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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 experiencing paralysis.
'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 Kilmarth.
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 Kilmarth.
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 God..."' (p.296)
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.