see Richard get trapped in that world. The cover of my copy led me to believe he might have a medieval romance. Nothing so intriguing takes place. He does nothing more than observe – and so the reader feels similarly detached. Well, this one does.
But this isn’t a stray example. My problem with historical fiction is also my problem with books set in countries that the author hasn’t lived. I feel as though we are shown the world as a tourist. We are taken around a museum of people in costumes. The research may be meticulous – but that is precisely the problem. I don’t want to come to a novel to be treated to a history book, showing off what the author has learned. I come to a novel to meet flesh and blood characters, without layers of dust on them.
Obviously many, many people love historical fiction. And I seem to be OK with certain steps back – say, to 1800 – but before that, things just lose their vitality to me. Unless I’m reading a book written before 1800, of course, and then it isn’t historical – it’s new, it’s vital, it’s a reflection of life.
I’ll probably keep trying. There may be a book out there that will change my mind. But, for now, I’m pouring Magnus’s potion down the sink and enjoying modern day Cornwall. And that, of course, Daphne du Maurier can’t help but write about beautifully.