A glass blower, remember, breathes life into a vessel, giving it shape and form and sometimes beauty; but he can, with that same breath, shatter and destroy it.
The Glass-Blowers was the book selected for me in the last Classics Spin at the end of August. The deadline for reading our Spin book is this Friday, so I’ve finished just in time! Although it has taken me a while to actually pick this novel up and read it, that’s not because I wasn’t looking forward to it. Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors and I fully expected to love this book as I’ve loved most of her others. That didn’t really happen, unfortunately, but I did still find things to enjoy.
Published in 1963, The Glass-Blowers is historical fiction based on the lives of du Maurier’s own ancestors who lived in France during the Revolution. The story is narrated by Sophie Duval, an elderly woman writing her family history in the form of a letter to send to her nephew. Sophie begins by looking back on her childhood growing up in the Loir-et-Cher region of France as the daughter of master glass-blower Mathurin Busson. Most of her early memories revolve around her eldest brother, Robert, who is constantly getting into debt and finding himself in trouble. It is Robert who will eventually move to England and provide the link to Daphne du Maurier herself.
In France, meanwhile, Sophie and her other siblings – Pierre, Michel and Edmé – become swept up in the drama of the French Revolution. So much of what I’ve read about the Revolution is focused on Paris, so it was fascinating to read about the ways in which it affected the lives of those living in the countryside and in other cities such as Le Mans. The section set during the War in the Vendée is particularly gripping and vivid – probably because Sophie herself is caught up in the uprising and experiences it directly. Other major events happen in the background and Sophie only hears thirdhand accounts, which takes away some of the emotional impact of the story (I kept thinking of The Brethren by Robert Merle, another novel set in France which is written in a similarly passive style).
The distance between narrator and reader meant that I never became fully engaged in the lives of the Bussons and never felt that I had really got to know Sophie. Her brother and sisters were stronger characters, particularly Michel, who becomes a political activist and joins the National Guard, and Robert, who repeatedly reinvents himself as one business venture after another ends in failure. Robert infuriated me at first but he eventually became my favourite character and I found myself looking forward to his scenes as they added a spark of life to what I was beginning to find quite a tedious story.
One of the things I usually love about du Maurier is her descriptive writing and the way she creates a strong sense of time and place – and this is something that I thought was missing from The Glass-Blowers (apart from in the Vendée scenes, as I mentioned above). This hasn’t become a favourite du Maurier book, then, but in my opinion even her weaker novels are still worth reading. Now that I’ve read this one I’m planning to read Mary Anne, another fictional account of one of du Maurier’s ancestors, this time on the English side of the family. After that I’ll only have Frenchman’s Creek and Castle Dor left to read.