Once again I am taking part in Ali’s Daphne Du Maurier Reading Week – a celebration of the work of Cornwall’s finest. I am really grateful to Ali for hosting this event, as I don’t think I would have pushed myself to read so much of her work.
The Scapegoat was published in 1957, and is an atmospheric thriller dealing with familiar Du Maurier themes of identity, self and spiritual belonging, which sees her protagonist again living by their wits when thrust into an unfamiliar world.
John, a solitary British historian and academic, is holidaying in France, a country he has a strong affinity for due to his studies. He leads a quiet life, absorbed in his work with no family in London and feels aimless and depressed. This recent trip to France has done nothing to lift him from his stupor, on the contrary, it has made him feel worse about his life and he is considering joining a Trappist monastery.
My knowledge was library knowledge, and my day-by-day experience no deeper than a tourist’s gleaning. The urge to know was with me, and the ache. The smell of the soil, the gleam of the wet roads, the faded paint of shutters masking windows through which I should never look, the grey faces of houses whose doors I should never enter, were to me an everlasting reproach, a reminder of distance, of nationality. Others could force an entrance and break the barrier down: not I. I should never be a Frenchman, never be one of them.
The opportunity to be ‘one of them’ comes when he least expects it. By chance he meets Jean, a Frenchman at a railway station, and they are horrified and intrigued to find that physically, they are doubles. They look exactly alike, although their personalities couldn’t be more different. The go for dinner and drink together and the next day John awakes, hungover, to find that Jean has disappeared with John’s car and all his worldly belongings and he himself is assumed to be Jean du Gué and is forced to life Jean’s life.
How well you enjoy The Scapegoat from this point on will rest almost entirely on how accepting you are of its doppelgänger premise. As a plot device it doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. It’s often said that we all have a twin, and Jean and John may look exactly identical, but differences such as voice patterns (remembering that John is an Englishman speaking his second language), mannerisms and behaviours, would make it nigh on impossible to pass yourself off to someone’s family. It’s a testament to Du Maurier’s skill as a writer – and the understated way in which she details their meeting and the initial swap – that the idea that John will not be uncovered is not only possible, but believable. She emphasises the point that identity is mainly based on the expectations of others, rather than on an innate sense of self.
When John, as Jean, arrives at the family home, he soon discovers why Jean was so keen to escape his life. He finds himself accepted as a father, a son and a husband (only the dog is wary of him) and quickly must piece together the complicated relationships within the du Gué residence. Within a few days he realises that the family glass-blowing business is failing due to Jean neglecting his business duties and leaving all the work to his resentful brother Paul. Jean has been having an affair with his bored sister-in-law Renée, despite being married to the sickly Francoise who is about to give birth. His mother is a morphine addict and his sister Blanche hasn’t spoken to him for fifteen years. His daughter Marie-Noel is obsessed with Catholic saints and there is a raft of workers depending on Jean for their livelihood.
John quickly realises that this is no game and that his actions, as Jean, will have far-reaching consequences. In a lesser novel, John would start to make things right for the du Gué’s, undoing all the pain and suffering that Jean has been causing through the years and bringing this broken family together. Quite quickly John realises that he has been inserted into a complex and swiftly moving story and that none of his book learning can help when dealing with the moral responsibility of being the head of a family.
One had no right to play about with people’s lives. One should not interfere with their emotions. A word, a look, a smile, a frown, did something to another human being, waking response or aversion, and a web was woven which had no beginning and no end, spreading outward and inward too, merging, entangling, so that the struggle of one depended on the struggle of the other.
Whose best interests should he work for? His own, or those of this family of strangers into which he has been thrust? Du Maurier pushes John’s moral dilemma as he comes to care for these people and be drawn into their history and their past secrets. Can John manage to both help this family rebuild and in doing so rebuild himself into the man he wants to be?
He knew suddenly, with conviction, that it was not a stranger’s curiosity that drew me to them, a sentimental attachment to the picturesque, but something deeper, more intimate, a desire so intense for their wellbeing and their future that although akin to love it resembled pain.
Du Maurier wonderfully meshes this ingenious plot into its striking historical and physical context. She presents the disintegration of this family within the wider context of a national story of struggle and resistance which has bred an atmosphere of recrimination and regret. As John untangles Jean’s history, he feels himself becoming a part of something bigger, not just part of a family, but of a place he has come to love.
I was the possessor now, he the intruder. The chateau was my chateau, the people were my people, the family who in a few minutes would sit with me round the table were my family, my flesh and blood; they belonged to me and I to them. He could not return and make them his again.
As always, Du Maurier captures a wonderful sense of place. The French countryside is depicted with a vivid eye and she brilliantly evokes the claustrophobic atmosphere of the chateau that succeeded in driving Jean away.
Her ending, as always, is an ambiguous one. John is in some ways similar to du Maurier’s most famous narrator. Like the new Mrs de Winter, he longs to be a better version of the person he has supplanted, but comes to realise that he can’t just be a double, he must embrace this darker side of his personality in order to discover his true self.
Many thanks again to Ali for hosting this annual celebration. You can read all the other posts from this week here.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!