Julius by Daphne du Maurier

Julius This book was originally published under the title The Progress of Julius and is the chilling story of an ambitious and ruthless man who goes through life determined to get “something for nothing” and not caring who gets hurt in the process.

The novel begins in 1860 when Julius Levy is born into a family of French peasants who live in a small village on the banks of the Seine. The biggest influences on Julius’s early life are his loud, coarse grandfather and irresponsible mother, but he later grows closer to his father, Paul, a quiet Jewish man. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war the Levys take refuge in Paris until a tragedy results in Julius and his father fleeing for the safety of Paul’s home country, Algeria.

At first, Julius plans to follow a religious life, but he soon finds that buying and selling in the marketplace holds more attraction for him and that he enjoys cheating people out of their money. When life in Algeria starts to bore him, Julius travels to England where he begins to build up a huge business empire. But even as Julius becomes one of the richest and most successful men in the world, he continues to show a complete lack of regard for the people around him, using and manipulating them to get what he wants…until his daughter Gabriel is born.

This was Daphne du Maurier’s third novel, published in 1933 when she was only twenty six years old and it amazes me that she was able to write such a sophisticated, powerful novel at such an early stage of her career. I’ve found that all of du Maurier’s books have some dark and disturbing elements, but this must surely be the darkest and most disturbing of them all – though not in a gothic way like Rebecca or Jamaica Inn. The main reason I found this book so disturbing is because Julius Levy is one of the most horrible, despicable characters I’ve ever come across in literature.

He’s completely heartless, cruel and callous with no redeeming features at all. Early in the story when the Levy family are forced to leave their village for Paris, Julius drowns his beloved cat rather than leave her with a neighbour, because if he can’t have her he doesn’t want anyone else to have her. This is an early indication of what Julius is like and as the story continues there are dozens of other examples of his selfishness and cruelty. And yet, for some reason, he still inspires feelings of love and friendship in other people, which is hard to understand as he rarely, if ever, shows any consideration or compassion for anybody but himself – they always come second to his latest money-making schemes.

As usual, du Maurier’s settings are wonderfully atmospheric, from the small French village of Puteaux to the dusty marketplaces of Algeria to the area of London in which Julius gets his first job in a bakery. The historical setting, beginning with the Franco-Prussian War and the Siege of Paris, is interesting too. This was not one of my favourite du Maurier novels (it was much too uncomfortable and unpleasant for that) but, like all of her books, it kept me gripped and fascinated from the first page to the last.

21 thoughts on “Julius by Daphne du Maurier

  1. Elena says:

    I had never heard of the book and although I’m a huge Rebecca fan, I haven’t read any other du Maurier works yet. I think she had a gift for gothic and dark atmospheres and somehow that has devaluated her work for the general public which I don’t think it’s fair.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, du Maurier had a real gift for creating atmosphere and that’s one of the reasons I love her books so much. I hope you’ll decide to try more of her work – I don’t think any of her other novels are quite as good as Rebecca, but they are still great books and definitely worth reading.

      • Elena says:

        I do think Rebecca is a brilliant novel in many aspects and too underrated in my opinion. I’d thought of giving Jamaica Inn a try and since you mention it alongside Rebecca, I think I’ll like it!

    • Helen says:

      This seems to be one of her least popular books and I can understand why, but I did still enjoy it. I hope you have the opportunity to read it!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, and he’s just a child when he drowns the cat. Some of the things he does as an adult are even worse. Definitely a very off-putting character!

  2. Alex says:

    I thought I’d read all of du Maurier when I was a teenager, but this one seems to have passed me by. You’re right about her ability to create wonderful atmospheres but I’m not sure that even that is temptation enough to make me want to become acquainted with someone like Julius. I do hope he wasn’t based on anyone she knew.

    • Helen says:

      I read a biography of the du Maurier sisters earlier in the year and I could see a lot of parallels between Julius’ relationship with his daughter Gabriel and Daphne’s with her own father, Gerald. Other than that, I hope the rest of his character traits were due to the author’s imagination!

  3. Lisa says:

    I seem to be very much in the minority in that I couldn’t finish Rebecca. I don’t think I’ve tried any of her other novels – but I won’t put this one at the top of the list! Julius sounds a bit like Trollope’s Melmotte, in The Way We Live Now.

    • Helen says:

      No, I don’t think I would recommend this one to anyone but du Maurier fans! Sorry to hear you weren’t able to finish Rebecca, but it might still be worth trying some of her other novels as they are all very different.

  4. Leander says:

    What a horrible man… A definite antihero! I wonder what the tipping point is between a book having an unpleasant protagonist but still being a really good book in its own right, and having the protagonist be so unpleasant that they actually poison the entire book for the reader? What do other people think? How nasty does someone have to be to actually put you off a book?

    I need to read more du Maurier. I’ve read Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, and I’d love to read Frenchman’s Creek, but it’s evidently very popular because it’s never in the library when I go there. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I don’t usually mind unpleasant characters as long as they’re interesting to read about, but Julius really was one of the most unpleasant I’ve ever encountered and although I did still enjoy the book it was a relief to reach the end and escape from his presence!
      I’ve been working through all of du Maurier’s novels over the last few years and only have three or four left to read, but I’ve decided at this stage to save Frenchman’s Creek until last as I’m expecting to enjoy that one!

  5. Lizzi says:

    I recently read (and reviewed) this and found it as you did. He is just terrible! But it’s a fascinating book and so well written – of course. Thank you for a great post.

  6. martinvlewis says:

    I had been put off this book by several negative comments I had read – and was particularly wary of possible ant-semitism – but I finally decided to read it. I found it impossible to put down, and raced through it in a couple of days.

    I have to say that, although the character of Julius is certainly unsympathetic, I found him more tragic than despicable. He is, I felt, a man capable of greatness of heart, with his passion and creative genius, but whose heart is deformed. His is a split personality, with a mind formed by his mother’s money-grubbing father, but with the soul of a poet, like his own father – after all he begins and ends reaching for the clouds. Incidentally this dichotomy seems the reversal of the anti-semite stereotype, for Julius gets his ruthless materialism from his Catholic grandfather, while all the other Jews in the book, including Paul Lévy, are portrayed as civilised and cultured people.

    Whatever our subjective responses to the characters, Daphne du Maurier presents them without judgement, creating them, each their own voices, with uncanny sensitivity. Uncanny also the skill which enables her, with a few well-observed details, to evoke a vivid sense of place – especially in the three main settings, Paris, Algiers and London – quite remarkable in a young woman of twenty-six.

    The ability to inhabit the minds of different people has something of the actor’s craft to it, inherited perhaps from her father. But the acute writer’s eye is all her own.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for commenting, Martin. This isn’t one of my favourite du Maurier novels, but I also found it a compelling read that was hard to put down. You seem to have had more sympathy for Julius than I did! I can see that if I read this book again I’ll have to keep more of an open mind where he is concerned. Your thoughts on the reversal of stereotypes are interesting too.

      I don’t know if you have read any of du Maurier’s other novels, but since posting this review I have now read all of them apart from one, Castle Dor, and I have found every one of them worth reading. Her sense of place is always wonderful – better than almost any other author I can think of. I’m pleased there was so much to interest you in this book, despite being initially put off.

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