Daphne du Maurier led a personal life shrouded with mystery. She came from a fascinating background, descending from the mistress of a royal duke and a family of French master craftsmen glass-blowers, through the artist and cartoonist George du Maurier to her father, the actor Gerald. Du Maurier was obsessed with the past, and THE GLASS-BLOWERS, a novel based on the lives of her du Maurier ancestors, was published late in her career, in 1963.
Although it was a bestseller, the success of THE GLASS-BLOWERS paled in comparison to the success of her earlier works. During her long, distinguished career, Daphne du Maurier tried her hand successfully at both fiction and nonfiction?biography, autobiography, historical romance, and short stories?but her auctorial reputation rests most firmly upon six romantic suspense novels whose plots stem from crime. THE GLASS-BLOWERS never achieved the earlier success of these "formula fiction" novels; perhaps this was because she deviated from this formula and explores her later passion: her family history.
THE GLASS-BLOWERS, published in 1963 by Victor Gollancz, reached the bestsellers' list almost immediately, and its rise to the bestseller list status was considered extremely rapid. It reached fifth place on the list in both Washington D.C. newspapers three days after publication. Many different factors contributed to the novel's success?its advertising in both "Publishers' Weekly" and "Good Housekeeping," its appeal to du Maurier's loyal following, and most influential, Daphne du Maurier's established literary talent. Book clubs played a large role in its success by introducing the novel to the public. THE GLASS-BLOWERS was the April Literary Guild Selection in 1963, which gave many readers easy access to the novel. Doubleday, du Maurier's publisher, also helped with the success of the novel by creating many advertisement campaigns in order to spark the public's interest, namely in "Publishers' Weekly." Doubleday allowed the public a sneak preview of the novel in the hopes that it would grab their attention and persuade them to buy a copy of the book.
Daphne du Maurier's public persona did not add to the success of her book, mainly because she did her best not to create a public persona for herself. Du Maurier disliked being in the public eye; she avoided interviews and public appearances. "She confided to (one interviewer) that she disliked entertaining or being entertained or any public appearance?" (Cook 141). In her rare interviews, she was reluctant to give any personal information about herself; she was an extremely private person. As a favor to her English publisher Victor Gollancz, du Maurier attended a Foyle's Literary Lunch, along with two other female writers. Afterwards, she swore to never attend such an event again, for she felt that "authors never should be seen or heard" (Forster 139).
Despite her private persona, her writing style was overwhelmingly popular. Central to the du Maurier tradition are sound, exciting, workable plots; her basic plots are thrilling, and all allow for abundant complication and all offer good possibilities for quick pace and great suspense. Along with her clear, lucid prose, du Maurier's literary tempo, romance, and suspense comprise her auctorial hallmark. For critics, that commonality has sometimes been dismissed as "formula fiction," and this term (often perceived as demeaning) has contributed to some misapprehension of the skill with which the author combines formulaic elements with experiments in established literary forms, especially variations of the Bildungsroman, to create the freshness and innovation which account for so much of her appeal. Many modern gothics that echo her most renowned novel, REBECCA, are good evidence that du Maurier tends to set trends rather than to follow them. Certainly, it is no disgrace either to establish or to follow a popular, even beloved, literary formula. Du Maurier has done both; she tends to capitalize on some very old, established patterns and bend them to her will.
Having written the biography of her father, du Maurier now traces her roots back to an eighteenth-century French family of glass-blowers named Busson. The patriarch, old Mathurin Busson, is a master glass-blower whose finest hour came when Louis XV took time out from one of his hunting excursions to visit him and inspect his workrooms. For the occasion Mathurin creates a crystal goblet in honor of the king and later remarks to his family: "I suggest we preserve this goblet as a family symbol, and if does not bring us fame and fortune it shall serve a reminder of high craftsmanship through succeeding generations" (50).
There are five children in the Busson family. Robert, the eldest, is hopelessly irresponsible and leads the family business to the brink of bankruptcy. Overly ambitious, he yearns to leave his provincial life and go to Paris where he can become well-connected politically and socially. He feeds on the brink of this society, compromising what is dear to him for ambition. Pierre, the next oldest, is an idealist, dedicated to the principles of Rousseau. Michel, handicapped by a stammer that prevents him from communicating his emotions, becomes a fanatic who expresses his opinions through violence. Edme, the youngest member of the family, devotes her energy to seeking happiness and equality for all people by philosophically attacking established institutions. Finally, there is Sophie, the narrator of the story, who adopts a comfortable middle ground as she records the life of her family.
Set during the French Revolution and the Civil War that followed, this fictional history of the Busson family appears to have two objectives, one public and one personal. For her millions of faithful readers du Maurier combines a smattering of history, biography, and political philosophy in order to come up with an entertaining and informative historical romance. Her real interest seems to lie, not in the revolution or its philosophical underpinnings, but in the life of the Busson family. Against a backdrop of melodramatic action and ideological speeches about the values of common people, du Maurier formulates the story of her family history. Believing that her ancestors contributed to the shaping of her personality, du Maurier's "historical romance" is this inner story, rather than a surface one, that absorbs her interest, for in it she can discover herself and recognize the truth of her favorite quotation: "In my beginning is my end."
The central theme to her novel is that the traditions of the past must be maintained at all costs. Although du Maurier is sympathetic towards the characters of Pierre, Michel, and Edme, idealists who rebel against the oppressive rule of the aristocracy and the clergy, she makes it quite clear that their envisioned world of equality and freedom for all cannot be purchased at the price of destroying the institutions and traditions in France. As Sophie points out by 1894 "the poor were still poor, and those who had enriched themselves by the purchase of church lands were looked upon as profiteers, despite the initial act of patriotism" (276). The workers at the glass foundry complain that they had "enough of the revolution, enough of fighting and restrictions, enough of change. It was better, so the older ones say, when (Sophie's) mother was in charge here and everyone felt settled. Now, nobody knows that tomorrow will bring" (278). After her mother dies, Sophie discovers a closet full of old linen that her mother had embroidered with great artistry many years ago, causing her to reflect: "These things, so unexpected and incongruous in our troublous times, were an indictment of our age that reverenced nothing past and hated all things old" (285). In the end, Louis Mathurin's glass goblet, the symbol of the Busson family and the symbol of tradition winds up in the possession of Sophie who, like her creator, handles it with great care.
THE GLASS-BLOWERS held a dichotomy of importance in du Maurier's career. First, since she was a private person, a story about her family that shaped her life meant that this particular work was meaningful to her, making her especially vulnerable. Second, it was published at a critical point in her career. Du Maurier was feeling depressed about her abilities and her general status as an author. In spite of her tremendous success, she believed herself to be pigeonholed as second-rate and, for all her modesty, was hurt by this. In 1963, with the publication of THE GLASS-BLOWERS, she was watching sales anxiously and seeing it as something of a test case. If THE GLASS-BLOWERS sank, the future was looking grim. The news that her publisher had printed only 40,000 copies (and another 20,000 which were not bound) dismayed her even though he patiently explained to her the new facts of publishing in the sixties and pointed out that 40,000 copies for a first print-run was six times more than any THE GLASS-BLOWERS, in the spring of 1963, were not bad nor were they either extensive or good, and her publisher had no need yet to bind up the extra 20,000 copies. In the Christian Science Monitor, N.E. Taylor's response holds the novel's most common praise "Miss du Maurier's book is as readable and crisp in style as any of her earlier works, but its main value lies in cutting through the glamorous surface of a period, thought of too frequently only in ?Scarlet Pimpernel' terms, and opening to light its drab and dingy realism." To do this to engagingly is Miss du Maurier's achievement" (288). Critics complimented her ability to incorporate a strong sense of French history in the novel without ever faltering from her goal to explore her ancestor's personal relationships. One critic remarks, "The history remains where it should?in the background" (McNamara 842).
Most critics, however, have bittersweet sentiments about du Maurier's novel. Says one critic, "The book is rich in the color of the time but moves at a pace unusually slow for a du Maurier work" (Hill 682). Similarly, a critic from "The New Yorker" complains that the "style is nostalgic and tedious." The dullness and slow pace of du Maurier's novel is the most common criticism: "Narrated in the first person by Sophie, an eight-year-old child far-sighted enough to employ words like ?finalize' and ?ploy,' the Busson family annals never rise above a surprisingly dull monotone" (47).
A paradox lies in the sales figures of THE GLASS-BLOWERS. An immediate bestseller, it soared in its first year of sales, but the sale figures overall were not particularly impressive. How did a novel with mediocre reviews reach the bestsellers list so successfully? One theory is that du Maurier's loyal followers accounted for a large percentage of the novel's sales; this is indicative of the reader's admiration for du Maurier, not necessarily the particular novel. One critic suggests that public purchase could have been lessened since the novel was a Literary Guild Selection and had magazine serialization, making the novel more accessible and, therefore, causing the sales figures to be less impressive" (Cummings 1684).
Despite her diminishing marginal success over time, Daphne du Maurier had made an indelible mark in literary history. Her contemporaries were dealing in their fiction with themes related to the war, alienation, religion, Marxism, psychology, poverty, and art. Many were experimenting with new techniques, such as stream-of-consciousness and the use of multiple personae. Du Maurier, on the other hand, continued to write "old-fashioned" novels with straightforward narratives that appealed to a conventional audience's love of fantasy, adventure, sexuality, and mystery. At an early age she recognized that her principal readership was comprised of women, and she cultivated their loyal readership through several decades by embodying their desires and dreams in her novels and short stories.
The literary establishment clearly wants nothing to do with Daphne du Maurier. There are no critical essays and few books about her. Her only critics to date have been the many book reviewers who, for the most part, heralded each novel as a gift of genius though most agree that she never surpassed the level of excellence in REBECCA. The fact that millions of people read her novels certainly works against her approval by literary critics, who are not inclined to prize what the audience does. By the standards of contemporary literary criticism, most of du Maurier's works do not hold up well. Her prose, while straightforward and clear, is not especially interesting. There is little imagery, symbolism, or ambiguity in her writing. Her characters are often undeveloped, and her plots become all-important. Her style is conventional, her sentences unmemorable, and her story lines contrived. Compared with highbrow novels of the time, her writing seems shallow and commercial.
Why, then, have her novels been so successful? Why is it that she has so many closet readers, sophisticated people who enjoy her works but who are reluctant to claim their enjoyment? "Despite her failure as a thinker and a stylist, du Maurier is a master storyteller who knows how to manipulate female fantasies. She creates a world that is simple, romantic, usually ambiguous, adventuresome, mysterious, dangerous, erotic, picturesque, and satisfying. It is a world that contrasts sharply with the mundane realities of ordinary existence, and it is a world that does not require the reader to suffer the pains of introspection and analysis. It is, in short, a world that brings considerable pleasure to millions of readers, especially women" (Kelly 142).
"Perhaps du Maurier wrote too much, catered too cynically to the popular taste of her audience, but she created the "classic" gothic novel of the twentieth century, setting the stage for hundreds of imitators grinding out formulaic tales in the Harlequin Romance series and others, but she has the talent to rise to the surface of literary respectability that many of her followers lack. If Daphne du Maurier had written only REBECCA, she would still be one of the great shapers of popular culture and modern imagination" (Kelly 144).
Perhaps THE GLASS-BLOWERS achieved success based on her past ability, simply, to entertain. Yet it deviated from her "formula fiction" of suspenseful romance; she, instead, focuses on her family's French history to satisfy her own curiosity. One of du Maurier's followers remarks that the "magic of Daphne du Maurier elicits favorable comment at any times and at any place in the English-speaking world. The publication of her books?.causes brisk sales in bookstores across the nation. She writes ?best sellers?" (Lucey 146). Late in du Maurier's career, her style was dismissed by critics as inferior writing, and her literary deviation in THE GLASS-BLOWERS could have been enough to lessen the novel's sales figures amongst her frequent publications. Still, THE GLASS-BLOWERS was very successful. But as she was accustomed to her earlier monumental praise and sales figures, it did come as a disappointment to du Maurier late in her career. A private accomplishment, its success may not have been reflected in its sales figures and remembered as a bestseller; yet to Daphne du Maurier, the story of her ancestors, THE GLASS-BLOWERS, will remain one of her most important works.
Cook, Judith. Daphne: A Portrait of Daphne du Maurier. New York: Bantam Press, 1991.
Cummings, E.W. Library Journal. Volume 88. April 15. 1963.
Forster, Margaret. Daphne du Maurier. London: Chatto & Windus, 1993.
Hill, W.B. America. A Catholic Review of the Week. Volume 109. 1963.
Kelly, Richard. Daphne du Maurier. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.
Levin, Martin. Book Review Digest 1963. Dorothy P. Davison, Editor. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1964.
Lucey, Beatus T. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Dedria Bryfonski, Editor. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1979. Volume 11.
McNamara, Eugene. America. A Catholic Review of the Week. Volume 108. 1963.
Ricks, Christopher. The New Statesman. Volume 65. 1963.
Taylor, N.E. Christian Science Monitor.
The New York Times Book Review. Jan.-June. 1963.
The New Yorker. Volume 39. Feb. 23-Apr. 20. 1963.