Vulpes Libris

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.

The House on the Strand (or: my struggle with historical fiction)

the-house-on-the-strandOh 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 – RebeccaMy Cousin RachelFrenchman’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.

14 comments on “The House on the Strand (or: my struggle with historical fiction)

  1. Pingback: The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier – Stuck in a Book

  2. Sonja Foxe
    February 28, 2017

    try an historical novel by Alison Weir

  3. Kate
    February 28, 2017

    or Mary Renault. I wouldn’t bother with du Maurier, I find her novels so dull!

  4. Karen K.
    February 28, 2017

    I often like historical fiction but it depends on the writer and the period. I recently read The Wreath which is the first in the Kristin Lavrandsdattar by Sigrid Undset which I really liked — it’s set about 1300 but written in 1920. She won the Nobel prize mostly because of that series.

    I also really liked the Poldark series, mostly because of the TV program. And haven’t you read the Cazalet Chronicles? They’re wonderful!

  5. Kerry Hale
    February 28, 2017

    This is one of my favourite Du Mauriers, much to my surprise. I first encountered it as an abridged reading on Radio 4 (?). I agree about the historical characters’ relationships being confusing but having read it several times now I think I’ve got them straight. I like the fact that the history is about fairly ‘ordinary’ people rather than the aristocracy.

  6. leavesandpages
    February 28, 2017

    Well, it’s not really “real” historical fiction, is it? I’ve always classified it as one of du Maurier’s “psychological” concoctions. The issue at its heart being, not the whole time travel thing, but Dick’s issues with fully committing to his marriage, and his quiet agonizing about what path his future will take. All of the 14th Century stuff is just sloshed on for the purposes of allowing all sorts of symbolic parallels between Dick and his counterparts way-back-when.

    And what did you make of that dark, dark ending, Simon? (Classic du Maurier – she’s rather hard on her protagonists!)

  7. Sylvia Garner
    February 28, 2017

    Anya Seton. Fabulous historical fiction writer. Katherine, The Winthrop Woman.

  8. whatmeread
    February 28, 2017

    Try reading some of Dorothy Dunnett’s historical fiction some time. You might change your mind about some historical fiction. Having said that, I agree with your point about a lot of it. A lo of historical fiction gives us no flavor of the time, or no sense of everyday life, or a tourist view of the country, as you said.

  9. heavenali
    February 28, 2017

    I like historical fiction – though it depends on the writer, and I need to be in the right mood. I hate some of the modern historical writers (mentioning no names- I ‘ve read one or two of their books a few years ago)- who might not let the truth get in the way of a good story. Some however are so good they have stayed with me for years.

  10. hopewellslibraryoflife
    February 28, 2017

    “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’.” Love this–but to me those are signs of a book I’ll adore! Have you read The King’s General? It’s one of my all-time favorites from any author. Love it. But now I am very, very curious about Flight of the Falcon! Excellent review–I like your style.

  11. Susan T Case
    March 1, 2017

    Oh yes! Those maps and family trees in the front or back of a book are quite off-putting. Too much work and often insufficient for unraveling the relationships.

  12. Peter Harvey
    March 1, 2017

    I read The Cloister and the Hearth a couple of months ago and liked it.

  13. Sue Gedge
    March 1, 2017

    I recommend Rose Tremain’s Restoration, and its later sequel, Merivel. In both these books she avoids the pitfalls of conventional historical fiction and creates an engaging anti-hero it’s impossible not to love.

  14. rbunt
    March 2, 2017

    I read this book so long ago ( was I even 20?). I only remember that I loved it and not much else. I wonder if I read it now if I’d even get through it. 🙂

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2017 by in Entries by Simon, Fiction: 20th Century and tagged , .

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