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.