The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

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.

The Glass-Blowers The Glass-Blowers was the book selected for me in the last Classics Spin at the end of August. The deadline for reading our Spin book is this Friday, so I’ve finished just in time! Although it has taken me a while to actually pick this novel up and read it, that’s not because I wasn’t looking forward to it. Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors and I fully expected to love this book as I’ve loved most of her others. That didn’t really happen, unfortunately, but I did still find things to enjoy.

Published in 1963, The Glass-Blowers is historical fiction based on the lives of du Maurier’s own ancestors who lived in France during the Revolution. The story is narrated by Sophie Duval, an elderly woman writing her family history in the form of a letter to send to her nephew. Sophie begins by looking back on her childhood growing up in the Loir-et-Cher region of France as the daughter of master glass-blower Mathurin Busson. Most of her early memories revolve around her eldest brother, Robert, who is constantly getting into debt and finding himself in trouble. It is Robert who will eventually move to England and provide the link to Daphne du Maurier herself.

In France, meanwhile, Sophie and her other siblings – Pierre, Michel and Edmé – become swept up in the drama of the French Revolution. So much of what I’ve read about the Revolution is focused on Paris, so it was fascinating to read about the ways in which it affected the lives of those living in the countryside and in other cities such as Le Mans. The section set during the War in the Vendée is particularly gripping and vivid – probably because Sophie herself is caught up in the uprising and experiences it directly. Other major events happen in the background and Sophie only hears thirdhand accounts, which takes away some of the emotional impact of the story (I kept thinking of The Brethren by Robert Merle, another novel set in France which is written in a similarly passive style).

The distance between narrator and reader meant that I never became fully engaged in the lives of the Bussons and never felt that I had really got to know Sophie. Her brother and sisters were stronger characters, particularly Michel, who becomes a political activist and joins the National Guard, and Robert, who repeatedly reinvents himself as one business venture after another ends in failure. Robert infuriated me at first but he eventually became my favourite character and I found myself looking forward to his scenes as they added a spark of life to what I was beginning to find quite a tedious story.

One of the things I usually love about du Maurier is her descriptive writing and the way she creates a strong sense of time and place – and this is something that I thought was missing from The Glass-Blowers (apart from in the Vendée scenes, as I mentioned above). This hasn’t become a favourite du Maurier book, then, but in my opinion even her weaker novels are still worth reading. Now that I’ve read this one I’m planning to read Mary Anne, another fictional account of one of du Maurier’s ancestors, this time on the English side of the family. After that I’ll only have Frenchman’s Creek and Castle Dor left to read.

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19 thoughts on “The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

  1. camilledefleurville says:

    I have a soft spot for “The Glass Blowers”, probably because it is set in my country! I grant you it is not the best Du Maurier but it gives a fictionalised insight of the family and is not that bad… And it may invite to know more about the Guerre de Vendée and the Revolution in the country and the countryside, which was as terrible and awful as in Paris, if less known. Balzac describes it in “Les Chouans”, which has been translated in English. As to “Mary Ann”, I remember it as a dellightful minor piece that I enjoyed much. They do not have the gothic element that is one of Du Maurier’s hallmarks but these two “novels” are eminently readable. I enjoyed them both and I hope you will either.

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t know much about the Guerre de Vendée or the revolution in the countryside until I read this book, so I liked that aspect of it. It’s always nice to finish a book feeling that you’ve learned something new. I’m pleased to hear you enjoyed Mary Anne – I think that will be the next du Maurier novel I read.

      • camilledefleurville says:

        I was reading your others comments and your answers. Yes, I agree, Du Maurier is uneven.Perhaps it is because she tries her hand at various styles and various topics. More or less “gothic novels”, reguar novels with an element of suspense, historical novels, novels set in her contemporary world, family memoirs turned into novels, her biographical essay more or less conventional and conclusive about Branwell Brontë: she has tried much. Like you, I would recommend “My Cousin Rachel” over Rebecca: it is less known but it has good narrative elements and some chilling undertones.

  2. Catherine says:

    I never heard of this one by daphne du maurier but will look for it. I tend to “save” my Daphne du Maurier and read them from time to time. I still have a few left to read though but slowly I make my way through her work.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy the books you still have to read. I’ve been working through her novels over the last few years and I think I only have three left now – I’m saving Frenchman’s Creek until last because I’m hoping to love that one!

  3. whatmeread says:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read this novel. I remember liking it better than you did, but I was quite young when I read it and read for different things. Certainly, Du Maurier can be very uneven.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you liked this book more than I did. I didn’t dislike it; I think I was just a bit disappointed because I’ve read so many of du Maurier’s novels now and enjoyed them all, even the less popular ones. I really thought I would love this one too.

  4. Alex says:

    I thought I had read all du Maurier’s work when I was a teenager, but I don’t remember this one. I wonder if that is because I didn’t find it memorable or if I started it and then, like you, Helen, found it less than satisfactory and gave up on it.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t think I would have had much patience with this one as a teenager. It’s definitely not one of du Maurier’s better novels, in my opinion – although other commenters above have enjoyed it, so maybe it’s just me.

  5. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    Like Alex, I thought I had read all of du Maurier as a teen, but I really do not remember this one. I’d like to go back and read all of her novels again one day, but I have to admit this one doesn’t appeal as much as some of her others.

    • Helen says:

      This book did sound appealing to me, which is why I’m so disappointed that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. I’m looking forward to re-reading some of her books, though not until I’ve finished working through the rest of her novels first.

  6. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I haven’t read this one either, although I think I’ve read nearly all of her other books.I read Mary Anne a long time ago and liked it very much at the time. I don’t think Castle Dor is as good as some her other books, but it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s last unfinished novel and Daphne took it over at the request of his daughter after his death. It came at a low point in her life and I think she struggled to complete the book.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you liked Mary Anne. I love the sound of it and am looking forward to reading it. I won’t expect too much from Castle Dor, but I do still want to read it for completeness.

  7. jessicabookworm says:

    Helen I’m sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy this as much as other du Maurier novels. I suppose it makes her a little more human; not every novel can be absolutely amazing! I have Frenchman’s Creek on my to-be-read pile too which I’m looking forward to reading 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t dislike this book, but compared to most of the others I’ve read by du Maurier it was disappointing. I’m really looking forward to Frenchman’s Creek – I’m pleased to hear it’s on your pile too. 🙂

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