My rating: 4 stars
If proof was needed of Daphne du Maurier’s capability to successfully combine different genres in a single book, The House on the Stand could attest to that. It is a mix of sci-fi and historical fiction that overall is used to tell a story about drug abuse and its consequences. As occasionally happens with novels which feature more than one strand, it isn’t gripping in its entirety, but the narrator’s struggle to face his addiction to a past that he never lived in rings true and is noteworthy.
The narrator, Richard (Dick) Young, travelled in time after trying a new secret drug created by his long-time friend Magnus, a Professor at the London University, whom had convinced him to stay at his house in Cornwall during the holidays. While he was in the past, his eyesight, hearing and sense of smell were heightened. He only lacked his sense of touch. As Magnus had informed him, he wasn’t aware of his body touching the ground or objects. He could walk and sit but couldn’t feel it. He had also been warned not to touch living beings from the past, because the link would break. This is all gradually explained by Dick while he recalls walking around in the past.
When he returned to the present, he felt nauseous. He craved a beverage, but Magnus had warned him not to drink alcohol immediately afterwards. Soon after, his friend called to know if he had tried the drug. They concluded that they had both gone to the lane to Tywardreath in the 14th century. 600 years separated the past from the present. Magnus had tried the drug beforehand and had also seen a horseman, who a prior called Roger, a girl and a monk. Their experiences were connected with a medieval priory which had once been part of Tywardreath.
Magnus expected the narrator to continue trying the drug at least until his wife of three years, Vita, arrived from New York. The following day, Dick tried it outside of the house. He drove to a church nearby in order to see if that would take him to a different time and place. Although he went to the same time period as before, the location was not the same but in the proximity. People were gathering to welcome the bishop to the priory. He heard Roger talk with someone about how Sir John might have the company of some lady that night, and he realised that scandal and gossip hadn’t changed much through time. That lady was Joanna, the wife of an elderly knight called Sir Henry de Champernoune. He was lord of the manor Tywardreath.
Sir John Carminowe was a patron of the priory. He had a brother, Sir Oliver, who was married to Isolda. The narrator was enchanted by her face, one he characterised as not easy to forget. The horseman mentioned that she didn’t have to provide her husband with an heir, seeing that she already had three stepsons. She also had two daughters with Sir Oliver, who could profit by marrying them later. This observation by Roger made Dick recall that women at the time were treated as valuables to be sold.
“So much for women’s value in other days. Goods reared for purchase, then bought and sold in the market-place, or rather manor. Small wonder that, their duty done, they looked round for consolation, either by taking a lover or by playing an active part in the bargaining over their own daughters and sons.”
He mentally returned to the present time when a priest tapped his shoulder. There was no obvious transition, and he experienced no side-effects. He felt like he had awakened from a dream. A sense of exhilaration took over him, though, which he thought could be a consequence of the drug. When Magnus called, he told the narrator that he had also taken the drug for the second time out of the house. He didn’t witness the same events, however. What seemed to connect their experiences was Roger’s presence.
Magnus warned him that the drug could be addictive, and Dick was already starting to experience the consequences of that. Not only was he always eager to return to the past, he was also becoming more irascible. He could not help but take the drug to know more about that bygone people, who were involved in adultery and murder. Even when he didn’t take the drug, he researched that period. He started to confuse past and present. And, although he was furious that Magnus had made him test the drug, he didn’t want his wife to arrive sooner than expected so he could continue to go back in time. Experiencing the past and being unnoticed among those people allowed him to escape his personal and marital problems. He felt lost. He had left his job but wasn’t certain about what to do next.
The House on the Strand is the most compelling when Dick had to finally deal with the consequences of using the drug. At the beginning, the novel has a more light-hearted tone, connected with the excitement of a new discovery. But it slowly turns darker. There is an increasing sense of anxiety regarding the fate of the narrator, which he felt himself. Unfortunately, the alternation between past and present becomes slightly repetitive after a while, mainly because, contrary to Dick, I was not too invested in the lives of the characters in the 14th century, although I was highly intrigued at first.
Daphne du Maurier managed to effectively recreate the ordeals caused by drug addiction, using time travel as the instigation. What started as an exciting novelty became a risky obsession.