The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

British man Dick Young has quit his job in publishing to spend the summer rent free in his college friend Magnus’s house in Cornwall. Magnus is a biophysicist working in London who has convinced Dick to help him with a side project: test out a drug Magnus has developed that allows the user to go back in time. Not just any time, for a reason unknown thus far to Magnus, but to the 14th century and the life of Roger, a steward in Cornwall. The rules are don’t touch anything in the past, lest you risk becoming violently ill and ripped back to the present. We learn that the user also walks around as he does in the past, so beware modern problems, like moving vehicles and confused neighbors who are out and about. Although Magnus warns Dick it’s easy to become addicted to the experimental time-travel drug, Dick decides he must hurry up and use it more because his American wife will soon arrive with his step-sons.

Much like, well, almost every book with two time periods, I liked one more than the other. Dick’s banter with Magnus and his spats with his wife are comical, though you wouldn’t think it from the seriousness behind people’s words. It’s simply the way du Maurier writes that’s so sharp. The American wife wants Dick to get a job, any job, and will support him, though her preference is he choose a choice publishing career being handed to Dick by her friend in the U.S. But the more Dick travels to the past and becomes attached to the folks he meets while following Roger, the more annoying he finds his wife.

But Daphne du Maurier’s wit shines through and Dick and his wife’s interactions. Understanding human behavior, the wife gently manipulates situations in her favor, while Dick responds cuttingly. I was reminded of Maxim de Winter meets Mary Yellen, characters from two of du Maurier’s works published over thirty years before. Cutting, biting, honest, the result read like a fencing bout of words.

In contrast, I didn’t see the appeal in the 14th-century timeline, which focuses on a woman who cheats on her husband, a husband who then has her lover quietly killed. Surrounding that drama are questions of allegiance to the King and a whole cast of unnecessary characters I couldn’t keep straight, largely because they’re all dumped into the text in chapter three, and the names are no more clear that those of characters in Wuthering Heights.

Overall, I didn’t love The House on the Strand and would recommend du Maurier’s other novels, depending on what you enjoy: horror, thriller, Gothic romance-mystery. The most enjoyable part about reading The House on the Strand was my conversation with my reading buddy Lou @ Lou Lou Reads. Lou is a delightful, keen reader from England who has also read other du Maurier novels. If you were thinking about picking up The House on the Strand because it has a historical fiction aspect, Lou recommends Frenchman’s Creek instead, which she says handles the history and names better.

In our discussion, we compared the way Americans feel about homes and history vs. Brits. In The House on the Strand, Magnus’s house is important to Dick. It’s the place they spent time when college was on break. It’s an old house, and Dick values the history of it in addition to the memories created there. Dick’s wife, however, is American. For those of us from the U.S., anything over one-hundred years old is really old (!!!). It’s not uncommon, Lou said, to see a plaque commemorating sites from the 1300s near her hometown in the U.K. Thus, Dick’s wife’s dismissal of Magnus’s house, and seemingly Cornwall itself, seems tacky, new, rootless. But she’s not tacky, just of a different culture.

Lou also agreed with me that the characters in the 14th-century timeline were confusing. Not only are there too many characters in general, but those with the same name, too. But even more confounding are all the manor names. The various homes — all named; so weird to an American like me — all begin with “T.” For instance, the village is Tywardreath, which translates to “The house on the strand” (I’m not sure why one village gets translated to “house,” but there you have it). Dick notes how the “T” names are confusing to him, too, which made me feel better. And I learned something from Lou: that Cornwall has it’s own language, Cornish, which has had a revival in recent years.

Lastly, we discussed how The House on the Strand is a book that reflects the time in which it was written and published: the 1960s psychedelic drug days/daze. Magnus’s experimental drug causes hallucinations, and it’s implied that the user isn’t actually time travelling, but connecting brain waves with the deceased. Yet, this never feels like a “drug novel” of the 60s, either, simply a quiet response to the culture.

23 comments

  1. So they just quietly follow one guy around in the past, not touching or interacting with anything? I guess that could be interesting but it doesn’t sound super exciting.

    Interesting what you say about houses and history in the UK vs North America. Sometimes I think we in Canada are too eager to label things as historical. In BC we have heritage buildings that are younger than some people who are still alive!

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    • Dick always appears with Roger somewhere around. Then, Roger talks to and interacts with other people, so there is the adulterous wife, the conniving/murderous sister-in-law, the corrupt priest, and some tiff about which side to support (the King or his mom….or something like that?). Dick finds them fascinating and cares about their lives, but the way du Maurier describes Dick’s addiction to this experimental drug, coming to in the middle of the road, and hiding what he’s doing from his wife all make for a modern domestic drama.

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  2. That doesn’t sound anything like I imagined the book would be (based only on the title and the cover of an older edition I have on the shelf)! Isn’t it funny how we get ideas about what a story will be like without any real basis? Despite your misgivings about the 14thC, I think it’s very interesting that a woman is unfaithful in a part of the story set so far in the past; that does show a kind of agency that readers might not expect from a character so far removed in a historical setting.

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    • Too true, though I felt I knew so little about this character that whether she had agency or not didn’t even cross my mind. I wish something about any of them made me care. Okay, to be fair, the sister-in-law was so wretched that I just simply hated her.

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  3. Ah, sorry to see this wasn’t a big win for you, it was one of the du Maurier titles that most intrigued me. Nice to see that her writing through character interactions and observations is still sharp here, but I think I’ll bump this one farther down my list. I have heard good things about Frenchman’s Creek! I hope you’ll have better luck with your next du Maurier.

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  4. Coming from an SF perspective I am always interested to see how different writers handle time travel which is at its root profoundly illogical (but always an interesting thought experiment). You imply that his movements in the past are mirrored by his body in the present, did I get that right? That’s certainly new. On the other hand there’s nearly always some version of don’t touch, mostly because if you do you won’t be coming back to the world you left from. This is not the sort of book I associated with du Maurier at all.

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    • It was one of her last novels, so she wrote it in her 60s rather than her 30s. Yes, the body in the present travels along wherever the body in the past goes. Thus, he never gets more than a mile or two away, and that’s at the very end when things are extreme. More likely, he will stay in the house or on the grounds. I always thought the rule about no touching was so we don’t mess things up in the past, which affects the future, and by don’t touch, it was meant like “no meddling.” This is literally don’t touch anything or you get ripped out of the past. I’m half wondering if this is more a psychedelics novel than a time travel novel. Seems like a combo?

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  5. Yours is the second review for this book I’ve read this year, and like Bill, I did not know that du Maurier dabbled in time travel either. Your comment about coming to in the middle of the road, reminded me of the device used in The Time-Traveller’s Wife, where he would turn up in the time he travelled to completely naked. It created lots of awkward, embarrassing and dangerous moments depending on which time and where he landed.

    Curious that his body seems to exist in both times at the same time though & that the danger is more problematic for his modern body – makes it seem more like a hallucinagenic or movie-like experience – were he is watching rather than participating.

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    • He’s definitely watching and not participating. Wherever Richard goes, Dick must go too. I think Lou got it right when she said this book speaks to time period (1960s) in which it was written. Du Maurier uses a drug to make the person think he has traveled in time. His body does not go anywhere. But because we don’t get to know those 14th-century characters well at all, it feels like a bit of a snooze in the past. I found myself much more wrapped up in both Jamaica Inn and My Cousin Rachel.

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  6. I’m always so relieved to learn when a fellow bookworm struggles with too many names, or similar-sounding names. When I’m reading something with that problem, I grow frustrated easily because I think to myself ‘this shouldn’t be so hard, just write them down or something!” but of course I never do, and then am irritated by the end of the book if I struggled the whole way through. It seems like not a big deal, but it really does ruin your experience of reading.

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  7. I really enjoyed reading and discussing this with you, and then reading your thoughts here as well! I have been very slack about writing up my thoughts, but I’m hoping to post later this week. It’s such a good example of what’s great about buddy reads – it never would have occurred to me that Vita’s disconnection with the whole history plotline is because she’s come from a culture where most things are relatively new, but that culture clash between them made so much more sense once you pointed it out!

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