In The Glass-Blowers
, Daphne du Maurier explores her French family background through historical fiction, much as she did for another branch of her family in [b:Mary Anne|149712|Mary Anne|Daphne du Maurier|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1333331487s/149712.jpg|2186383]. In this novel, the stormy backdrop is the French Revolution. Du Maurier’s forbears, the Bussons (du Maurier was later added as an affectation by one of the brothers), were a family of master craftsmen in the art of glassblowing.
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Glassblowing, of course, is an apt metaphor for the Revolution itself. “Control is of supreme importance. One false movement and the expanding glass will be shattered . . . There comes this supreme moment to the glass-blower, when he can either breathe life and form into the growing bubble slowly taking shape before his eyes, or shatter it into a thousand fragments.”
Du Maurier chooses to examine the French Revolution from a slightly unusual perspective. The story of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette is peripheral. Nor is this Dickens’ depiction of oppressed Parisian peasants exacting revenge with the guillotine. In The Glass-Blowers
, the story takes place primarily outside Paris, in smaller towns and in the countryside. The narrator, Sophie, describes her family’s position in the glass-making business, as well as the revolutionary activities of two of her brothers and a sister. Another brother, Robert (Daphne’s future great-great grandfather), eventually flees to England to escape his creditors, earning the shameful label of émigré
, an epithet which carries overtones of treason to the Republic.
The other two brothers become local leaders, enjoying their elevated status in the new Republic. They decide when to loot a chateau or execute or imprison those who seem suspicious to the new regime. They experience their own misfortunes, however, in the general chaos. The depiction of the family’s encounter with the Vendéans
is particularly chilling. This violent side note in a country simultaneously torn by revolution and involved in a foreign war doesn’t get as much attention in the era’s history as other events. The Vendéans were an enormous mob of Royalist soldiers, peasants (including women and children), dispossessed aristocracy, and clergy that advanced from the Vendée region against the French Republic. Du Maurier describes how they occupied and looted houses during a stop in Le Mans, by that time desperate and starving, and were then repulsed by the Republican forces, in many cases annihilated down to the last man, woman, and child.
Du Maurier’s viewpoint on all of these events is a personal one, giving an idea of the day-to-day existence of people trying to live what would otherwise be ordinary lives in the midst of tumultuous upheaval. In such a turbulent time, even the lives of ordinary people make compelling novels.