Faithful to her word, Sophie Duval reveals to her long-lost nephew the tragic story of a family of master craftsmen in eighteenth-century France. The world of the glass-blowers has its own traditions, its 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.
Using her own family history as inspiration, Du Maurier gives us the ageing Sophie Duval, who has promised her nephew that she will tell the story of their family, starting with her mother marrying into the local community of glass blowers.
The story starts with Sophie’s mother getting married in the 1770s in rural France, where the glass blowers are situated beside the forests that provide the fuel for the furnaces.
Sophie herself gets married in 1788 in a joint wedding with her younger sister. It’s not long before the issues building up in Paris spills out into the countryside. The storming of the Bastille and other important events is told via gossip and second hand scaremongering as panic spreads across the land, and thieves and brigands are seen in every shadow, ready to burn crops and steal wood.
Over the next few years, we see how the revolution happening in the bigger towns and cities filters down into the countryside, where neighbour can turn against neighbour and family fortunes can be made and lost by a word in the wrong place.
Sophie’s family is directly affected where one brother, who gambles with his money and reputation, emigrates to England having been declared bankrupt too many times, and stakes his living (badly) with the other French emigres.
Pierre becomes a notary, Edme works first with Pierre and then Michel as local leaders in the revolution. Both men die in their old age, tired and worn out, and Edme is left to continue her fight for a revolution that has long lost it’s spark. Sophie lives into her old age where her nephew (Michel’s son) has become the mayor of the local town and we’re back to where the story started.
The book is sub-400 pages long in this edition, so this is not an in depth detailed look at the French Revolution. du Maurier has chosen some set pieces to highlight on and there is much that is told briefly (or not at all). Therefore this is not a book for someone looking for a non-fictionalised account of the Revolution, should be seen more as a lead-in story.
This is another example of du Maurier’s skill is telling historical fiction, and should be much better known than it is.