Castle Dor by Daphne du Maurier

My choice for this year’s Daphne du Maurier Reading Week (hosted by Ali of Heavenali) is one of du Maurier’s more obscure novels; in fact, it’s debatable whether it should really be considered one of her novels at all, as it was begun by another author, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, also known as Q. At the time of his death, Quiller-Couch had left the novel unfinished and du Maurier completed it at the request of his daughter. I have seen some very mixed reviews of this book so wasn’t expecting too much from it; however, I have now read all of her other books – apart from some of her non-fiction – so I wanted to read this one as well for completion.

Published in 1961, Castle Dor is set in 19th century Cornwall and is based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult. The novel opens with a chance encounter between Linnet Lewarne, a young woman married to a much older man, and Amyot Trestane, a Breton onion seller, who fall in love and embark on a romance which will closely follow the events of the legend. Linnet and Amyot themselves are unaware of the parallels with that much older love story, although they know that something unusual is happening to them – that they have knowledge they really shouldn’t possess, are using words that should be unknown to them, and are behaving in ways they cannot control.

Local doctor and scholar Dr Carfax has a particular interest in Cornish legends and as he observes Linnet and Amyot together, he grows more and more concerned about the relationship between them and how it is mirroring the tale of Tristan and Iseult – and he begins to wonder whether he himself is playing a role in the retelling of the story.

If you’re not familiar with Tristan and Iseult, I won’t tell you what happens, but like most legendary love stories, it’s dramatic and tragic. Something in the way the novel is written, though, makes it feel less dramatic and tragic than I had expected, which was disappointing; the characters feel strangely flat and never really come to life and I struggled to believe in the romance between Linnet and Amyot. I expect that is at least partly due to the change in authors in the middle of the book; we will never know how Q had planned to develop the characters or how du Maurier would have depicted them if she had written the book from the start.

The exact point where du Maurier takes over from Q is not known and the transition is smooth and seamless so it’s not easy to detect the change, but I definitely noticed a difference in the writing style in the later parts of the book. The earlier chapters, which we know were definitely written by Q, are more heavily laden with historical and geographical detail as Carfax and his friends discuss various sources of the Tristan and Iseult story and try to locate some of the landmarks associated with the legend. I found this interesting, but not particularly compelling; the second half of the book was faster paced and more engaging as du Maurier brought the story towards its conclusion.

Although there are some similarities with du Maurier’s later time travel novel, The House on the Strand, this book is not really representative of her work (I think it’s unfair that Quiller-Couch is not credited on the cover). Unless you’re particularly interested in Tristan and Iseult, I think it’s one you should come to after reading some of her other novels first; it definitely wouldn’t give you the best impression of the qualities I love in her work. Still, Castle Dor was an interesting read and I have now reached my goal of reading all of Daphne du Maurier’s novels!

This is also book 16/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

24 thoughts on “Castle Dor by Daphne du Maurier

  1. Judy Krueger says:

    I love it when I finish all the novels by an author I admire. You must feel exalted! I had pretty much the same reaction to this book as you did. Though I felt I could tell the minute that Du Maurier took over. Suddenly I could read smoothly and evenly whereas before that point I felt I was mired in too many words. I will finish her books someday though I am taking them slowly as I read through the years of My Big Fat Reading Project. I wonder what you will read for this challenge next year.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s taken me a long time, but it’s great to have finally read them all! Next year I will have to read one of her non-fiction books instead. I wasn’t sure exactly where du Maurier took over, but there was definitely a point where, as you say, the writing became a lot more readable than it had been at the beginning.

  2. heavenali says:

    A good one to read for the Du Maurier completeist, mostly interesting for how the novel came about. I can easily imagine a slight clash of styles though. I will link your review to the DDM reading week page when I get chance.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think this is only one to read if you’re a completist. I think it was probably much more of a Quiller-Couch book than a du Maurier one.

  3. whatmeread says:

    I felt about the same way as you did about it. A better book about Tristan and Isolde is The Enchanted Cup by Dorothy Roberts. I read it a long, long time ago.

    • Helen says:

      I’ll have to look out for The Enchanted Cup. The story of Tristan and Isolde interested me, but the way it was told in this book didn’t.

      • whatmeread says:

        Yeah, I can imagine. One caution. I read The Enchanted Cup in high school and loved it. I read it again later in life and remember it as being okay. It’s more romantic when you’re younger, I guess.

  4. Lark says:

    Interesting that the author who began this story doesn’t get any credit for it on the cover. He should, even if du Maurier wrapped it up so well.

    • Helen says:

      It seems very unfair – they should both have been credited. It’s misleading as it gives the impression this is a du Maurier novel when it isn’t really.

  5. jessicabookworm says:

    Wow well done on reading ALL of du Maurier novels! Time to start re-reading them now?! 😉

    I didn’t realise this was someone else’s novel that du Maurier finished – I agree they really should mention the other author on the cover. I am sure I will read this at some point, but after reading your thoughts I might prioritise other books of her first.

  6. Calmgrove says:

    Your review has reinforced my impression that the start was so pedestrian that it was debatable whether the effort was worth it. And I’ve read two of the medieval versions of the Tristan legend and they were a lot livelier! Hmm, I think John Fowles wrote an updated version (The Ebony Tower) and that’s starting to appeal…

    • Helen says:

      I found it quite difficult to get through the first few chapters of this book, although it did pick up later on. I’ll have to read some other versions of the Tristan legend at some point.

  7. buriedinprint says:

    How interesting! I didn’t know any of the background of this novel and the blurb on the older edition I have just left me confused (which could have been as much “on me” as on the blurb itself) so I opted for Jamaica Inn instead (and it turned out to be a delightful distraction, perfect for my week). I’ll keep your impressions in mind if/when I do get to this one. And congrats on having read through her fiction. No small feat as she’s published a good number (and now only the non-fiction for you to enjoy before you return and reread)!

    • Helen says:

      Jamaica Inn is great, though not one of my absolute favourites. This particular book is worth reading, but if you still have lots of her others to read, I think you can safely leave it until later.

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