Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier – for DDM Week

Title: The Glass-Blowers
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Publication: Doubleday & Company, hardcover, 1963
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 18th and 19th century France
Description: In this historical novel, du Maurier tells the imagined story of her actual ancestors, the Busson family, glass-blowers in rural France, and how they were affected by the French Revolution. Mathurin Busson is a skilled craftsman married to a strong-minded woman, Magdaleine, who helps him develop various glass-blowing enterprises and brings up their five children, Robert, Pierre, Michel, Sophie, and Edmé, who are the protagonists of this story. Robert becomes a charming adventurer, always seeking to make his fortune without hard work or prudence, to his parents’ distress although they bail him out financially, regardless of the cost to themselves. Eventually, he moves to Paris and becomes involved in politics. He is portrayed as an early instigator of the Revolution but is not around to enjoy or be horrified by its excesses because he flees to England to avoid being imprisoned for debt. By now, his siblings are supporting the Revolution in the southwest region of France, experiencing deprivation when supplies run low and brigands riot in the streets (or in the Bussons’ homes) and sorrow when tragedy strikes. The family survives, although only Sophie seems to wonder, like a modern political audience, whether she is better off.

My Impression: This was an enjoyable family saga, told from the point of view of Sophie Busson Duval, the elder daughter of the glass-blower family. She is the only one who seems self-reflective so it is suitable for her to narrate events carried out by the more vibrant members of the family. At 80, in the preface, she encounters the son of her favorite brother for the first time and decides to record for him the family history he has never heard, warts and all (sorry, wrong revolution, but it was irresistible). Sophie tells her newly discovered nephew and his children:
A glass-blower, remember, breathes life into a vessel, giving it shape and form and sometimes beauty; but he can, with that same breath, shatter and destroy it.
Although much younger than her brother Robert, Sophie had a first-hand view of what we would now call his “get-rich quick” schemes and how his bad business judgment and lack of conscience resulted in destruction and distressed his proud parents, whose care for their workers made them respected and beloved, rather than feared or scorned. Although Sophie lacks sophistication, she is shrewd and at one point guesses that Robert is being paid to peddle revolutionary gossip by both opposing factions. However, while she condemns his actions, she never stops loving her brother.
Oh dear, my former employer Avon
Books really went to town here!
I couldn’t help thinking this family of three sons and two daughters was improbably literate for their time, although I was willing to have some suspension of disbelief for the sake of the story. The eldest son, Robert, was instructed in French and Latin grammar by the local curé and passed along some lessons to his much younger sisters because their father did not believe in education for women. Presumably, the younger brothers received some rudimentary education too. Pierre and Edmé are big readers, and Pierre eventually becomes a notary to help “hundreds of fellows who cannot read or write and need legal advice.” And they all manage to write long, comprehensive letters that allow the siblings to stay in touch even as the Revolution ebbs and flows. 

Lots of flowing as the bloodshed seems nonstop.  The French Revolution is a period of history that has confused more amateur historians than just me! Du Maurier seems to keep it all straight but also shows the reader how rumor and fear distorted the news as it came from Paris. Robert sends his siblings chatty updates of the political activity he observes from the fringes:
“The Archbishop of Aix . . . was quite eclipsed by one of the deputies of the Third Estate, a young lawyer called Robespierre – I wonder if Pierre has heard of him? – who suggested that the Archbishop would do better if he told his fellow-clergy to join forces with the patriots, who are friends to the people, and that if they wanted to help they might set an example by giving up some of their own luxurious way of living and returning to the simple ways of the founder of their faith.

“I can imagine how Pierre would have applauded this speech! Depend upon it, we shall hear more of this fellow!”
On the one hand, the best historical fiction avoids these cutesy moments because they jolt the reader out of the engrossing story and make her think, “Aha, Robespierre has arrived; clever me, I know him! Maybe he can calm these revolutionaries down!” On the other hand, the politics and rivalries are hard to follow so it was a relief to come across something familiar, just as when Sophie says, “It must have been the Monday or Tuesday, the 13th or 14th of July, I forget which, when Francois brought the news . . . that Paris was in a state of siege.” Little you know, Sophie, what is about to transpire in Paris, I said to her wisely. Sophie believes in the Revolution but is more realistic, recognizing that her husband and brother are manipulators and looters too, despite their upbringing and alleged values. She does not refuse to use the stolen items.

“What is the truth?” Sophie later asks her brother in agony, fearful of marauding brigands. “The truth?” repeated Robert. “Nobody ever knows the truth in this world.”

When Robert’s son, Louis-Mathurin Busson, arrives in Paris in 1844, hawking an invention he believes will make his fortune, it is obvious that he has inherited Robert’s charm and incorrigible belief that the next project will be the breakthrough to fame and fortune. It is clear too that du Maurier is amused at being descended from these charming rogues. According to Alan Baker, she had corresponded with a French historian, Regis Bouis, who had discovered by chance while researching regional involvement in the Revolution that du Maurier was related to glass-blower, Michel Busson, and written to her in 1957. She sought his help with the historical background when she wrote this novel and thanked him in the Acknowledgments.
I chose The Glass-Blowers for Daphne du Maurier Reading Week with Heaven Ali because I owned yet had never read it. This is also my fifteenth book in the 2022 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge led by Marg at The Intrepid Reader.

Source: Personal copy


Helen said...

I've read all of du Maurier's novels now and this is one of my least favourites, but that's only because I loved so many of her others so much. I did enjoy the parts about Robert! I also thought it was interesting to see the effects of the Revolution on rural life as most books set in that period just tend to focus on Paris.

TracyK said...

I would like to have participated in the Daphne du Maurier Reading Week, but I remembered it too late, and had too many other things going on (jury duty for one). It is not too late to do a review of Rebecca as I need to do that anyway, but not sure I can do that in time. I will have to think about that.

CLM said...

I think Hungry Hill is my least favorite but even her most depressing books are usually very readable. This dragged a bit in the middle but I amused myself by thinking about a manuscript by Iris Johansen I was given to read in my first job in publishing. It was part of a trilogy connected by some item, perhaps jewelry. This particular book was set during the French Revolution and a group of revolutionaries at one point killed some nuns and drank their blood! So while I got tired of the killing and destruction (which was probably quite accurately depicted), I kept thinking that at least no blood was being drunk!

Tracy, I am sorry your jury duty is not giving you some good reading time but as a lawyer, I appreciate your willingness to serve. Once my sister and I had jury duty together - what are the odds in NYC that we'd get summoned the same day to the same courthouse? I hated the old pre-cell phone days where we were expected to call into the office and then hustle over there about 4 and do several hours of work. Now I find it all very entertaining.

TracyK said...

The first day of jury duty lasted forever but I did get most of a book read (a shortish one). I am now done with jury duty but the other 1.5 days I had to pay attention to what was going on in court. And it was interesting, but repetitive.

Good story about you and your sister having jury duty together. Very lucky but also unusual.

LyzzyBee said...

A more unusual one to read - I don't think I'll go for this one in another year but it's good to know about it. Love the story about the nuns!

Mallika@ LiteraryPotpourri said...

I haven't yet read any of her family saga books, and while this may not be among her best, I'd still like to read it sometime; it'll be interesting to see how she interprets her family history in fiction