Review: The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

Review by Fiona Glass

Daphne du Maurier isn’t a name that immediately springs to mind when you’re trying to think of gay authors, or even authors who’ve written gay books. In fact, many of you are probably thinking ‘What’s that idiotic Glass woman on about?’. But the fact remains that du Maurier wrote a book with a gay main character, and that book is ‘The House on the Strand’.

It just happens to be one of my favourite books of all time, if not the favourite. The very first paragraph grabs you by the throat and drags you kicking and screaming into the depths of the book, and you never really stand a chance after that.

“The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green colour 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’ve been known to read the entire thing at one sitting, finally turning the last page at 1.30 in the morning with gritty eyes and no real sense of where I am.

The book tells the story of Dick Young, an unhappily married man who, during a holiday in Cornwall, takes part in an experiment which appears to send him back in time. Transported back to the same area in the fourteenth century, he explores the familiar-yet-different countryside and becomes obsessed by the people he meets, people who really existed and who occupied the farms and houses that still exist in the twentieth century world of his real life. Du Maurier is expert at portraying the life and colour of this earlier world, and contrasting it with the drabness and utility of Dick’s own world. He – and the reader – are taken on a vivid journey into the past and seduced by its excitement and sheer vitality.

“I might have stood for ever, entranced, content to hover between earth and sky, remote from any life I knew or cared to know; but then I turned my head and saw that I was not alone. The hoofs had made no sound – the pony must have travelled as I had done, across the fields – and now that it trod upon the shingle the clink of stone against metal came to my ears with a sudden shock, and I could smell the warm horse-flesh, sweaty and strong.

“Instinct made me back away, startled, for the rider came straight towards me, unconscious of my presence. He checked his pony at the water’s edge and looked seaward, measuring the tide. … He shifted his gaze from the sea and looked straight at me. Surely he saw me, surely I read, in those deepset eyes, a signal of recognition? He smiled, patted his pony’s neck, then, with a swift kick of heel to flank, urged the beast across the ford….”

Dick has no choice but to follow the stranger and what ensues is a marvellous tale of history and science fiction – the history of the past, and the science of the experiment in Dick’s present world. The strands are woven together cleverly and du Maurier’s particular skill is to make the reader sympathise entirely with Dick, to make his ordinary life seem dull and pedestrian and the people around him seem nightmarish and unsympathetic. His wife, for instance, is deeply unlikeable when seen through Dick’s eyes, yet if you stop and analyse her character you realise that she’s actually a perfectly normal person and not really to blame. Her unlikeableness is all in Dick’s mind.

The House on the Strand is not an overtly gay book, perhaps because it was published only two years after the Sexual Offences Act. However, it’s clear that Dick is bisexual at the very least. Although married with two sons, he describes himself at one point as a ‘latent homosexual’ and is clearly in love with his friend Magnus, the professor who has devised the entire experiment. And equally clearly, Dick becomes besotted with Roger, the fourteenth century servant we first meet on his pony in the first few pages of the book.

As with most du Maurier novels, there’s no happy ending. Magnus is killed as a result of his own experiment and Dick is left increasingly alienated and alone, living in one world but drawn obsessively by another, long since past, that he has no hope of ever being part of. I won’t say exactly what happens because that would spoil the surprise, but be prepared for a strong emotional kick. But to be honest, anything else would not fit the book. It deals with the past, and the whole point of the past is that it has gone, and that everything and everyone in it has long since crumbled to dust.

On a more mundane note, the book is an exceptional read. The descriptions are stunning, the characters compelling, the mystery element as Dick researches the people and places of the past keeps you turning the pages for more, and the weird sci-fi sub-plot is sheer pulp fiction joy. History and science fiction make for strange bed-fellows, but the brilliance of du Maurier’s writing binds it together seamlessly and makes ‘The House on the Strand’ a truly unforgettable book It’s one I don’t think I could manage without.

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Fiona Glass has been creating imaginary worlds for years – worlds driven by two little words, ‘what if’, and by the horde of somewhat unusual characters that reside inside her head. Most of these worlds take the form of short stories, most involve homosexual characters, and most are in the paranormal, fantasy and erotic romance genres. Fiona has also written one novel, Roses in December, a gay erotic ghost story published by Torquere Press, and is currently working on her second novel.

13 Responses

  1. Thank you, Fiona. It’s been a very long time since I read this wonderful book, and I’m grateful that you jogged my memory of it, because I remember it so fondly – this and “My Cousin Rachel” particularly don’t get the constant press that “Rebecca” and “Jamaica Inn” always seem to get.

    I hope that it inspires people to give it a try, and I’ll add it onto the BigList tonight – as I had completely forgotten or not even noticed – as it was before I had gaydar – about the gay elements.

  2. That’s a marvelous review. I don’t usually care for books with sad endings, but this one sounds worth checking out.

  3. Great review Fiona! The only du Maurier I’ve read is Jamaica Inn, but this review has certainly made me want to read ‘The House on the Strand’ and investigate more of her work.

  4. Gosh, it’s ages since I read this one – will have to revisit – thanks for the reminder! And Du Maurier can really do no wrong!

    :))

    A
    xxx

  5. What more can I say, but sold, and not because of the gay theme you speak of but you’ve thoroughly intrigued me. I’ve not read a du Maurier book for ages, or even a classic novel (mainly due to never having enough time) but I plan to revisit many favourite novels at bedtime. Although, this will be a new read, it’s from an author that never fails to sit at the back of your mind so I will definitely add this to the pile.

    You also made me laugh. I’ve sat up and done the gritty eyes thing as well. Also, a wonderfully written review!

  6. I love Du Maurier. She was a genius – the short story of ‘The Birds’ for instance, is way scarier than the film, I think.

    This is a great review of a book that’s not nearly as appreciated as it deserves to be. Thanks!

  7. This is new to me, and like many all I know of du Maurier is ‘Rebecca,’ so thank you, Fiona!

    By the way, did anyone see the delightful reflection in Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide about how the film version of Rebecca was able to retain so many of its Lesbian inflections? It’s in the July-August issue and I have a copy I can forward; just e-mail me.

    Lee

  8. It’s one of my absolute favorites too! When all else fails and there are no books I feel like reading, I pull down House on the Strand. I finally got an old hardcover (because the orginal paperback from my parent’s shelves was just about done for!)

  9. Interesting website / I will come back again..

  10. The House on the Strand is one of my all time favourite books, if not THE favourite. Dick is so obviously misogynistic that it seems terribly hard to imagine what his wife ever saw in him! And why she would want to still be with him – there must be something outstanding about him that we don’t see when approaching life through his eyes. After all, Magnus is attracted to him also. I had never thought about Dick’s feelings towards Roger, but the ending seems even more tragic now, considering how life is for him in the latter part of the narrative. I think du Maurier is very clever in presenting the novel as time travel when it seems clear that it is also something to do with Dick’s feelings towards Magnus, and perhaps some sort of telepathic communication between them. Wouldn’t it have been great if they had met up at the station as planned and done it together.

  11. This is my favourite book as well. (Well maybe equal w the blind assasin) its just so different and original. Havent read another like it.

  12. This is my favourite book. I re-read it just
    about every year. I recommend it to all.
    I have never noticed the gay line in it but
    will watch for it on the next reading.

  13. DAVEY, THE BEST BOOK ON THIS PLANET. NEVER NOTICED THE GAYNESS OF IT . READ IT IN THE LATE 7O’S. ONLY REMEMBER BITS AND PIECES . DO REMEMBER IT WAS HARD TO PUT DOWN.

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