The Glass-Blowers is a historical novel by Daphne Du Maurier, best known as the author of Rebecca, about a family of glass-blowers during the French Revolution. It is based on Du Maurier's own family. The novel begins in 1844, when the narrator, Sophie Busson Duval, is eighty years old and meets a long-lost nephew of hers, the son of her brother Robert, who had emigrated to England during the French Revolution. The nephew has been told a version of his father's life and death, which Sophie knows is not true, and Sophie tells him the true story, which is the main part of the novel.
The Busson family lives in the Sarthe region of France, southwest of Paris. They have been glass-blowers for years before the French Revolution, when families who practiced a craft tended to marry into other families who practiced the same craft. Sophie's father, Mathurin Busson, breaks tradition when he marries Magdaleine, a lawyer's daughter. Magdaleine proves to be a very strong character, and wants to learn as much about the craft of glass-blowing as possible. She gets to know the workers' families and, with her excellent head for business, keeps her husband's ledgers. Incidentally, this is not really a novel about glass-blowing. That is only the background. During the scenes set in the glassworks, though, Du Maurier really makes the reader feel the heat of the furnaces. Also, one piece, a glass goblet Mathurin makes for the king, does play an important role, and ends up being passed from generation to generation. It becomes a symbol of the family and how its members have endured the various transformations in France itself, from monarchy to revolution, to empire, and back to monarchy.
Mathurin and Magdaleine have five children, who are the main focus of the novel. Robert, the eldest son, Daphne Du Maurier's direct ancestor, unfortunately lacks his mother's business sense. He is a charming gambler, and, hoping to make a fortune, gets himself involved in one failed business scheme after another. Eventually he joins the entourage of the Duc d'Orléans, cousin of King Louis XVI and an early supporter of the French Revolution. Robert's lifestyle causes him to exceed his income and fall deeply into debt. To avoid debtors' prison, he emigrates to England, much to the dismay of his siblings, who all support the revolution to varying degrees. Robert had also supported the revolution early on, but, because of his emigration, he is seen as a royalist, and during his years in England, among the aristocratic exiles, he begins to identify more with royalist beliefs.
The second brother, Pierre, is an idealist who follows the philosophy of Rousseau, and raises his family according to Rousseau's teachings, allowing his children to do as they please, and not teaching them to read until they turn fifteen. He becomes a lawyer to the poor in the nearby city of Le Mans. Pierre supports the early, idealistic part of the revolution, but not the extremes of the Terror. Often, the other members of the family turn to Pierre for support in hard times, and, when Robert emigrates to England, Pierre ends up raising Robert's young son Jacques, who was left behind in France, while Robert remarries and raises a second family in England.
Michel, the third brother, speaks with a stammer and suffers terribly as a child because of it. His father thinks he will never amount to much, but Michel turns out to be the son who lasts the longest in the glass-blowing trade. Michel becomes a fanatical supporter of the revolution and a leader of the regional National Guard, who goes about the countryside sacking aristocratic houses and hunting down people who are suspected of being supporters of the aristocrats. It is suggested that Michel's suffering as a child led him to become such an ardent revolutionary. He has a particular hatred of the clergy because of a priest who shunned him for fathering an illegitimate child.
The narrator, Sophie, is the fourth child and has a more flexible attitude toward the revolution than her siblings. She supports it, but not to as great a degree as some of her siblings. Sophie has no love for the aristocrats, but she is horrified by some of the things that Michel does. She is also the first to welcome her brother Robert when he returns to France during the brief peace of 1802. Sophie marries François Duval, a friend of Michel's, who is also a member of the National Guard. François joins Michel on his raids of aristocratic houses, but he is very much a follower, not a leader, and plays a secondary role in the novel.
The youngest sibling is Edmé, who, like her brother Michel, becomes an ardent supporter of the revolution. She marries a tax-collector, a much older man, but when the revolution begins and her husband's profession becomes hated by the revolutionaries, she leaves him and keeps house for Michel, who remains a bachelor. Edmé is not afraid to use violence, and when royalist rebels invade the city of Le Mans, she fights them with a musket. Unlike Pierre and Sophie, who adapt to the times when Napoleon becomes emperor, Edmé never stops believing in a republic, and continues to fight for revolutionary causes. I found her a much more interesting character than the narrator Sophie, and I wish there had been more about her in the novel.
The Glass-Blowers is not a plot-driven novel, and it is about family relationships, not the major events of the revolution. Since the family lives in the countryside, they learn about the major events such as the storming of the Bastille and the king's execution second-hand, after several days have passed. The novel gives you a sense of how slowly news traveled during the French Revolution. The reader gets a good sense of what it was like to live in those times when the family's home was relatively far from the center of the action. But the novel is not without incident. There is a memorable scene early on, when Sophie, on a visit to Paris, has to take care of Robert's pregnant wife while a mob rages outside. The Busson family and their neighbors are very much afraid when they hear rumors of brigands in the countryside, even though the rumors turn out to be false. Later on, in what is probably the novel's most dramatic scene, royalist rebels invade Le Mans and take over Pierre's house while Sophie and Edmé are visiting. Street fighting ensues, with tragic and heartbreaking results.
We also see revolutionary politics in action at the local level, as Michel and Sophie's husband François disrupt an election for the National Convention and expel the men they consider to be not revolutionary enough. Later, this action gets them into trouble, and only François' brother, a politician in Paris, can rescue them. Sophie and other women are allowed to be present when the election takes place, but, of course, they are not allowed to vote.
Sophie and her family also discuss the major events of the revolution. In one very brief but telling scene, Sophie, Pierre, and Michel talk about the king's trial, and their various opinions say much about their characters and attitudes. Sophie thinks the king should be sent into exile, when Pierre is in favor of imprisonment for life. Michel, the strongest supporter of the revolution among them, wants the king to be executed, which is, of course, what happens.
Daphne Du Maurier does a great job of bringing this period to life, telling the story of the French Revolution from one family's point of view. It does have its flaws. As I said, it is told through the eyes of the character who is probably the least interesting member of the family, Sophie. Certainly, the brothers are more fully developed than the sisters, and Edmé seems more complex and interesting than Sophie. I just wish there had been more about her. But, on the whole, the novel is definitely worth reading, and I would recommend it for anyone who wants to read about those times. Certainly, the theme of family members divided by political beliefs is one that is very timely today.
The Glass-Blowers is available from the Buhr Shelving Facility (interestingly, in the children's collection, even though it is not a children's book) as well as from the Hatcher Graduate Library and electronically through HathiTrust.