Daphne du Maurier
First published 1969. Edition reviewed, Virago, 2003, ISBN 1-84408-042-0.
The House on the Strand is set in the area around Tywardreath (whose name translates as 'the house on the strand' and gives the book its title) on the south coast of Cornwall, in the 1960s and in the early fourteenth century. The 1960s characters are all fictional. The characters from the fourteenth century are historical figures from the region, known from records such as tax rolls.
In 1960s England, Dick Young is a failed publisher unhappily married to an American wife who is pressuring him to move to New York. Reluctant to leave England but with no clear alternative, Dick is at something of a loose end. When his boyhood friend Magnus lends him his house of Kilmarth in Cornwall for the summer on condition that he tries out a mysterious new drug, Dick readily agrees. The drug transports him back in time to the early years of the reign of Edward III in the fourteenth century. There he encounters Roger Kylmerth, his predecessor at Kilmarth house, and the bewitching Isolda Carminowe. Dick is drawn into their lives, loves, plots and rivalries, witnessing an attempted rebellion, adultery and murder. Soon the magnetic pull of the past begins to obsess him, threatening his real-life family, his health and even his life.
The narrative is recounted in first person by Dick, and the two plots are skilfully intertwined as he moves between the fourteenth century and his real life. Isolda's romantic story unfolds in a series of vignettes, always leaving Dick desperate to find out what happens next. His attempts to find out more about Isolda and her world from surviving records and ruins ensure that the thread of the fourteenth-century storyline also runs through the present-day parts of the novel. Tension in the contemporary story is maintained by Dick's growing realisation that his obsession with the past threatens to unravel his own real life, his fear that the drug might have toxic side effects, and the mystery when Magnus himself goes missing. An attractive feature of the novel is that both plots are resolved by the end. The reader is shown what happens to Roger and Isolda, and although Dick's fate is not spelled out the reader isn't left in much doubt.
As always with a Daphne du Maurier novel, the descriptions of the Cornish landscape are marvellous. The area around Tywardreath is brought vividly to life, both in the 1960s and in the fourteenth century. Details of fourteenth-century life in the vanished priory at Tywardreath, in the manor houses of the local aristocracy and in Roger's simple farm at Kilmarth, are skilfully and convincingly drawn. A further dimension is added by the time-travel element in the novel, as the landscape has changed dramatically between Isolda's time and Dick's own time. Dick's bewilderment at finding the familiar valley fields of his own day replaced by estuaries and tidal creeks in the fourteenth century, his struggle to locate the manor houses of Isolda's world when all that remains is a few hummocks in a field or an ancient barn in a farmyard, and the sinister intrusion of the modern railway, all reinforce his sense of dislocation and add to the atmosphere of suspense.
Dick is not the most appealing of narrators. He comes over as rather selfish and irresolute, eager to shirk his real-life responsibilities and escape into a vanished private world. In the fourteenth century he is unable to touch or interact with any of the characters - however passionately they have engaged his feelings - and so he is condemned to the role of passive observer. In his real life, his obsession with the past makes him increasingly irritable, unreliable and erratic. His wife Vita, whom we see only through Dick's eyes, is drawn as shrewish and interfering because this is how Dick sees her, but I can sympathise with her increasing irritation and anxiety. The characters of the fourteenth century world are sketched in, revealing themselves only through their actions and words as observed by Dick. I often dislike the claustrophobic effect of a first-person narrative, especially if I don't warm to the narrator, but in The House on the Strand the unusual narrative structure was something of a saving grace. Dick's passivity makes him fade into the background in the fourteenth-century narrative, an ideal observer through whom the reader can watch the people of Isolda's world.
My usual problem with time-travel or time-slip novels is that I get interested in one storyline, usually the historical one, at the expense of the other. The House on the Strand was no exception, and I found Isolda's story far more gripping than Dick's. At times it was an irritation to be taken back to the 1960s - which I suspect was part of the point, as it effectively conveys Dick's own resentment at being forced back to his real life. I found the idea of drug-induced time-travel unconvincing to say the least, and the attempts to justify it with vague fluff about brain chemistry made it worse. Give me a magic ring, a wardrobe, an insistent ghost or no explanation at all, any time. Perhaps it sounded more plausible in 1969 when the book was written.
For me, The House on the Strand stands out not as a time-travel story
or even a historical, but as a superb evocation of the writing process. Dick's
glimpses into a vanished world remind me of the process of writing a historical
novel (though, fortunately, most of us rely on our imaginations without the
need for toxic drugs or a basement full of pickled monkeys). The sense of
having entered a different world and watched its inhabitants. The jolt when
summoned back to the real world, and the tendency to drift between the two,
to the occasional consternation of family and friends. Piecing scenes together
into a story, using the limited information in place names and surviving records,
and trying to recreate a vanished landscape in the mind's eye - what was this
field like before the railway was built? where exactly was the priory? where
did the coast and rivers run? All this is very recognisable, and is what draws
me back to the novel time and again.