The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier (re-read) – #DDMReadingWeek

This week HeavenAli is hosting another of her Daphne du Maurier Reading Weeks, assisted by Liz who is collecting the links this year. As you may know, du Maurier is one of my favourite authors; I have now read all of her novels and short story collections at least once and some of her non-fiction (I attempted to rank them all in this post, just for fun). For this year’s Reading Week I’ve decided to re-read her 1957 novel The Scapegoat, which is one I particularly loved when I first read it back in 2011 (here’s my original review). I’ve wanted to read it again ever since, not just because I enjoyed it so much, but also because I formed a theory about what was actually happening in the book and I was curious to see whether I would feel the same way on a second read. I’ll discuss this later in this post, but don’t worry – I’ll include a spoiler warning for those of you who haven’t read the book yet.

The novel opens in Le Mans where our narrator, John, an English academic, is on holiday. When he meets a man who looks and sounds just like him at the station, he feels an instant connection with him and after spending the evening drinking and talking, he accompanies the other man back to his hotel room. He learns that his new friend is a French count, Jean de Gué, and that they have something else in common – they are both depressed and dissatisfied with life, John because he is lonely and has no family, Jean because he has a large family, all of whom are causing him problems. As the night wears on, John falls into a drunken stupor and when he wakes up the next day his companion has disappeared, taking all of John’s clothes and possessions with him and leaving his own in their place.

When Jean’s chauffeur arrives, ready to drive him home to his château in the French countryside, John begins to protest, explaining that there has been a mistake – but then, on an impulse, he decides to take this opportunity to leave his old life behind for a while and continue to impersonate Jean de Gué. On reaching Jean’s château, John finds that nobody suspects he is an impostor and he is able to take Jean’s place within the family. He also begins to understand why Jean had said his family life was so difficult – there are all sorts of tensions and conflicts between various members of the family and to make things worse, the de Gué glassworks is facing financial ruin. It’s up to John to put things right, if he can.

I enjoyed this read of The Scapegoat as much as my first. If you take everything at face value, of course, it requires a huge suspension of disbelief. Not only do John and Jean look completely identical, so much so that not even Jean’s mother, wife or daughter guess the truth, but they also sound exactly the same (and John’s French is so fluent that nobody suspects a thing). Is this likely? Of course not, but it provides du Maurier with her starting point for this fascinating novel and it’s perfectly possible to just accept the plot for what it is and enjoy the story. After all, it’s no more ridiculous than the book that apparently inspired this one – Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. And as always with a du Maurier novel, you can expect beautiful descriptions, a strong sense of place and interesting, if not necessarily very likeable, characters.

*My Scapegoat theory (includes spoilers)*

When I first read this book in 2011, I found myself beginning to wonder – what if John and Jean weren’t doubles after all? What if there was only one man, with multiple personalities (now known as dissociative identity disorder)? It makes so much more sense to me that Jean, feeling that he has made a mess of his life, has created a new identity to deal with the problems he has caused for himself. At the end of the book, when everything has been resolved, he has no further need of John and although it’s not clear exactly how much Jean has learned and how he will manage his relationships and business affairs in the future, he feels that he can now cope on his own. He tells John that he has emptied John’s bank account, sold his flat and furniture in London and resigned John’s position as university lecturer – in other words, destroyed John altogether, because John never really existed and is no longer necessary.

After finishing the book on that first occasion, I remember looking at other reviews and being surprised that almost nobody else had mentioned that any of this had occurred to them too. I accepted that I must have misunderstood the whole book; however, the Daphne du Maurier website quotes a letter written by Daphne herself regarding The Scapegoat which seems to support my interpretation. Her reference to ‘that man’s nature’ doesn’t really make sense to me if there were actually two separate men in the book.

“Every one of us has his, or her, dark side. Which is to overcome the other? This is the purpose of the book. And it ends, as you know, with the problem unsolved, except that the suggestion there, when I finished it, was that the two sides of that man’s nature had to fuse together to give birth to a third, well balanced.”

On reading the book for a second time, I have been paying closer attention and looking for subtle clues and hints. There are just three main obstacles in the way of my theory. First, there’s Jean’s dog, César, who is hostile towards John and the only member of the household who seems to sense that something is wrong. However, when Jean and John meet up again at the end of the book, Jean explains that John hasn’t been whistling to César in the correct way and this is why he hasn’t been obeying his commands. Also, during a scene in a hospital, we are told that Jean is blood group O and John is blood group A – but as it’s John himself who tells us this I don’t think it can be taken as conclusive evidence of anything. The only thing I can’t manage to explain away is that when Jean calls the château to inform John that he’s coming home, it’s a servant who answers the phone and tells John that someone wants to speak to him. If it wasn’t for this one moment, I would have been nearly convinced that I was right!

I did find plenty of things to support my theory, including the fact that, when speaking to Jean’s family for the first time, John finds that the ‘tu‘ form of French comes naturally to him, although he’s never used it before; the way John muses that Jean’s ‘inner substance was part of my nature, part of my secret self’; and in particular, the whole conversation he has with Jean’s mistress, Béla, in Chapter 12.

‘You said something a while ago about taking stock of oneself,’ I said. ‘Perhaps that’s just what I’ve been doing, over a period of time, and it came to a head that evening in Le Mans. The self I knew had failed. The only way to escape responsibility for failure was to become someone else. Let another personality take charge.’

‘The other Jean de Gué,’ she said, ‘the one who’s been hidden for so long beneath the surface gaiety and charm, I’ve often wondered if he existed. If he’s going to emerge, he’d better do so now. Time’s getting on.’

What do you think?

*End of spoilers*

Overall, after finishing my second read of the book, I think probably the way everyone else has interpreted it is the correct way, but du Maurier does like to be ambiguous and I enjoyed looking below the surface and dissecting the different layers! It really is a fascinating novel and still one of my favourites by du Maurier. Now I just need to find time to revisit some of her others!

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel, Rogue Male, was the book selected for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. Not knowing much about it, I had added it to my Classics Club list after seeing it included in The Guardian’s Top 10 novels of the 1930s. It sounded very like The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, which I thought was fun, if a bit repetitive, but while there are definitely some similarities, I found Rogue Male a more satisfying book.

The novel opens in 1938 just after our narrator has been caught aiming a gun at the dictator of an unspecified European country. Despite insisting that he wasn’t planning to pull the trigger and was just enjoying the thrill of ‘hunting the biggest game on earth’, the narrator is tortured and thrown over a cliff, where he is left to die. Somehow, he survives and manages to make his way back to London. On his arrival, he discovers that agents of the dictator he’d tried to shoot have followed him to England. Staying in London is obviously now out of the question, so he heads for the Dorset countryside where he is sure his pursuers will never be able to find him.

The identity of the protagonist’s target is kept carefully hidden, with very few clues throughout the novel, but it’s not difficult to guess who it was supposed to be and Household later confirmed that it was Hitler. As the book was published just before the start of World War II, it’s easy to see why he decided to be vague about it. His reasons for also leaving the narrator unnamed are less clear, but it does add an extra layer of mystery to the novel; while the narrator hides himself from the enemy agents, he also reveals very little of himself to the reader, leaving us wondering who he really is and what his true motives were for carrying out the assassination attempt.

For such a short book (around 200 pages), there’s a lot of plot packed between its covers and the tension builds as we wait to see whether he can continue to evade his pursuers. There’s a sinister villain, Major Quive-Smith who, like everything and everyone else in the book, is shrouded in mystery: we don’t know his nationality, his background or who he represents – all we do know is that he’s determined to force a confession from the narrator that the British government was behind the assassination attempt, something the narrator continues to deny even while his real motives are slow to emerge. Yet although I did enjoy the book, I still felt that there was something missing. The vagueness of it all, and the guarded and secretive nature of the protagonist, made it difficult for me to care what happened to him on an emotional level and this meant I found the story slightly less thrilling than I would have liked.

This book was adapted for film in 1941, under the title Man Hunt, and again as a BBC adaptation, Rogue Male, in 1976. The BBC version stars Peter O’Toole, with Alastair Sim as the Earl (a character who doesn’t appear in the book). It’s on YouTube and definitely worth watching. I’ve also discovered there’s a sequel to this novel called Rogue Justice, published much later in 1982, which is more open about the target being Hitler. I’m not sure if I want to read that one as the reviews aren’t very positive, but it seems Household was quite a prolific author, with more than twenty books published for adults and young adults, so I’ll see if any of his others appeal.

This is book 37/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

A Laodicean by Thomas Hardy

First published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1880-81, A Laodicean; or, The Castle of the De Stancys: A Story of To-Day is one of Thomas Hardy’s lesser known novels and one that I very much enjoyed.

Architect George Somerset is exploring the countryside near the village of Sleeping-Green one evening when he stumbles upon a castle. He learns that this is Stancy Castle, the ancestral home of the De Stancy family which has recently been purchased by the wealthy railway contractor, John Power. Mr Power has since died, leaving the castle to his daughter, Paula, who is planning to carry out extensive renovations on the ancient building. When Paula is introduced to Somerset she considers commissioning him to do the work on the castle, but before the restoration even begins Somerset finds himself falling in love with her.

It seems that Somerset has a rival for Paula’s love, however – Captain De Stancy, an impoverished descendant of the aristocratic family who once owned the castle. The Captain’s son, William Dare, has seen a chance to get his hands on some of the Power fortune and is determined that his father must marry Paula, no matter what.

Paula herself is the Laodicean of the title, described by the local minister as ‘lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot’, like the people of the church of Laodicea in the Bible. Throughout the novel she vacillates between Somerset and De Stancy, attracted to both of them in different ways and unwilling to fully commit to one or the other. This reflects the way she feels about society in general. As an industrialist’s daughter who has installed a telegraph wire and a new clock at Stancy Castle, Paula represents science and progress but at the same time she likes the idea of marrying into an aristocratic family and becoming a De Stancy. The clash between tradition and a new way of life is one of the recurring themes that comes up again and again in Hardy’s novels.

Although Paula irritated me with her inability to make up her mind and give either man a definite answer, I found Somerset’s infatuation with her quite annoying as well – I wanted him to notice Paula’s friend, Charlotte, who I think would have been a much better choice for him! Irritating characters aside, I found the story very entertaining, mainly because of the machinations of William Dare, who will stop at nothing to ensure Paula chooses his father. He uses forged telegrams, fake photographs and all sorts of other devious tricks to try to get what he wants and this makes the book more of a pageturner than I’d expected at first.

A Laodicean doesn’t really have the pastoral feel of most of Hardy’s other novels; in fact, most of the second half is set in Europe where the various sets of characters wander around the casinos of Monte Carlo, the spas of Baden and the busy streets and squares of Strasbourg. Things do become a bit far-fetched in this section, with lots of coincidental meetings, but I enjoyed reading something different from Hardy after so many books set in his Wessex countryside.

Although this hasn’t become one of my favourite Hardy novels, it’s still a very good one. I think I only have three more of them to read, as well as some of his short story collections. Have you read this one? What did you think?

This is book 36/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Efficiency Expert by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs is not an author I’ve ever considered reading; neither his Tarzan series nor his John Carter of Mars books have ever appealed and I hadn’t thought to look into what else he had written. The Efficiency Expert was suggested by one of my blog readers (thank you, Cheryl!) and it proved to be an excellent recommendation. The book was published in 1921 and seems to be one of only a few novels Burroughs wrote about ordinary people leading ordinary lives.

Jimmy Torrance is in his final year at university when he discovers that, having devoted his time to football, baseball and boxing instead of his studies, he is now in danger of failing his course. After working hard for the rest of the semester, he manages to get his diploma and ‘would have graduated at the head of his class had the list been turned upside down’. Unimpressed, his father orders him to come home before he can acquire any more debt, but Jimmy heads for Chicago instead, determined to get a good job and make his father proud of him.

Arriving in Chicago, Jimmy begins to look for work but soon finds that his college education counts for nothing without any experience. Forced to accept that nobody is going to employ him as an office boy, let alone the general manager’s position he had hoped for, he embarks on a series of increasingly embarrassing jobs including selling ladies’ hosiery in a department store and working as a waiter in a disreputable nightclub. Eventually, just as he reaches his lowest ebb, he is offered the position of ‘efficiency expert’ in a factory. Things seem to be looking up at last – but when he notices a discrepancy in the company’s accounts, he must decide whether to act and risk losing the only good job he’s ever had.

The first half of the book is entertaining and quite amusing as Jimmy stumbles from one disastrous job to another, while repeatedly encountering two young women who are mystified to find him serving at tables one day and driving a milk wagon the next. Jimmy is very naïve when he first arrives in Chicago, assuming that as a graduate he will be able to walk straight into any job, and his story will resonate with other young people who have had to work their way up from the bottom. I admired him for not asking his rich family and friends for help, which would have made things easier for him, but it’s this same sense of pride and integrity that results in him losing or leaving job after job.

Jimmy makes two new friends in Chicago – a pickpocket and safe-breaker known as the Lizard, and Little Eva, a prostitute he meets during his nightclub job – both of whom become better people due to their association with Jimmy. There’s a clear message here that decent people can be found in all walks of life and nobody is beyond redemption if they are only given a chance. The more privileged characters in the book (or some of them anyway) are not shown in such a good light! There’s a romantic element to the story too, with Jimmy having three possible love interests. The one he ends up with is neither the one I’d hoped for nor the one I’d expected, but at least that means the book isn’t completely predictable!

After Jimmy starts working as an efficiency expert, the story takes a different turn and the book becomes more of a thriller than the light comedy it had seemed at the beginning. It’s exciting for a while, but I thought it fell apart slightly at the end, with characters who had become inconvenient to the plot being too easily disposed of and loose ends tied up too neatly. Still, this book was fun to read and although I’m still not drawn to Tarzan or the science fiction novels, I’m pleased to have found an Edgar Rice Burroughs book that I did want to read and did enjoy.

If you have trouble finding a copy of this book, it’s available through Project Gutenberg.

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Wild Strawberries is the second book in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series and the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin. I had mixed feelings about the first book, High Rising, which I read nearly two years ago, but still wanted to try this one as I knew it was about a different set of characters and I thought I might get on better with it.

Published in 1934, this book introduces us to the Leslie family who live at Rushwater, their estate in West Barsetshire. The family consists of Henry Leslie and his absentminded wife, Lady Emily, their two sons John and David, and their daughter Agnes, who is married to Robert Graham and has three young children. There was also another son, the eldest, who died in the Great War, and his sixteen-year-old son Martin is now the heir to Rushwater and lives with his grandparents. As the novel opens, Robert Graham has gone to South America on business so Agnes and the children are spending the summer with the Leslies and so is a niece of Robert’s, Mary Preston.

This probably all sounds straightforward enough to you, but for some reason it took me ages to remember who was who and I wished I had drawn a family tree at the beginning! Anyway, once I started to settle into the story and get to know the characters, I found it quite enjoyable. The plot mainly revolves around Mary Preston and the question of which of the Leslie men she’ll marry – David or John. David, the younger brother, is charming but selfish and thoughtless (he promises to bring Mary the ‘wild strawberries’ of the title, then forgets them), while John is quiet, kind and considerate. I knew which of them I wanted her to choose but Thirkell keeps us in suspense until the end of the book!

There’s also a subplot involving a French family, the Boulles, who move into the vicarage for the summer. Keen for Martin to improve his French, the Leslies arrange for him to study with the Boulles’ children, but instead he becomes involved in a plot to restore the French monarchy. Meanwhile, the lovely but irritating Agnes spends the entire book fussing over her children, and Mr Holt, an acquaintance of Lady Emily’s who talks about nothing but gardens and his titled friends, keeps imposing himself on the family, oblivious to the fact that nobody wants him there.

I enjoyed this book once I got into it; although it doesn’t have much more substance than High Rising, I found it funnier and can see now why people praise Thirkell for her humour and wit. There are also touches of poignancy when the Leslies remember their lost son, killed in the war, and when John, who is a widower, grieves for Gay, his late wife. Some of the characters, such as Mr Holt and the Boulles, are clearly there for comedy purposes, but the family themselves, annoying as some of them were, felt realistic to me. I liked John and Martin, while I found Mary’s infatuation with David, who treats her carelessly, frustrating but all too believable. I should mention, though, that there are a few instances of racism, mainly in the first half of the book, that even though I’m used to it in books of this era, I found more jarring than I normally would.

I still haven’t been completely won over by Angela Thirkell but I liked this better than the first book and will probably continue with the series at some point. However, the third book is about Tony, the teenage boy from High Rising whom I found almost unbearable, so I don’t know what I’ll think of that one!

This is book 35/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

The Reckoning by Edith Wharton

The last book I read in 2022 was this slim collection of Edith Wharton short stories from Penguin’s Little Black Classics series. There are only two stories in the book and at just under 50 pages in total, they can be read very quickly. Despite being so short they are still substantial and satisfying and I enjoyed reading both of them.

The first story, Mrs Manstey’s View, was my favourite. It was actually Wharton’s first published story, appearing in the July 1891 edition of Scribner’s Magazine. It’s a simple but very moving story about a widow, Mrs Manstey, who lives alone on the third floor of a New York boarding house. As her health begins to fail and visits from friends and family become less frequent, Mrs Manstey’s sole pleasure in life is observing the view from her window:

Mrs. Manstey’s real friends were the denizens of the yards, the hyacinths, the magnolia, the green parrot, the maid who fed the cats, the doctor who studied late behind his mustard-colored curtains; and the confidant of her tenderer musings was the church-spire floating in the sunset.

When Mrs Black, the owner of the house next door, announces that she’s planning to build a large extension, Mrs Manstey is devastated. Her view is the only thing that keeps her going from one day to the next; if the view is lost, she feels there will be no point in living at all. The construction work must be stopped, but will Mrs Black be prepared to listen?

The title story, The Reckoning, is much longer, but I found it less powerful. First published in 1911, it deals with an unconventional marriage between Julia and Clement Westall, who have both agreed that marriage should be a voluntary arrangement between two people which either can break off at any time if they become unhappy. Julia has already put this theory into practice when divorcing her previous husband, but when she begins to suspect that Clement has his eye on another woman she starts to wonder whether it’s such a good idea after all.

The Reckoning is an interesting story and when you consider the stigma still attached to divorce in the early 20th century, the depiction of the Westalls’ marriage is very progressive for its time. However, I didn’t find it as appealing as Mrs Manstey’s View, with its theme of seeing the beauty in the small everyday things that others take for granted.

Apart from these two stories, I have only read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton so far. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books now that I’ve been reminded of how good her writing is.

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by ETA Hoffmann

Translated by Anthea Bell

Last year I read a book based on ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and although I wasn’t impressed, it left me longing to read something by Hoffmann himself. I wasn’t sure whether I really wanted to read The Nutcracker, so I decided to see whether one of his other books appealed to me more. That’s how I came across his 1819 novel, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, which sounded absolutely fascinating!

This very unusual novel could almost be described as two books in one. First of all, it’s the autobiography of Murr, an exceptionally intelligent tomcat who lives with the magician and alchemist Master Abraham. As a kitten he secretly teaches himself to read and write and proceeds to educate himself from his master’s library. Having had a series of adventures, he decides it’s time to write his memoirs…but his pages accidentally become mixed up with pages from a very different book:

When Murr the cat was writing his Life and Opinions, he found a printed book in his master’s study, tore it up without more ado, and, thinking no ill, used its pages partly to rest his work on, partly as blotting paper. These pages were left in the manuscript – and were inadvertently printed too, as if they were part of it.

This other book turns out to be a biography of Kapellmeister (conductor) Johannes Kreisler, a musical genius and friend of Master Abraham’s. Kreisler’s story unfolds alongside Murr’s, with a few pages of one followed by a few pages of the other, often breaking off mid-sentence as the end of the page is reached. Murr’s sections are marked with ‘M. Cont’ while Kreisler’s are headed ‘W.P.’ (Waste Paper). However, despite the Kreisler biography being printed on ‘waste paper’ and seemingly finding its way into Murr’s book by chance, the two stories are linked by the character of Master Abraham and, towards the end, there are hints of a much stronger connection between the two.

I found Murr’s story great fun to read. He has a strong and unique narrative voice, being vain, precocious and over-confident, but still with the qualities of the cat he is and always will be – he has an instinctive wariness of dogs and is easily tempted by a bowl of milk. His memoirs are told in chronological order, describing his kittenhood, his self-education, his romance with a beautiful female cat and his uneasy but close friendship with Ponto the poodle, who is less well-read but wiser in the ways of the world.

Kreisler, by contrast, is a very different personality – quiet, nervous and melancholic. His story becomes very convoluted, being intertwined with the lives of German royalty as he finds himself at the fictitious court of Prince Irinaeus of Sieghartshof and is drawn to two young women, Princess Hedwiga and her friend Julia Benzon. I found this much less interesting to read than Murr’s story, although if I’d had more knowledge of early 19th century German society and its intricacies it’s possible that I would have appreciated it more. At times I struggled to stay engaged with the Kreisler sections of the book and found myself looking forward to rejoining Murr. I’ve read that Hoffmann apparently based Kreisler on himself and used him as a character in several of his other books – and again, maybe if I’d know more about Hoffmann himself this would have had more significance for me.

My Penguin Classics edition of the novel contains two volumes of The Tomcat Murr which were published between 1819-1821. Sadly, Hoffmann died in 1822 and a planned third volume was never completed. That’s not really a problem, because the second volume does have quite a satisfactory ending, but there are still a lot of loose ends that aren’t tied up and it’s slightly frustrating not knowing how the story would have concluded! If you’re interested in reading the book, I can recommend this particular edition – the translation by Anthea Bell is very readable and there’s an excellent introduction by Jeremy Adler (best read after finishing the book), as well as notes and suggestions for further reading.

Have you read this or anything else by Hoffmann? I would love to hear your thoughts!

This is book 34/50 from my second Classics Club list and also counts towards this year’s German Lit Month hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life