The plot and writing style that Daphne used for this book were different again from her first two novels and tells the life story of a French Jewish man called Julius Levy. It is a chilling story of a fascinating but intrinsically evil man who achieves wealth and status by using and discarding everyone in his path. Daphne researched the history of the 1870 war between France and Prussia and the siege of Paris for the early chapters of the book, but the main relationship between Julius and his daughter was drawn from Daphne's own relationship with her father.
The story begins with a very young Julius staring up at the sky and trying to 'reach for the clouds'. During his early childhood Julius lives in Puteaux on the banks of the Seine with his parents and grandparents. His mother and grandmother are not very important to him but Julius has a deep love for Paul, his father. Paul is a quiet Jewish man from Algeria, a dreamer who plays the flute with great skill. In temperament Julius is more like his grandfather who he calls Grandpere. Grandpere is a strong, powerful Frenchman and he and Julius spend a lot of time in one another's company.
One day soon after the beginning of the Franco-Prussian war Julius and Grandpere are out together when Grandpere is suddenly shot dead by Prussian soldiers. Julius manages to get back home and warn his family that the invasion of Paris has begun. The family leave Puteaux, fleeing from the Prussian soldiers. On the way into Paris Julius kills his little cat Mimitte by putting a stone into a handkerchief, tying it around the cat's neck and throwing her into the river because he does not want anyone else to have her.
The family move into safer quarters in Paris where they share accommodation with an old woman and her son, Jacques. One day Julius sees his mother in bed with Jacques. Julius tells his father who is so enraged that he kills his wife in front of Julius. Julius understands why his father has killed his mother. It was like the way he felt about his cat, he did not want anyone else to have her.
Paul and Julius run away, eventually finding safety in Paul's home country of Algeria. Paul's health has deteriorated badly and they are given refuge in a synagogue where the Rabbin nurses Paul until he dies. Now that Julius is an orphan he is given free board and lodging as a 'child of the Temple' and lives under the watchful eye of the Rabbin. Julius is fairly happy but he prefers the excitement of life outside in the marketplace where he sells goods and swindles people and becomes involved with a young girl called Elsa.
Julius becomes bored with Algeria so he persuades a local English pastor to teach him English. When Julius feels he knows enough to get by he boards a ship for England, he is just nineteen years old. Elsa is also on the ship and reluctantly Julius agrees to take her with him to London where they set up home together.
Julius gets a job at a baker's called 'Grundy's' and he works really hard for three years until he creates a situation where he is able to buy out the owner. Elsa is continually ill but hides it from Julius because he is intolerant of weakness or anything that distracts him from his aim, which is to expand the bakery into a café and gradually build up a chain of cafés.
By using cheap labour and by working them and Elsa from morning till night he begins to achieve his aim and the chain of cafés starts to grow, but the toll on Elsa is too great and she gets increasingly weak and ill until she starts to cough up blood. The doctor tells Julius the level of treatment that Elsa will need if there is to be any hope of improving her health but the money is earmarked for a prestigious site in the Strand so although Julius hires a nurse he will not pay for the specialist medical help that Elsa needs and within three months she has haemorrhaged and died. Julius carries on with bigger plans to own a chain of restaurants right across England.
As Julius' chain of restaurants become more and more successful he moves into a world of rich Jewish families and aristocrats. At this time he meets and marries Rachel, a beautiful and clever young woman but it is clearly a marriage for social status not love. Rachel and Julius have a daughter and call her Gabriel. Julius enjoys the power he feels at possessing a wife and child but he is becoming an ever more unpleasant character and spends all his time involved in business deals, his social life and with mistresses. He virtually ignores Gabriel during the time that she is growing up.
When Julius reaches fifty he becomes bored and restless. One day he hears Gabriel playing his fathers flute and he stops and really looks at his daughter for the first time. He becomes obsessed with her, spoiling and indulging her, while Rachel, excluded from their relationship, looks on. Julius and Gabriel spend the next three years almost constantly in each other's company at the races, sailing, hunting and spending money. Meanwhile Rachel is diagnosed with cancer and commits suicide to escape the torment that her life has become. Julius and Gabriel continue their life together happy in each other's company.
The First World War breaks out and during the war Julius and Gabriel see less of each other because they are both involved with war work. Julius does very well selling produce to the military and he becomes even richer. After the war Julius becomes involved in business ventures with several newspapers and he enters politics but Gabriel becomes his main obsession once again.
Julius spies on Gabriel and questions her about the young men she is seeing and what they do when they are out with her. He is jealous of anyone who might take Gabriel's love away from him. The situation reaches crisis point and Julius arranges a trip away for them both on a boat. During the trip Gabriel is out swimming and Julius follows her into the water and strangles her with his own handkerchief. It is the situation of the little cat all over again; if he cannot have her then no one else can either. Julius is never even suspected of Gabriel's murder, it is just accepted that she drowned.
Julius returns to Paris where he lives out the last years of his life. He becomes fat and reclusive and eventually he has a stroke. The story ends as it began with a very old Julius starring up at the sky and trying to 'reach for the clouds'.
Julius is a powerful but ugly story and close to being anti-Semitic. It was not particularly well received when it was published in 1933. The choice of a Jewish central character is not totally surprising. Throughout literature there are many complex and interesting Jews, often shown in an unfavourable light. The closest Jewish character to Daphne du Maurier would have been Svengali, from her grandfather George du Maurier's novel Trilby. Svengali possesses and controls Trilby in the same way that Julius possesses and controls the people in his life, particularly his daughter Gabriel.
Daphne du Maurier had a very close and loving relationship with her father, Gerald. They spent a lot of time in each other's company and were devoted to one another. After Gerald died Daphne wrote a very explicit biography of her father that makes it clear how well she knew and understood him. However, Daphne du Maurier's autobiography, Growing Pains - the Shaping of a Writer and indeed her sister Angela's autobiography, It's Only the Sister both describe scenes of their fathers jealousy when they went out with young men. He questioned them on what they did and accused them of sleeping with men even if the suggestion was ridiculous. Their father-daughter relationship, the jealousy and irrational questions are all used in the relationship between Julius and Gabriel.
Julius by Daphne du Maurier (Heinemann 1933, Doubleday 1933)
Gerald - A Portrait by Daphne du Maurier (Gollancz 1934, Doubleday 1935)
Growing Pains - the Shaping of a Writer by Daphne du Maurier (Gollancz 1977)
(Published in the US as Myself When Young - the Shaping of a Writer, Doubleday 1977)
It's Only the Sister by Angela du Maurier (Peter Davies 1951)
Trilby by George du Maurier (Harpers, London and New York 1894)
Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster (Chatto & Windus 1993)
(Published in the US as Daphne du Maurier - The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller (Doubleday 1993))
Daphne du Maurier Writing, Identity and the Gothic Imagination by Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik (Macmillan 1998)
Daphne du Maurier by Richard Kelly (Twayne 1987)
© A. Willmore 2003.