Dick Young is lent a house in Cornwall by his friend Professor Magnus Lane. During his stay he agrees to serve as a guinea pig for a new drug that Magnus has discovered in his scientific research.
When Dick samples Magnus’s potion, he finds himself doing the impossible: traveling through time while staying in place, thrown all the way back into Medieval Cornwall. The concoction wear off after several hours, but its effects are intoxicating and Dick cannot resist his newfound powers. As his journeys increase, Dick begins to resent the days he must spend in the modern world, longing ever more fervently to get back into his world of centuries before, and the home of the beautiful Lady Isolda…
The House on the Strand, published in 1969, was written around the time Daphne du Maurier was being forced to leave her beloved Menabilly to move into Kilmarth. When exploring Kilmarth, du Maurier came across a laboratory in the basement and further exploration revealed the previous tenant had been a professor. Armed with this knowledge and research on the history of the house, du Maurier began writing the story of Dick Young, a man who is invited to stay at Kilmarth by the owner, Professor Magnus Lane, an old college friend. The professor persuades Dick to partake in an experiment where imbibing a certain substance will take Dick back to the past.
Although he is initially sceptical, Dick agrees and soon finds himself back in the fourteenth century where he can witness events but is powerless to intervene. As Dick continues to take the drug, he finds it increasingly harder returning to the modern world and matters are made worse by the arrival of his wife and stepchildren who begin to grate on his nerves. The more Dick travels back into the past, it becomes clear the drug is beginning to affect him physically as well as mentally. When Magnus decides to join Dick, the visit ends in tragedy when the professor dies after walking into the path of a train but not even this is enough to stop Dick.
I’ll have to admit to struggling my way through The House on the Strand and (so far) it is my least favourite du Maurier novel, mainly because I really didn’t care for the characters or the premise very much. Although Dick’s ability to mentally travel back in time to witness events of the past would be utterly amazing to me as an amateur genealogist, I just did not feel any connection to the fourteenth century tale and failed to see what Dick found so fascinating. Although we soon discover the people Dick is watching were real, we are never entirely sure whether Dick is tapping into some genetic memory of the events or if he’s imagining everything. I think the fact Dick was a passive observer annoyed me more than anything else because if he had been allowed to interact with these characters from the past, he may have forged a stronger connection to make his constant desire to return more credible.
As usual with a du Maurier novel, the setting plays a big part in the story and Dick spends a great deal of time wandering about Cornwall trying to visualise the landscape as it would’ve appeared in the past. While this is probably fascinating to someone who actually lives in the area, it becomes increasingly tedious as the novel continues. Even though du Maurier’s writing is as vivid and detailed as ever, it just didn’t add anything to the story. Not for me, I guess.