Review of The House on the Strand - Laura Varnam
Daphne du Maurier published The House on the Strand
in 1969. She had been 'brewing' the story when preparing to move from
her beloved Menabilly to the dower house on the estate, Kilmarth, after
Philip Rashleigh had decided not to renew her lease. In October 1967
Daphne wrote to Oriel Malet about Kilmarth: 'in time I might even brew a
book about it, as an old person in Tywardreath is looking up records,
and it does date back to 1329 (centuries older than Mena), and he is
going to find out who lived there' (Letters from Menabilly, p.211). When
preparing the house to move in, Daphne discovered that a recent tenant
had been a Professor Singer and she found bottles containing animal
embryos in the basement. These details sparked her imagination and
contributed to her creation of the character Professor Magnus Lane who
features in the modern-day narrative of the novel. Daphne continued her
investigations into the medieval past of Kilmarth and the manor of
Tywardreath and became fascinated by the fourteenth century priory which
used to exist on the site. She then used the plot-device of a drug
which could transport the subject directly to the past as the link
between medieval and present-day Tywardreath. Daphne dedicated the novel
to 'my predecessors at Kilmarth'.
In The House on the Strand,
protagonist Dick Young agrees to test out a drug which his old
university friend, Magnus, has developed. Staying in Magnus's family
home, Kilmarth, Dick takes the drug and is transported back in time to
the fourteenth-century where he shadows his guide, Roger Kylmerth, and
is immersed in a world of intrigue, adultery, and murder. Increasingly
frustrated with his modern day existence, Dick escapes into this secret
other world, fascinated by the beautiful Isolda Carminowe, the
adventurer Sir Otto Bodrugan, and his malevolent sister Joanna. But
Dick's addiction to his 'trips' to the fourteenth-century soon becomes a
danger to himself and those around him as by the end of the novel the
professor is dead, Dick has tried to strangle his wife and he is
'The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green colour of the land'. (p.1)
The novel opens with Dick's first trip to
the fourteenth century when he follows Roger Kylmerth to the priory.
Magnus has warned Dick not to attempt to touch any of the figures he
encounters in the past as the 'link' will be broken and when Dick
accidentally gets too close to Roger, he returns to the present with a
jolt and discovers that he has put his hand through a window at
Dick reports his experiences to Magnus
who confirms that he too was transported to medieval Tywardreath, guided
by the mysterious Roger. Determined to verify whether the similarity of
their experiences was somehow triggered by telepathy, Dick decides to
take his second trip outside of Kilmarth and away from Magnus's
laboratory. Sitting in Tywardreath churchyard, Dick's trip introduces
him to the main characters of the fourteenth-century narrative: the
Champernownes (Sir Henry, his wife Joanna, and her brother Sir Otto
Bodrugan) and the Carminowes (Sir John, his brother Oliver and his wife
Isolda). The lady Isolda in particular catches Dick's attention; quoting
Shakespeare he describes her as a 'lass unparalleled'.
Wondering whether time could be 'all-dimensional - yesterday, today, tomorrow running concurrently in ceaseless repetition'
(p.42), Dick visits the local library and to his astonishment discovers
historical records which confirm the existence of the Champernowne and
Carminowe families. Enthralled by his discoveries, Dick attempts to
stall the arrival of his wife Vita and her children, determined to take
the drug again and find out more.
On his third trip, Dick visits the
death-bed of Sir Henry Champernowne and overhears Isolda's suspicions of
foul play but on his return, he begins to confuse the world of the drug
and his present day reality.
'I realised with a sudden wave of
apprehension, just as though something were being vomited from my brain
as well as my stomach, that I had been on the point of confusing the
present with the past. The bowls had been given to Roger's brother, not
to me' (p.81)
Armed with historical records and maps,
Dick begins to explore present-day Tywardreath and to map the medieval
past onto modern landmarks as he explores the countryside around
For his next trip, Dick unaccountably has
to take a higher dose of the drug to effect the transition. He hears of
a possible rebellion against the crown, led by Sir Otto Bodrugan, but
more interestingly, he begins to suspect the relationship between Sir
Otto and the lady Isolda.
When he arrives back at Kilmarth, wet and
muddy after tramping around the Tywardreath countryside during his
trip, Dick discovers that Vita and her boys have arrived. Dick is
impatient and disinterested, irritated that his trips would be curtailed
and secretive about the 'work' he is doing for Magnus. Escaping to take
the drug whenever he can and increasingly obsessed with his secret
world, when Vita's friends Bill and Diana visit Kilmarth, Dick returns
from a night-time trip only to accidentally tell Bill about the murder
of Sir Otto Bodrugan by Sir Oliver Carminowe's men. Dick's confusion
between past and present deepens and as well as mental effects, the drug
begins to leave physical signs on Dick - he has a bloodshot eye and is
looking tired and drawn.
Due to visit and take a trip with Dick,
Magnus sets off from London on the train to Cornwall. When he fails to
arrive, Dick finally realises that Magnus has left the train at Par in
order to take a trip himself. While immersed in the past, however,
Magnus inadvertently steps onto the train tracks and is killed.
Devastated by the loss of his friend and desperate to conceal their
experiments, Dick's behaviour becomes increasingly suspicious and
erratic. In order to understand why Magnus walked onto the train tracks
Dick takes another trip and discovers that Magnus had held out his hand
to help Isolda Carminowe climb through the snow with Roger as she fled
her home where her husband was holding her prisoner. Dick 'wakes' from
the trip only to find himself within inches of a passing freight train.
The side effects of the drug begin to get
worse. Dick drops his razor while shaving, he cannot hold a coffee cup
as his hands shake and his figures go numb, and then suddenly he goes
back into the past without the aid of the drug. Discovering Isolda
installed at Kilmarth, the widowed Joanna, whose machinations had led to
the death of her husband, pays a visit. Joanna, aware of her adultery
with Sir Otto, insults Isolda. This enrages both Roger and Dick, who
stretches out his hands to Joanna's neck and begins to strangle her.
Violently awoken to the present day by screaming Dick discovers that his
hands are actually around his wife's throat.
'"Damn you," I shouted, "damn you...
damn you..." and the screaming was all around me, and above as well. I
loosened my grip and looked up, and the boys were crouching there on the
landing at the top of the back stairs, and Vita had fallen against the
banister beside me, and was staring at me, white-faced, terrified, her
hands to her throat. "Oh, my God!" I said. "Vita... darling... Oh, my
A local doctor, who earlier in the novel
gave Dick a lift home after one of his trips had left him wandering
around in the countryside, is called and Dick is sedated. He gradually
tells the doctor the whole story and is encouraged to take a holiday
away from Kilmarth with his wife. Dick agrees to leave for Ireland but
when he gets to the airport, he sneaks away and returns to Tywardreath
to take the final remaining dose of the drug. Dr Powell suspected as
much and he follows Dick as he takes his final trip and discovers that
Roger is dying, burdening by the guilt that he slipped Isolda, for whom
he had an unrequited passion, some poisonous herbs when she was dying of
infection. Dick wakes up and tells the doctor that it is over but the
doctor's scientific analysis of the drug reveals that its side effects
include paralysis. The telephone rings and as Dick goes to answer it, 'a
silly thing happened':
'I couldn't hold it properly; my
fingers and the palm of my hand went numb, and it slipped out of my
grasp and crashed to the floor'. (p.329)
The House on the Strand is
influenced by writers as diverse as Robert Louis Stevenson, Dante, and
the psychologist Carl Jung. Like Stevenson's Dr Jekyll, after numerous
experiments with the drug Dick too finds himself tripping back into his
secret world without the prompt of the drug. Roger is Dick's 'alter ego'
(p.307), his Mr Hyde, under whose influence his character changes and
his behaviour becomes erratic, wild, and even violent. Roger is Dick's
guide through the secret world just as Virgil led Dante through the
inferno in The Divine Comedy. Magnus himself puzzles on the similarity,
commenting 'what I don't yet know is why he plays Virgil to our Dante in this particular inferno, but he does, there's no escaping him'
(p.16). The guide figure places the novel in the tradition of medieval
dream vision poetry such as The Divine Comedy or Chaucer's Book of the
Duchess; the guide is a point of entry into the dream world, a navigator
with whom the narrator and reader can identify.
'I had walked about that other world with a dreamer's freedom but with a waking man's perception' (p.188)
The notion of history being imprinted on the landscape is a familiar du Maurier theme. In The House on the Strand
this theme was influenced by du Maurier's readings of the psychologist
Carl Jung and his notion of the 'collective unconscious', a kind of
ancestral memory which is embedded in every human being, a history which
mankind shares as a species. Magnus writes to Dick about this concept
calling it the 'memory-box': 'everything we have done from infancy
onwards, is reproducible, returnable, for want of a better term, in
these same cells, the exact contents of which depends upon our
hereditary make-up, the legacy of parents, grandparents, remoter
ancestors back to primeval times' (p.221). The fourteenth-century
world which Dick and Magnus experience when they take the drug, however,
is also backed up by historical fact. A number of historical documents
appear in the novel, testifying to the veracity of the scenes which Dick
has witnessed while on his trips to the Middle Ages.
Obsession, addiction, scientific experiment, and secret worlds are frequent to be found in du Maurier's fiction. In The Scapegoat
when the protagonist John finds himself mistaken for his doppelganger,
he becomes fascinated with the life of his double and increasingly
curious about the mysterious chateau in which he finds himself mistaken
for the master. Scientific or psychological experiments which cause the
world to be seen anew are familiar from short stories such as The Blue Lenses and Don't Look Now. Powerful, mesmerising women such as Isolda Carminowe are a constant fixture in du Maurier's work, from Rebecca to My Cousin Rachel. When Daphne was writing the novel she even commented that 'I got so hooked on the story I actually woke up one day with nausea and dizziness' (Forster, p.364).
The House on the Strand (Gollancz 1969, Doubleday 1969).
The House on the Strand is currently in print, published by Virago (2003). Page references throughout the review are taken from this edition.
Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster (Chatto & Windus 1993) (Published in the US as Daphne du Maurier - The Secret World of the Renowned Storyteller (Doubleday 1993)).
Currently available in paperback, published by Arrow Books (2007). The
page reference in this review is taken from this edition.
© L. Varnam 2009.