The addiction of time travel: Daphne Du Maurier’s The House on the Strand

Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novel is of course Rebecca, perhaps the ultimate in twentieth century gothics, a bestseller that struck a huge chord when it was published and was made into an even more famous movie. She also wrote a number of historical and contemporary novels, a lot of creepy things that edge on fantasy, and two science fiction novels. They weren’t marketed as SF of course, not even her dystopic comedy Rule Britannia, and certainly not The House on the Strand. The modern cover looks like a literary exercise, and the seventies Pan edition I own looks like a historical novel. It is however unquestionably science fiction. It has some of the typical errors of science fiction written by mainstream writers, clunky exposition, buzzwords used embarrassingly badly, too much explained at the wrong time. Nevertheless you can ignore that and have a good book, because the scientific handwaving doesn’t matter. It’s deliberately framed in terms of alchemy (a monkey’s head in a jar?), and it might just as well be magic except for the way that’s essential to the story for the mechanism to be scientific.

This is a story about someone in the present (1969) who uses an experimental drug to travel in time. The “trips” are explicitly compared to the acid trips people were making in similar semi-legitimate scientific circles at the time, but they are trips to the fourteenth century. The book combines a story in the present, of the narrator and his trips, his relationships with people in his own century, his growing addiction and the way he hides it from his family, with a story in the past, of which he is a voyeur. He goes back in time to crucial moments in the story of Roger of Kilmarth, he sees only the highlights, murder, adultery, plague, betrayal. The most interesting thing about the mechanism of the time travel is that it is only his brain that travels, but his body moves about in both worlds—he is present insubstantially in the fourteenth century and cannot touch or affect anything there, but his body is in the same physical location, when he walks in the past he walks in the present, entirely oblivious to the world of the present.

This is why Magnus, the creator of the potion, walks under a train. His brain was in the fourteenth century and the train wasn’t there for him.

Du Maurier often wrote from the point of view of insignificant people. Dick, the narrator of The House on the Strand, does get a name, unlike the narrator of Rebecca. But it’s a typically insignificant name. Yet he isn’t, like many insignificant narrators, there to stand in for the reader. He has, as all Du Maurier’s narrators do, a distinct and distinctive personality. He just isn’t very forceful, he is someone who is easily worked upon by others. He isn’t an admirable character. He rationalises his motivations, he is submissive, and he’s altogether an odd protagonist. But this is a story about addiction—addiction in this case to a time travel drug.

There are a number of stories—Holmes and Watson are an obvious example—where there are two men, one a genius and the other the narrator. Du Maurier does this here with Magnus and Dick. Magnus is a scientific genius, he has invented this potion, he has lent Dick his house in Cornwall for a holiday, he tempts Dick to experiment with the drug, to be his guinea pig. Their friendship is in the typical male pattern, they have known each other since Cambridge, Dick used to spend holidays in Magnus’s house when Magnus’s parents were alive, and they meet for dinner in London frequently. But it’s 1969, not 1929. Du Maurier had been writing for a long time and observing people acutely for even longer. She was well aware that in these homophilic male patterns of friendship there were often shadows and echoes of homoeroticism, sometimes relics of an actual earlier homosexual relationship, sometimes suppressed a lot more than that.

Since it was 1969, she could write about this pretty much openly. Dick and Magnus met in church, in Cambridge, where they were both mooning over a choirboy. Magnus has never married, Dick has recently married Vita, an American widow with two sons who dislikes and is deeply jealous of Magnus. Dick teases flirtatiously Magnus about his homosexuality. They have each been on a trip, Magnus to a monks dormitory where “what you think” has been going on, and Dick to a gathering of the fourteenth century gentry:

“I think we found what we deserved. I got His Grace the Bishop and the County, awaking in me all the forgotten snob appeal of Stonyhurst, and you got the sexy deviations you have denied yourself for thirty years.”

“How do you know I’ve denied them?”

“I don’t, I give you credit for good behaviour.”

Later Dick overhears Vita saying that Magnus is “that way” but that Dick himself is “rather the reverse.” Because of Dick’s addiction, he longs for Magnus and is constantly repelled by Vita’s interfering. I think we’re supposed to read Dick as mostly heterosexual, barring school, and the relationship thirty years ago with Magnus, because he falls chastely in love with an impossible woman, Lady Isolda Carminowe, who has in reality been dead for six centuries, and who in any case is married and having an affair with someone else. But Dick’s sexuality whatever it’s direction doesn’t have a very strong current—he constantly turns away from Vita.

Vita is made an American with the intention of making her intuitively unsympathetic to the perceived British audience. Her Americanness is clunky, the clumsiest thing in the book, worse than the double talk about DNA and brain cells—surely Du Maurier must have known American boys wouldn’t play cricket of all things! “Like all Americans she had a splendid figure.” One wonders how many Americans she had encountered outside of movies. Vita represents the present, and the future, while Dick is drawn always to the past. He doesn’t even want to be in London, and she’s trying to make him go to New York. Symbolically, she’s the domineering US woman of British fiction; she doesn’t do a very good job of being one realistically. She’s also repulsive to Dick in her femininity—a rather old-fashioned femininity of attention to fashion and cold cream to remove make-up. And she has her two boys by a previous marriage—typically, as a fictional American in a British book, she should be divorced, but it’s necessary that she be widowed to reflect the plot in the past. I think that despite Dick’s ambiguous feelings towards her we’re supposed to find her a hindrance at first and then develop sympathy for her. This is very much a story about seeing behind the surfaces.

The fourteenth century is full of widows and unfaithful wives. The doctor who treats Dick for his addiction after Magnus’s death makes up a Freudian explanation for what he believes Dick to have hallucinated—a woman with daughters instead of sons, widows worrying about remarriage, adultery. And the Freudian explanation would hold, except that Magnus saw the same people Dick did, and Dick is quite sure they are real and nothing but real. Dick’s obsession with the people in the past and what is happening to them bleeds through into the present as his addiction advances, he begins to conflate the two times. “You have to remember it was snowing at the time,” he says to the coroner, of Magnus’s death in July. The process of his addiction is done brilliantly.

The book’s attitude to science is interesting. On the one hand it’s typically negative, here’s another thing science has come up with that’s too dangerous to use. Magnus is almost an evil genius, certainly his basement lab with its horrors in jars only needs a few Igors. The potion, at first seen as wonderful, is revealed as addictive and physically harmful. However, since Dick is so enthusiastic about Magnus and about the trips, though clearly addicted and occasionally seeing the problem for a moment, that the beneficial qualities are definitely given equal time. I mentioned that the scientific bafflegab was terrible. Here’s a sample:

“You realise,” he said, “That this is the most important thing since the chemical boys got hold of teonanocatl and ololiuqui?” […] “It has to do with DNA, enzyme catalysts, molecular equilibria and the like—above your head, dear boy, I won’t elaborate—but the point that interests me at the moment is that you and I apparently went into an identical period of time.”

The time travel has to be scientific, for a number of reasons. First, if it were magical the people in the past would be ghosts. In one sense they are—certainly Dick is haunted by them—but the hyper-reality of the experience is stressed over and over. Secondly, ghosts can show or withhold themselves when they want to, this experience is willed and sought and under Dick’s control, without the people in the past knowing he is there at all. Thirdly, the element of addiction is central—he’s taking a potion he doesn’t understand, and he keeps taking it in an addictive fashion. He’s in control and not in control. The balance here is done very well, because the reader wants to know more about the people in the past, and it isn’t until Dick is behaving entirely unreasonably that one parts sympathy with him. (I first read this as a teenager, when I had a great orgy of reading the complete works of Du Maurier in about a fortnight, and I don’t think I ever lost sympathy with him, not even when he attempts to strangle Vita.) The reason the stuff is a potion and not a machine is also because of the addiction, but additionally it means that there’s a finite amount, once Magnus is dead, Dick isn’t going to be able to take any more trips than the limited amount he has left will allow.

There’s an underlying assumption throughout The House on the Strand that nice middle class people are the ones that matter. We see peasants in the past but only in passing, being picturesque and slaughtering pigs at Martinmass. The main characters are all lords and ladies, but local gentry, not kings and dukes. The only exception is the most interesting, the “alter ego” of both Dick and Magnus, the “psychopomp” Roger who they both follow on their trips. He is a steward. In the present the main characters are rich and decidedly middle class, Magnus and Dick went to exclusive public schools (Dick to a Catholic one) and then to Cambridge, Vita flies the Atlantic frequently, they manage to have a servant who comes in daily—it is 1969 and that was about the best anyone could do. Mrs Collins is barely given any characterisation at all, nor are the policemen, in contrast to the doctor. This is a very narrow slice of observed life.

The most interesting comparison is with Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, in which a girl from the near future uses a time machine to go back to pretty much the same time period, and also in England. Du Maurier’s characters are in Cornwall and Willis’s in Oxfordshire, or they could have met… their fourteenth-century characters are even of the same social class. They even have a similarity of structure, with a plot in the present and a plot in the past. But despite that, you’d have to go a long way to find two more different stories.

This isn’t Du Maurier’s best book, or my favourite of hers. What I’ve mostly been talking about are things that make it interesting. What makes it good is, as always with her, the close grip she keeps on the narration and the events of the plot and the relationship between them. Within the part of the spectrum she was working in, nobody ever managed to do so much with such unlikely material.

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