Daphne and I go way back. My dad practically strong-armed me into reading The Glassblowers when I was in eighth grade, and though I can’t remember a thing about it now, I know I enjoyed it. In ninth grade, my English teacher described to the class his reading of Rebecca: “It starts out with a young girl being in love. Which I was like, ‘Pfff. Whatever.’ Then something happens on, say, page 200, that just blew my mind, and I finished the book at 1:30 in the morning.” Yeah. You know I was all over that as soon as I could get to the library. I think I’ve read it four or five times since then.
In recent years, I’ve read My Cousin Rachel and a collection of her excellently eerie short stories, but I never knew till recently that Du Maurier ever wrote anything even approaching science fiction. The House on the Strand is partly about time travel, but also about the dangers of literally losing one’s grip on reality. Richard Young, an academic man in his mid-forties, agrees to play guinea pig for his professor friend Magnus, who claims he has concocted a potion that allows one to travel back in time. Richard takes the potion and becomes fascinated not only by the sensation of time travel, but also by the beautiful Isolda Carminowe, a fourteenth century noblewoman who, along with everyone else in her time period, can neither hear, feel, nor see Richard. If Richard attempts to touch anyone while back in time, he is jolted back to the future (yeah, I used that phrase) so violently that he feels acute pain and nausea.
These “trips” take on a metaphorical aspect as it becomes clear that Richard is addicted to time travel. He loses interest in real life, even to the point of neglecting his wife and his two stepsons. (To be fair, he makes it clear that he was never very interested in them to begin with.) When he first “comes to” after each trip, he is confronted by two immediate difficulties. First, though he has traveled in time mentally, his physical body has remained in the present, traveling spatially as he has walked through the empty fields and castles of the past. This means he sometimes wakes up just as he is about to step over the edge of a ravine, or get hit by a car. Second, he cannot immediately shake the sense that what he just witnessed did not actually just happen. He feels a sense of urgency unrelated to anything that is happening in his own time. The parallels to drug addiction are made clear in the descriptions of Richard’s exhaustion, shaky hands, bloodshot eyes, disorientation, and willingness to do anything, including risking his life, to get one more chance to find out what happens to the people he’s encountered in the past.
The House on the Strand is not a page-turner, but it’s so simple that it goes fairly quickly. Rather than giving us the absorbing, gothicism-infused work one might expect from her, Du Maurier has written a quiet novel about an addict whose drug of choice just happens to be time travel. Richard Young is hardly likable, but he is sympathetic to anyone who’s ever lost herself in any pursuit society deems a pastime. Watching Isolda and her lover, Richard narrates, “… I felt this strange disturbance, a sense of loss, utterly unlike anything I might experience in my own time, had I seen two lovers from a window… Intense involvement, and intense compassion too… And I had no way of explaining my sense of participation in all they did…” Reading this, I was reminded of a fairly famous quote from Michael Ende’s fabulous The Neverending Story: “If you have never wept bitter tears because a wonderful story has come to an end and you must take your leave of the characters with whom you have shared so many adventures, whom you have loved and admired, for whom you have hoped and feared, and without whose company life seems empty and meaningless… you probably won’t understand what Bastian did next.” It’s hard to feel sorry for Richard when he’s being a jerk in the real world, but I can exactly understand his feelings when he’s watching historical figures of the past live their lives before his eyes.
As is typical of Du Maurier, the prose is beautiful and understated, and the resolution, while seemingly open-ended, is actually quite satisfying and rife with implication. Flitting about the borders of the main story are barely-veiled subtexts of homosexual and homosocial desire that imbue Richard’s time travel experiences with a tinge of the Freudian, though these elements are so basic I wouldn’t say they open up the book to full-on psychoanalysis. The House on the Strand is no Rebecca, nor is it even hard science fiction or romantic fantasy, but it is a thoughtful, intelligent diversion, which is so much more than one can say about eighty percent of what passes for literature nowadays.