The world of the glass-blowers has its own traditions, it’s own language – and its own rules. ‘If you marry into glass’ Pierre Labbe warns his daughter, ‘you will say goodbye to everything familiar, and enter a closed world’. But crashing into this world comes the violence and terror of the French Revolution, against which the family struggles to survive.
Years later, Sophie Duval reveals to her long-lost nephew the tragic story of a family of master craftsmen in eighteenth-century France. Drawing on her own family’s tale of tradition and sorrow, Daphne du Maurier weaves an unforgettable saga of beauty, war, and family.
Originally published in 1963, The Glass Blowers is set in eighteenth century France and follows the tale of du Maurier’s own ancestors as they fought to survive in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
Our main protagonist is Sophie Duval, the daughter of a glass blower, who tells us the story of how her father became one of France’s most respected craftsmen and tried to pass his skills down to his sons. Du Maurier is descended from Sophie’s eldest brother, Robert, who turns out to be the black sheep of the family with his many failed businesses. As Sophie grows into adulthood, the family are fairly prosperous but the political climate in France is becoming increasingly dangerous as events lead towards the start of the Revolution and the Reign of Terror.
Since no one has money to waste on glassware, the business falls into a decline from which it will never recover and Sophie’s family has to fight for survival against the bands of refugees roaming the countryside. As things continue to look bleak, Sophie soon realises the promises of equality and fraternity are never likely to materialise and it will be up to her family to forge a new life for themselves.
I desperately wanted to like The Glass Blowers and I really should’ve considering it is set during one of the most interesting periods in French history, however it failed to ignite even a spark of interest. There’s a lot of exposition during Sophie’s childhood as du Maurier establishes the family relationships and various personalities but she does a lot of telling rather than showing and the story is flat as a consequence. Du Maurier’s direct ancestor, Robert, as the family ne’er do well is a far more interesting prospect but we only hear about his antics through Sophie. I find it curious du Maurier didn’t choose to base her novel on him as his constant refusal to be content with the cards he has been dealt in life caused a lot of conflict.
After the death of Sophie’s father, the business is carved out amongst the children but Robert soon burns through his inheritance and has to be bailed out by his siblings time and again. However, Robert is the one who is living in Paris during the Reign of Terror and it would’ve been interesting to have seen the events from his point of view rather than Sophie who is so far removed from it. Robert makes one bad decision after and the loss of his first wife in childbirth, leads him to a second marriage with a young girl half his age with whom he flees to England. Again, Robert’s story seems to dry up as Sophie loses contact and it is years later before he returns to France under an assumed identity and tells a sorry tale of how he has abandoned his family once more due to mounting debts.
While Sophie seems to be the glue holding her extended family together, there is really nothing memorable about her to engage the reader and it makes for a dull read. The history behind the revolution is thoroughly researched as you would expect but suffers from being viewed through a distant lens which is a real shame. I was hoping the arrival of the revolution would inject some much needed pace into the story but, alas, it wasn’t to be.