“The Glass-Blowers” tells the story of a middle-class family in France just before and during the French revolution.
Sophie Busson is the daughter of a master glassmaker and his wife, with three brothers and one sister. Her mother is formidable, respected and hard-working and in many ways becomes a ‘safety net’ for Sophie. Her father unfortunately dies while still in his fifties. Sophie was sixteen years old when she lost her father.
As the story progresses and a hard winter combined with high bread prices stokes the fires of resentment among the poorer classes, Sophie finds her family caught up in the vacillating tides of revolution.
“I’ve been saying this for years,” my brother Pierre would remark, when he came to visit us. “What we need is a written Constitution as they have in America, with equal rights for all, and no privileged classes. Our laws and legal system are out of date, along with our economy; and the King can do nothing about it. Feudalism has him in thrall as it has the whole country…”
“How, I asked, “would having a written Constitution make any of us the better off?”
“Because,” answered Pierre, “by abolishing the feudal system the power of the privileged would be broken, and the money they take from all our pockets would go towards giving the country a sound economy.”
When Robert flees to London to avoid prosecution for bankruptcy, he leaves his young son Jacques behind in the care of his mother.
I found Sophie’s self-serving and ambitious brother Robert to be a frustrating character! Saved more than once out of his financial schemes that were ultimately paid for by his own family, I could not understand the depths his own mother would go to to enable her son to escape paying off his own debts.
As conditions in France deteriorate and revolution looms, Sophie at first is horrified when her husband Francois and brother Michel join the National Guard and participate in the sacking of the homes of the aristocracy. However once she experiences the brutality of the counter-revolutionaries, arriving to loot and pillage her brother Pierre’s home and business, she finds herself able to overlook her family’s actions.
“I looked at myself in the mirror on the wall. There was a great weal on my face where the man had laid his whip, and it was bleeding, too. I did not mind the pain, but the shock of what had happened made me feel faint. I put my handkerchief to my face and sat on the bed, trembling.
“Are you hurt?” asked Emile anxiously.
“No,” I said, “no, it’s not that.”
It was what one person could do to another. The man driving the cart, not knowing me, cracking my face with his whip. It was Edme, shooting wildly from the window. It was the crowd, in ‘89, before the Abbey of St. Vincent…”
When Robert finally does return to England, the reader finds that he has not changed his true colors. His choices have tragic consequences for his family relationships.
Although starting out strong, I was disappointed by the slow-moving pace of this historical novel. The author somehow failed to make her characters breathe and resonate for me. The chapters describing the arrival of civil war and fighting coming to Pierre’s village were more intriguing. I did enjoy how some of the characters mature throughout the story; most surprising was seeing Pierre, Sophie’s brother, in his admirable philanthropy to aid those too poor to find legal assistance.
Daphne du Maurier bases this story upon her own family ancestry and in her acknowledgments, thanks those who have helped her discover the facts relating to the Bussons, during the years from 1747-1845.
“But the name Busson,” he insisted. “I was brought up to understand that we were descended from an aristocratic Breton family going back to the fourteenth century…”
Madame Duval considered her nephew with a sceptical eye. “Your father Robert was first and foremost the most incorrigible farceur I have ever known,” she said drily, “and if he told these tales in England no doubt it suited his purpose at the time.”