Utterly absorbing (4.5 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published by Virago Press- originally in 1963. This edition was printed in 2012.
The paperback edition is 368 pages
I’m yet to read a Daphne Du Maurier book that has disappointed me, but for some reason I really have to be “in the mood” to pick up one of her novels. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it is because I know her writing deserves complete respect and it is no good trying to read one of her novels if I can only give it half-hearted concentration? Her prose is always utterly beautiful, her settings and characters infinitely memorable, so that would make perfect sense. I need (and want) to have the time to become wholly absorbed in one of her books.
The Glass-Blowers is a reworking of Du Maurier’s own fascinating family history and for me was certainly an engrossing read. Told in memoir format, this story is written in the ‘voice’ of Sophie Duval, an ancestor of Du Maurier who chronicles a tragic family history for her long-lost nephew, recounting the story of her brother, Robert Busson. Busson was a master glass-maker and engraver who fled France at the time of the French revolution in order to escape mounting debts, an act tantamount to treason. Once in England, he tried to restyle himself as a wealthy individual, with complete delusions of grandeur- a failed illusion that was enforced until his death, without even his own children knowing who he really was.
From other reviews I’ve read, this seems to be a Du Maurier novel that has the ability to divide opinion. Reviewers either love it or loathe it, but needless to say I loved it just as much as the authors other books. The characters were brought vividly to life, particularly the loathsome, deceitful Robert, and Sophie’s own mother- a strong, independent female in a time when this wasn’t ordinarily the case. If anything, Sophie herself seemed less vibrant in comparison to those who she talked about, though as events were told from “her” perspective, this is unsurprising. My opinions about the characters constantly shifted as the story progressed and by the end of the story, I actually found myself feeling sorry for Robert, no mean feat considering his deplorable actions.
I appreciated how the historical facets really became more “background” fodder in this story, too on occasion. The French revolution, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette themselves seem quite distant from the events that are happening in the surrounding countryside and within the glass houses and small communities where the majority of this story is based. This was pretty helpful for me in that I’m not massively enamoured with that time in history anyway and was definitely more interested in learning about Du Maurier’s own family history in this instance. Retelling that tumultuous time from ‘ordinary’ people’s perspective was an unusual approach, but a clever one that definitely worked for this reader. That’s not to say history was merely glossed over; there are some parts of the storyline with massive emotional impact and historical importance- riots are graphically depicted and the plot certainly doesn’t shy away from disease, poverty, death during childbirth and death in childhood, all of which were rife at the time.
This story is very atmospheric too. As a reader you get a sense of the tension and fear felt amongst the people as unfounded (and founded) rumours are spread at the cusp of the resolution and how easy it was to get swept up in them, especially in the small French towns. I could also vividly imagine the furnaces in the glass-houses and their countryside settings- the smells, the heat, were wonderfully depicted and the novel contained excellent sensory writing in places.
I loved Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, and Frenchman’s Creek and Jamaica Inn and My Cousin Rachel and—… you get the idea. They’re all incredible books. The Glass-Blowers seamlessly slips onto that list and is another one of her works that I can-and will- unequivocally recommend from now on.