First published in 1963, The Glass-Blowers is described as a ‘warm, human saga of a family of craftsmen in eighteenth-century France – with the violence and terror of the Revolution as clamouring background to its tragic climax’. As with du Maurier’s Mary Anne, the novel is semi-autobiographical; du Maurier’s glass-blowing ancestors the Bussons, who lived between 1747 and 1845, have been focused upon.
Comparisons with Mary Anne are easy to draw from the very beginning of The Glass-Blowers; the prologue begins, for example, in the following way: ‘One day in the June of 1844 Madame Sophie Duval, nee Busson, eighty years of age and mother of the mayor of Vibraye, a small commune in the departement of Sarthe, rose from her chair in the salon of her property at le Gue de Launay, chose her favourite walking-stick from a stand in the hall, and calling to her dog made her way, as was her custom at this hour of the afternoon every Tuesday, down the short approach drive to the entrance gate’. Our protagonist, Sophie, is reliving her life from its earliest beginnings.
Du Maurier sets the scene of historic France in a sweeping yet full manner; one really gets a feel for the social disruption and political climate which surrounded the Bussons: ‘What a moment to bring a child into the world, that summer of ’93, the first year of the Republic; with the Vendee in revolt, the country at war, the traitorous Girondins endeavouring to bring down the Convention, the patriot Marat to be assassinated by an hysterical girl, and the unhappy ex-Queen Marie Antoinette confined to the Temple and later guillotined for all the misery she had brought upon France’.
As ever, I was struck by the ways in which du Maurier describes her protagonists: ‘She [Sophie] walked briskly, with the quick step of one who did not suffer or perhaps refused to suffer, any of the inconveniences of old age; and her bright blue eyes – the noticeable feature of her otherwise unremarkable face – looked keenly to right and left, pin-pointing signs of negligence on the part of the gardener’. Du Maurier goes on to inform us that the highlight of Sophie’s existence is receiving her weekly letter from her daughter, Zoe – ‘her third child, and the first to survive infancy’ – who lives in Paris. It is in one of these letters that Sophie is introduced to the past of her forebears, through a chance encounter with a man which her daughter had at a dinner party: ‘I asked if he [Robert] had relatives. He said he believed not. They had all been guillotined during the Terror, and the chateau Maurier and the glass-foundries destroyed. He had made no inquiries. It was better not. What was past was past’. Sophie and Zoe consequently meet up with the surprised Robert in Paris, and the history of the Bussons then ensues.
What follows this prologue is an historical novel supposed to have been penned by Sophie Duval, who spends four months ‘covering sheet after sheet of writing-paper in her formal, upright hand’. The main body of the novel begins in 1747. Sophie’s first person perspective is well-realised, and nicely matches the story; as The Glass-Blowers is essentially another of du Maurier’s family sagas, it feels fitting that a member of the Busson clan should act as narrator. Du Maurier busies herself with demonstrating how the family’s fortune improved due to the glass-blowing business, and how it also caused a wealth of problems. One of the main themes of the novel is as follows: ‘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’.
Whilst The Glass-Blowers has been nicely crafted and is relatively interesting, it feels a little lacklustre in comparison to a lot of du Maurier’s other novels. There is no real spark within it, emotional or otherwise, which made me feel compelled to continue with it. Its characters are largely two-dimensional, and their conversations are flat. It is also not as well plotted as it could have been. Things do happen throughout, but they are not built enough to be believable, and are often unnecessarily baldly stated. It is rather bogged down in details at times, and the plot becomes a little saturated with the exact amount of livres which almost everything the Bussons come across cost. The novel is largely involved with family affairs – marriages, births, deaths, and not much else.
Whilst it is well researched, and the parts about the Revolution are interesting, there is a real lack of emotion in The Glass-Blowers, an element which I personally think is of importance in any novel, historical or otherwise. How else are we as readers supposed to either empathise or identify with the protagonists? I would go as far to say that the novel was even a little dull in places. Whilst The Glass-Blowers is a perfectly good three star read, there is nothing about it which is overly memorable, or which sets it apart from a lot of du Maurier’s other – and, frankly, better – historical fiction.