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The House on the Strand

Daphne Du Maurier

  The House on the Strand

  Daphne du Maurier

  Foreword by Celia Brayfield

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  Table of Contents


  Copyright Page

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  I wish to thank Miss Hawkridge, Senior Assistant Archivist of the County Record Office, Truro; Mr. H. L. Douch, MA, Curator of the County Museum, Truro; Mr. R. Blewett, MA, of St. Day; Mrs. St. George Saunders; and the Public Record Office, to all of whom I am indebted for information and original documents. Most especially I should like to express my gratitude to Mr. J. R. Thomas of the Tywardreath Old Cornwall Society, whose unfailing kindness and generosity in lending me his own notes on the history of the Manor and Priory of Tywardreath first awakened my interest, and set me on the road to blending fact and fiction in this tale of the House on the Strand.

  Daphne du Maurier

  for my predecessors at Kilmarth


  Part of Twyardreath parish. When Roger Kylmerth lived, the shaded area was estuary.


  The simple and instant response to The House on the Strand is that it is a novel revisiting the themes expected of Daphne du Maurier, all about Cornwall, set in a mysterious mansion, and featuring romantic episodes in the region's history. Ever since the publication Jamaica Inn in 1936, Rebecca in 1938 and Frenchman's Creek in 1941, du Maurier has occupied this territory in the public imagination.

  The huge commercial success of these early novels, written in her late twenties and early thirties, overshadowed the rest of du Maurier's career and, for the incurious reader, obscures the achievements of her maturity. While remaining a writer rooted in a landscape, she began The House on the Strand in 1967, at the age of sixty, when her interest had moved on to the complexities of human identity and the possibilities of paranormal experience.

  Certainly, there is a house of secrets, loaned to Dick, the narrator, by his charismatic friend Magnus, ostensibly for a family holiday but in reality as a strategy to tempt Dick to take the psychedelic drug which is the focus of Magnus's research. The drug produced hallucinations of time travel, taking Dick back to the fourteenth century and immersing him in a conspiracy that threatened a beautiful young noblewoman, Isolda.

  The real material of The House on the Strand is the relationship between its narrator, Dick and his brilliant friend from student days, Magnus. Their attachment was probably unique to middle-class England in the twentieth century, the kind of relationship which Evelyn Waugh portrayed more floridly in Brideshead Revisited, an attachment that was the product of emotional denial, single-sex boarding schools and a paralyzing awareness of social class.

  Magnus is clearly the dominant partner, manipulative, amoral, both socially and intellectually superior to the weak-willed Dick, who is described as "highly suggestible." Dick is a failing publisher, Magnus is a leading research scientist. Magnus is single; relatively late in life, Dick has married Vita, an American with two sons from an earlier relationship.

  These names have symbolic meanings: in Latin, still a common currency in education at that time, Magnus means "great" and Vita means "life." In American slang, Dick has three meanings--a detective, a penis, or an irritatingly stupid person. A sophisticated woman, who had traveled in the U.S. and made close and rather racy American friends, du Maurier would have been well aware of these implications and it is possible that she chose her characters' names as a private aside to her more worldly readers.

  The tensions in this marriage, maintained with a grudging sense of obligation rather than any evident love or joy, frequently swell into outright alienation, encouraged by Magnus. "Three years of marriage and the dishwasher means more to your conjugal life than the double bed," he scoffs. "I warned you it wouldn't last."

  Destructive as the relationship with Magnus is, its comfort is addictive and the trips into the past become an extension of the process. Dick escapes with growing compulsion to the simpler, more vivid and less challenging other world. His real life is one of stunted and bitter feelings, most convincingly evoked, as is the honest bewilderment of his wife. Dick dismisses her as a "hot-house plant" but Vita behaves more like a corn-fed nurturer coming to the end of her patience. At forty years of age, Dick wavers between a relapse into his adolescent bond with Magnus and the supreme effort of growing up into a husband and father.

  No strong sexual inclination draws him in either direction. This is a man who professes mostly cerebral pleasures, who would rather pore over an old map than caress a young body. There is subtle but cruel comedy in the scene in which Vita hints to her husband that it's bedtime and she's in the mood for love, while he, oblivious, peruses his manuscripts. At times this unexamined lack of libido provokes a vinegary misogyny. "The trouble was, with women, they had one-track minds, and to their narrow view everything male, be it man, dog, fish or slug, pursued but a single course, and that the dreary road to copulation. I sometimes wondered if they ever thought of anything else."

  The liaison between the two men has a strong sexual element and Dick often seems to protest his heterosexuality too much, as when he describes their meeting at Cambridge, at the Christmas carol service at King's College Chapel. "We had not gone for the carols, but to stare at one particular choir boy with a golden aureole of hair," he remembers, immediately feeling the need to add "not that my tastes inclined to choir boys."

  Allusions to gay sex reoccur throughout the text, in modern and medieval scenes; monks who occupied the priory which once stood on the site of the house are discovered in sadistic horseplay with a half-naked boy, and when Dick and Magnus compare their trips, Dick decides: "I think we found what we deserved. I got His Grace the Bishop and the County, awaking in me all the forgotten snob appeal of Stonyhurst, and you got the sexy deviations you have denied yourself for thirty years." To which Magnus replies, "How you do know I've denied them?" The implicit suggestion is that Magnus, finding Dick sexually evasive, is trying to possess him more completely through their shared drug experience.

  The novel was written at the height of the Sixties drug culture, begun just before the famous Summer of Love in 1967 and published in the year of the historic pop festival at Woodstock. Psychedelic drugs, especially LSD, were a mainstream recreation for the young and an essential influence in art in every medium.

  Du Maurier, a grandmother who despised fashion and lived in isolation in Cornwall, was in no sense part of this scene but was clearly aware of the interest in mind-expanding drugs which had already been current in some intellectual circles for more than a decade. Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, describing his experiences with mescaline, came out in 1954.

  It was widely recognized that psychedelics are not chemically addictive, and the text suggests a dependence that is psychological rather than physical, though Dick's struggle to resist temptation is vividly evoked. With a father, husband and son-in-law who had all struggled to control their drinking, du Maurier had a close acquaintance with the addictive personality.

  She portrays Dick's increasing obsession with time travel as a response to a stressful life-passage, a time when his own failure is about to deliver his whole life into the hands of his well-connected wife. R
ather than confront this fate, he prefers to live through the idealized historical figures of Roger, his loyal and stalwart alter ego, and Isolda, the woman in jeopardy.

  In the book's final scenes the local doctor, (not the most plausible figure in the landscape) suggests to Dick that the process has been beneficial. "The world we carry inside us produces answers, sometimes. A way of escape. A flight from reality. You didn't want to live either in London or in New York. The fourteenth century made an exciting, if somewhat gruesome, antidote to both. The trouble is that day-dreams, like hallucinogenic drugs, become addictive; the more we indulge, the deeper we plunge, and then... we end in the loony bin."

  His reasoned analysis falls on hostile ears. Dick says, "I had the impression that everything he said was leading up to... some practical proposition that I must take a grip on myself, get a job, sit in an office, sleep with Vita, breed daughters and look forward contentedly to middle-age, when I might grow cacti in a greenhouse."

  Magnus names two drugs comparable to his concoction--teonanacatl and ololuiqui, and dismisses them, saying "these only push the brain around in different directions--quite chaotic." Both of these are naturally occurring hallucinogens derived from Central American plants. Teonanacatl is the Aztecs' name for their sacred mushroom, from which psilocybin is derived, while ololuiqui is extracted from the seeds of the morning glory, Ipomea, and is chemically close to the man-made LSD.

  The physical effects of the compound Magnus is investigating--loss of the sense of touch, enhanced sight and the sense of hyper-reality at first, with nausea and vertigo on coming down--are realistic. Where the scenario moves firmly into fantasy, however, is in the description of the drug's action as a chemical time machine, producing a narrative hallucination that continues through each trip, and taking both men to the same time, place and cast of characters.

  The inspiration for The House on the Strand came from the discovery of some glass jars containing biological specimens in the basement of Kilmarth, the house in which du Maurier lived from 1969 until the end of her life. She did not move there willingly.

  The great love of her life was Menabilly, the Manderley of Rebecca, into which she moved at the end of 1943. Much as she adored Menabilly, she did not own it. In 1960 she believed that she had negotiated a long extension of the lease, but the owner never signed the document and after his death his heir, a young World War II veteran, reclaimed Menabilly, to her great grief and distress, and proposed that she take Kilmarth, the dower house, instead.

  This she did only after long and bitter negotiation which she compared at one point to the war in Vietnam. Kilmarth was smaller and lighter than Menabilly, with a magnificent view across the bay of St. Austell, but she hated the enforced change and feared that it would affect her writing. Even before she moved, however, the new house began to exert its own fascination. She researched its history and obtained the old maps that she has Dick decipher with such pleasure.

  At the age of sixty and two years a widow, du Maurier was convinced that her popularity had waned and was afraid that her well of inspiration would run dry. She was anxious about money, despite reassurances from her publisher that Rebecca was still selling 2,000 hardback copies a year. Once she began The House on the Strand, however, the writing took hold of her and she recaptured the feeling of exhilaration that had powered her earlier work. "I got so hooked on the story I actually woke up one day with nausea and dizziness," she recorded.

  The device of scientific research was one she had used only a few months earlier, in a short story titled "The Breakthrough," which was eventually published in a collection of paranormal and sci-fi stories that included her last great popular success, "Don't Look Now." The House on the Strand also returns to many of the elements in The Scapegoat, her breakthrough novel of 1957, which is narrated by a man on the verge of suicide who swaps his life with that of a double. Both novels exercise du Maurier's sense of the duality of human nature. From the start of her writing career, she created male central characters and achieved a male voice and point of view with complete credibility. The hero of her second novel is also named Dick. These are the voices of her own second self, an identity of which she was aware from her teens.

  Du Maurier was born at a time when women did not have the vote, and Victorian beliefs about gender roles were still current. The official and conventional concepts of womanhood were so far from reality as to deny anyone female full human status. Many thoughtful women, who recognized their own instincts to be active, independent or courageous, concluded that their character must include some aberrant masculine strand.

  As a child, Du Maurier dressed and behaved like the son her father had wanted. As a teenager she consciously suppressed her masculine side, but as an adult she formed close relationships with both men and women. Once she wrote to a woman with whom she had fallen in love, asking her to imagine "D du M as a little girl... growing up with a boy's mind and a boy's heart. And then the boy realized he had to grow up and not be a boy any longer, so he turned into a girl, and not an unattractive one at that, and the boy was locked in a box forever.

  "D du M wrote her books, and had young men, and later a husband, and children, and a lover, and... when she found Menabilly and lived in it alone, she opened up the box sometimes and let the phantom, who was neither girl nor boy but disembodied spirit, dance in the evening when there was no one to see."

  The House on the Strand is a delicate but satisfying exploration of these tensions, wrapped in a double narrative of masterly devising. Sadly, it was to be du Maurier's last successful novel. She followed it with a comedy, which was not well received, and she did not find the inspiration for another full-length work of fiction. Short stories, memoirs and biographies followed, but the phantom she kept in a box never again took hold of her imagination.

  Celia Brayfield



  The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green color of the land. There was no softness anywhere. The distant hills did not blend into the sky but stood out like rocks, so close that I could almost touch them, their proximity giving me that shock of surprise and wonder which a child feels looking for the first time through a telescope. Nearer to me, too, each object had the same hard quality, the very grass turning to single blades, springing from a younger, harsher soil than the soil I knew.

  I had expected--if I expected anything--a transformation of another kind: a tranquil sense of well-being, the blurred intoxication of a dream, with everything about me misty, ill-defined; not this tremendous impact, a reality more vivid than anything hitherto experienced, sleeping or awake. Now every impression was heightened, every part of me singularly aware: eyesight, hearing, sense of smell, all had been in some way sharpened.

  All but the sense of touch: I could not feel the ground beneath my feet. Magnus had warned me of this. He had told me, "You won't be aware of your body coming into contact with inanimate objects. You will walk, stand, sit, brush against them, but will feel nothing. Don't worry. The very fact that you can move without sensation is half the wonder."

  This, of course, I had taken as a joke, one of the many bribes to goad me to experiment. Now he was proved right. I started to go forward, and the sensation was exhilarating, for I seemed to move without effort, feeling no contact with the ground.

  I was walking downhill towards the sea, across those fields of sharp-edged silver grass that glistened under the sun, for the sky--dull, a moment ago, to my ordinary eyes--was now cloudless, a blazing ecstatic blue. I remembered that the tide had been out, the stretches of flat sand exposed, the row of bathing-huts, lined like dentures in an open mouth, forming a solid background to the golden expanse. Now they had gone, and with them the rows of houses fronting the road, the docks, all of Par--chimneys, rooftops, buildings--and the sprawling tentacles of St. Austell enveloping the countryside beyond the bay. There was nothing left but grass and scrub, and the high distant hills that seemed so near; while before me the s
ea rolled into the bay, covering the whole stretch of sand as if a tidal wave had swept over the land, swallowing it in one rapacious draft. To the northwest, the cliffs came down to meet the sea, which, narrowing gradually, formed a wide estuary, the waters sweeping inward, following the curve of the land and so vanishing out of sight.

  When I came to the edge of the cliff and looked beneath me, where the road should be, the inn, the cafe, the almshouses at the base of Polmear hill, I realized that the sea swept inland here as well, forming a creek that cut to the east, into the valley. Road and houses had gone, leaving only a dip between the land which rose on either side of the creek. Here the channel ran narrowly between banks of mud and sand, so that at low tide the water would surely seep away, leaving a marshy track that could be forded, if not on foot, at least by a horseman. I descended the hill and stood beside the creek, trying to pinpoint in my mind the exact course of the road I knew, but already the old sense of orientation had gone: there was nothing to serve as guide except the ground itself, the valley and the hills.

  The waters of the narrow channel rippled swift and blue over the sand, leaving on either side a frothy scum. Bubbles formed, expanded and vanished, and all the ordinary timeless waste came drifting with the tide, tresses of dark seaweed, feathers, twigs, the aftermath of some autumnal gale. I knew, in my own time, it was high summer, however dull and overcast the day, but all about me now was the clearer light of approaching winter, surely an early afternoon when the bright sun, already flaming in the west, would turn the sky dark crimson before the night clouds came.

  The first live things swam into vision, gulls following the tide, small waders skimming the surface of the stream, while high on the opposite hill, sharply defined against the skyline, a team of oxen plowed their steady course. I closed my eyes, then opened them again. The team had vanished behind the rise of the field they worked, but the cloud of gulls, screaming in their wake, told me they had been a living presence, no figment of a dream.