Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Daphne Du Maurier Reading Week: The Glass-Blowers

I've been a big fan of Daphne du Maurier since I was thirteen and my mother let me stay up late with her to watch an adaptation of Rebecca on Masterpiece. I was instantly hooked, but it wasn't until many years later that I realized how many other books du Maurier had written. When I read that Ali from Heavenali was hosting a Daphne du Maurier reading week I knew I'd be participating -- but which book? 

As it happened, I had planned a long weekend in Paris that coincided, so The Glass-Blowers seemed like the perfect choice. Loosely based on du Maurier's own ancestors, it's a historical novel about the French revolution as experienced by a the Bussons, a family of glassblowers.

Published in 1963, the story begins with a prologue, as an elderly woman recounts meeting a long-lost relative who knows nothing about his family of French glassblowers. (I read this as an e-book and accidentally skipped the prologue, but I think I prefer it that way as there were some minor spoilers). She then writes the family history, beginning  in 1741 with the marriage of her mother, Magdaleine, to Matharin Busson, a master glassblower from Chenu a village south of Le Mans. After their marriage, Madame Busson quickly steps in to help with the business, from keeping accounts to managing domestic affairs of the workers and their families, in addition to raising five children of her own. The story is told in the first person by Sophie, the fourth child and eldest daughter, but most of novel is the history of the three eldest:  sons Robert, Pierre, and Michel, who all train to be glassblowers but end up taking very different paths: Robert is a speculator, gambler and royalist; Pierre is enlightened and and a follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; the youngest, Michel, is a republican.

The Glass-Blowers is fairly short for a historical novel, less than 400 pages, but du Maurier essentially tries to pack in most of the entire French Revolution -- the storming of the Bastille; the departure of the royalist sympathizers; and the bloody terror. I'm not nearly as familiar with the history of France as I'd like to be, so parts of this felt like a crash-course to me -- I appreciate what du Maurier was trying to do, but politics in books tend to bore me, so I wished there was more about the family than about the history. I liked the novel but I would have liked more character development; also, sometimes it felt like du Maurier was doing a lot of telling and not showing. I was more interested in the family's story than about the actual politics that were going on. It's not as creepy or suspenseful as Rebecca or The House on the Strand, though there are definitely some tense moments during some scenes set riots and when counter-revolutionaries are terrorizing a town.

However, I did really enjoy it. I was struck in particular by how much of the upheaval was stirred by gossip and rumors -- people were terrified with stories of marauding brigands and thieves; stories of foreign armies retaliating after the arrest and execution of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette, and so on. It's even worse than the misinformation people are getting today on social media.

I would love to know how much of this is based on facts about her family, and how much is fiction. Du Maurier also published several nonfiction books, including a memoir of her early years and, a family history called The Du Mauriers. And last week I also finished Letters From Menabilly: Portrait of a Friendship by Oriel Malet, who documents their friendship from the 1950s until du Maurier's death in the late 1980s.

I did really enjoy reading this book while I was on my trip to France -- it's not often that my reading and my travels coincide, but I actually ended up reading this on a bus trip to Versailles! It really brought the story to life, after seeing the excess of the palace and driving through the countryside, passing through a couple of villages which still had Medieval buildings and historic churches. If I have time I'll put up another post with photos of my trip. And many thanks to Ali for organizing this blogging event!


  1. Wonderful review, this sounds very compelling.

  2. I enjoyed this one too, but it's not one of my favourite du Maurier books. I agree that there was too much telling rather than showing and not enough character development. Even her weaker novels are worth reading, though!

  3. Ohh I didn't realise this one was a French Revolution epic - adding to my wish list now!

  4. I’ve heard of this title and knew it was a DDM novel, but nothing else. I think I would like it, though I take your warning about politics versus character development to heart. I love to read around places I am visiting, so glad that you could read this while if France. Really helps with the atmosphere and geography, I find.


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