The House on the Strand (or: my struggle with historical fiction)

– it’s one of her historical novels. Indeed, I actively disliked   The Flight of the Falcon. But this isn’t a stray example. So far, so good. The House on the Strand (or: my struggle with historical fiction)
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3 comments on “The House on the Strand (or: my struggle with historical fiction)”

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Sonja Foxe February 28, 2017

try an historical novel by Alison Weir

Kate February 28, 2017

or Mary Renault. I’ve read a handful of her books –   Rebecca,   My Cousin Rachel,   Frenchman’s Creek, and   The Flight of the Falcon – and I have loved them in in decreasing order in that list. (Somehow, there are never newly built houses in the way.)
In the modern day, Richard has a strained relationship with his wife Vita, though he gets on well with his two stepsons. Share this:TwitterFacebookPinterestEmailPrintGoogleLike this:Like Loading… And – guess what? “Does he like any bally books at all? The novel goes back and forth between present and past, and all the things in the present are engaging, enjoyable, and with du Maurier’s signature tension. They essentially admit ‘you probably won’t understand this book without some clues’. I’ll probably keep trying. It doesn’t help that the number of characters and their relationships are very confusing. My problem with historical fiction is also my problem with books set in countries that the author hasn’t lived. Is   this Fake News?”
Well, I promise I do love lots of books and types of books, and I’m not hide-bound to certain genres or periods. 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. Not so much. I wouldn’t bother with du Maurier, I find her novels so dull! They’ve only been married for a couple of years, but already seem rather to loathe each other. He does nothing more than observe – and so the reader feels similarly detached. I’d heard it was a ghost story, of sorts. Our hero (Richard Young, though I thought he was a woman for the first few pages – the first person narrative doesn’t give much away) has time travelled to the 14th century. The time traveller can be seen, wandering through modern day Cornwall – but they see only ancient Cornwall. As I read on, I gradually realised that was happening. And this came to the fore, yet again, when I read   The House on the Strand (1969) by Daphne du Maurier for my book group recently. It seems that I always volunteer myself as the contrary voice for Vulpes theme weeks – or, at least, that’s what I did back   when I was just a Guest Fox, during one of the Poetry Weeks. Not just any past, but the same scenes and the same people – both Richard and Magnus, it transpires, have seen the same horseman lead them across the fields and towards the house that is still standing more than 600 years later. We are taken around a museum of people in costumes. Nothing so intriguing takes place. But I really enjoyed all of this stuff. But, for now, I’m pouring Magnus’s potion down the sink and enjoying modern day Cornwall. I feel as though we are shown the world as a tourist. There may be a book out there that will change my mind. Early on, we are told that he mustn’t touch them for fear of what will happen. He is watching the movements of people long dead, in a complex web of marriage and affair and family. Now, I love Daphne du Maurier. When we go to the past? The research may be meticulous – but that is precisely the problem. More to the point, I didn’t care. We’re told that they love each other, but there is very little evidence of this – she is mostly an impediment to the experiments he wishes to perform. Much like Chekhov’s gun, I thought we must eventually see Richard get trapped in that world. Is he some sort of interloper from a movie blog? Unless I’m reading a book   written before 1800, of course, and then it isn’t historical – it’s new, it’s vital, it’s a reflection of life. 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. Richard is staying in the Cornish house of his friend Magnus, in Magnus’ absence; he is a scientist who has managed to create potions that will transport the taker back to the past. Obviously many, many people love historical fiction. There was no softness anywhere. That sounded fun, given du Maurier’s deft hand with the gothic, and a genius for ambiguity and readerly uncertainty that would leave Henry James weeping into his hands and wishing somebody had introduced him to a full stop earlier in life. I don’t want to come to a novel to be treated to a history book, showing off what the author has learned. There’s a family tree in the back, and a map – both always feel like warning signals to me. And I really liked the opening paragraph:
The first thing I noticed was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green colour of the land. Well, this one does. Even with them, I never really worked out what was going on. (It’s also one that nobody’s heard of, which probably isn’t either a coincidence or a sadness.)
So, I was excited to read   The House on the Strand. And that, of course, Daphne du Maurier can’t help but write about beautifully. The cover of my copy led me to believe he might have a medieval romance. I come to a novel to meet flesh and blood characters, without layers of dust on them. And I seem to be OK with certain steps back – say, to 1800 – but before that, things just lose their vitality to me. “Who is this joker,” I hear you ask. It also doesn’t help that Richard can’t interact with any of the people in the past. But I have something of a blind spot when it comes to historical fiction.