The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

The Glass-Blowers (1963) is a work of historical fiction by Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989), based on members of her own family. It begins in 1844 and is largely set during the French Revolution.

A Louis XV engraved crystal tumbler made by the Bussons and passed down through the family was in Daphne’s possession at the time she wrote this book. The novel will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2023.

An Ancestral Scoundrel

eighteenth century France revolutionDaphne du Maurier was a fifth-generation descendant of a master glassblower who moved to England during the French Revolution. Until the author began researching her French ancestry, the family believed they were descended from the French aristocracy and that their ancestor Robert Busson (1747 – 1811) had fled France and the threat of the guillotine during the French Revolution.

The truth was known by his sister and documented in letters now held in a special collections archive at the University of Exeter. Despite knowing these family stories were false, Daphne’s grandfather George continued to perpetuate the story of the aristocratic ancestors. Her father Gerald, who then grew up listening to these tales, also insisted they were true.

Daphne’s research concluded that far from being aristocratic owners of a glass-blowing empire, Mathurin Robert Busson was a failed artisan glassmaker who had escaped to England to avoid a French debtors’ prison.  He took the name du Maurier to provide himself status, becoming Mathurin Robert Busson du Maurier.

Daphne du Maurier French ancestry The GlassBlowers“She was not at all snobbish,” says American academic Anne Hall, who lives in the Perche region and has made a study of the du Mauriers’ French connection. “So she was genuinely very proud when she found out her ancestors were craftsmen.”

The du Maurier name was a reference to the farmhouse where his family had lived and worked – Le Maurier, still around today in the Perche region, 190km (120 miles) south-west of Paris.

The Glass-Blowers, the novel

The novel begins with an introductory prologue, where Madame Sophie Duval’s daughter writes to her mother of an extraordinary surprise, in meeting a young man at a dinner party whose name was Louis-Mathurin Busson, that he had been born and raised in England of émigré parents.

crystal artifact Daphne du Maurier The Glass-Blowers

The Louis XV engraved crystal tumbler made by ancestors of Daphne du Maurier

Recognising the names connected to her mother’s family, she enquired of his father’s profession, only to be told he had been a gentleman glass-blower who had owned several foundries before the Revolution and that due to being part of the aristocracy it had been necessary for them to emigrate. He had told her of his father’s tragic death on returning to France in the hope of restoring his family fortunes.

“I asked if he had relatives. He said he believed not. They had all been guillotined during the Terror, and the château Maurier and the glass-foundries destroyed.”

Wondering if this could be her brother’s son, Madame Duval decides to go to Paris immediately to meet this young man and ascertain if he is indeed her nephew. When he shows her an artifact (pictured here) his father left him, there remains no doubt it is indeed her brother’s son. There is much the boy does not know about his father, Sophie then promises to write.

Family History Revealed In Letters

“Perhaps we shall not see each other again. I will write to you, though, and tell you, as best I can, the story of your family. A glass-blower, remember, breathes life into a vessel, giving it shape and form and sometimes beauty; but he can with that same breath, shatter and destroy it. If what I write displeases you, it will not matter. Throw my letters in the fire unread, and keep your illusions. For myself, I have always preferred to know the truth.”

special collections archive University of Exeter

Photo by Pixabay on

Chapter One and the novel begins as Madame Sophie Duval begins to write the story to her nephew, covering sheet after sheet of writing paper in her formal upright hand.

Sophie narrates the story, beginning with her parents’ marriage and the change in lifestyle for her mother as they joined the company of glassblowers to begin a new life together.

My father Mathurin and my mother Magdaleine, with his sister Françoise and her husband Louis Démére – a master glass-maker like himself -seated themselves in the front of the waggon beside the driver, and behind them, in order of precedence, came the various craftsmen with their wives: the souffleurs, or blowers, the melters, and the flux-burners. The stokers, along with the driers, came in the second waggon, and a crowd of apprentices filled the third, with my father’s brother Michel in charge.

Familial Relationships Explored

By the time Sophie was twelve years old her father would be managing four glass-houses. Her elder brother Robert was given responsibilities, but seemed to prefer going off to the town and his rapidly acquired airs annoyed his father. Robert didn’t wish to spend his life dealing with merchants and traders, he believed that by mixing in a more refined society, he would create contacts and obtain more orders that way.

Glassblower Dahne du Maurier France

Photo by M. Balland @

The novel explores the different characters of the brothers, Robert always wanting to get ahead by making foolhardy gambles, putting the family business at risk, Pierre, the dreamer who spends ten years in Martinique, returns and surprises them all by buying a notary’s practice in Le Mans and an advocate for citizen’s rights, and Michel, afflicted with a stutter, the least expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, will become the natural leader.

Sophie is the most conventional, an observer of events, rarely becoming actively involved, her sister Edmé something of an activist, particularly in the years of the revolution.

‘The glass world was unique, a law unto itself. It had its own rules and customs, and a separate language too, handed down not only from father to son but from master to apprentice, instituted heaven knows how many centuries ago wherever the glass-makers settled—in Normandy, in Lorraine, by the Loire—but always, naturally, by forests, for wood was the glass foundry’s food, the mainstay of its existence.’

La Grande Peur, France During the Revolution

The novel loses some of its pace when it moves away from the family business towards the revolutionary era, a period of terror, when rumour is rife of marauding bands of men roaming the nearby forests, food prices becoming exorbitant and strikes and disturbances continually breaking out in Paris and the big cities. Talk of a new constitution, new laws, equal rights for all and the removal of privileged classes was everywhere.

‘How,’ I asked, ‘would having a written Constitution make any of us 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.

This seemed to me all in the air, like so much of Pierre’s talk. The system might one day change, but human nature remained the same, and there were always people who profited at the expense of others.

Clearly the novel was very well researched, which at times compromised the pace of the story. I did set it aside at one stage and took a while to get back to it, that said, it’s a novel that is best persevered with, pushing through the more dense political sections.

It is a fascinating story and an interesting family history, even if not quite the one that was handed down through one of the family lines. What family doesn’t have skeletons in its closets, secrets buried deep and unknown relatives popping up when least expected?

‘I was the only one to know my brother’s secret, and I kept it even from my husband.’

Further Reading

Article: Daphne du Maurier: Novelist who traced past to a French debtors’ jail by Hugh Schofield, BBC

Daphne du Maurier’s French Ancestry and her novel The Glass Blowers – article on The Daphne du Maurier website

and the winner is …

Well the odds of winning this give-away are pretty good, clearly  many, many people had already read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.


So here are the five potential winners, cosy in the prize draw hat.

5 lucky readers keen to read Rebecca


and the winner is…..


Rebecca stays in France!

I happen to know Deidre is participating in NaNoWriMo this month and doing very well, with more than 16,000 words written already.  She wrote an excellent post summarising all the research and tips before embarking on this ‘Write a 50,000 word novel in November’ challenge, which you can read here.

She has a great blog which I love reading, especially as she lives here in France as well, so Rebecca will be travelling North and hopefully won’t distract Deidre from her writing endeavour!

Sorry to the other contestants, it was a close call!

Classic Gothic Tale to Give-away

It is thanks to Jo at The Book Jotter that I have now read Rebecca, after she offered copies to readers on World Book Night, one of the conditions being to pass the book on, so what better reason to offer the book as a give-away  If you would like to enter the draw, just make a comment and leave an email address so I can contact you after the draw on Wednesday November 7. You can also assist in selecting the books that will be offered free in the US and the UK for World Book Night 2013 by clicking on the link and nominating your favourite book(s).

View from the Musée d’Oceanographie, Monaco

As a quiet companion to a wealthy dowager in Monte Carlo, it was hard to imagine how this young woman, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, was going to elevate her station in life by any other means than some chance encounter – and indeed Mrs Van Hopper’s convenient two-week malady provides exactly the opportunity that would likely otherwise never have occurred.

There was nothing for it but to sit in my usual place beside Mrs Van Hopper while she,  like a large,complacent spider, spun her  wide net of tedium about the stranger’s person.

And with the change of location from the calm, sun-filled vistas of Monaco and Italy, we arrive at Manderley, the grand estate of many rooms, corridors, wings, ritual, tradition and an established staff, all haunted by memories, both real and imagined of the previous Mrs de Winter, Rebecca.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

In Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier has created an extraordinary character who though never physically present, seems to affect everyone from the dog to the most loyal and disturbing housekeeper, Mrs Danvers to the slightly demented grandmother.

The new bride quickly comes to realise how different she is to her predecessor and perhaps being so young is therefore prone to exaggerated imaginings which add to her feeling of insecurity. All of which does make one wish someone would sit her down for a moment and explain exactly what is what, her sister-in-law comes close, but never quite stays long enough to enlighten her young sister-in-law – although that vivid imagination and neurotic behaviour do add to the suspense and excruciating discomfort of someone who feels most out of place in her new world.

Daphne du Maurier

Du Maurier herself was living in Alexandria at the time she wrote Rebecca and was said to have felt uncomfortable with her life and obligations as the wife of a commanding officer, entertaining other wives while surviving the fierce heat of an Egyptian summer.

Both woman in the novel reflect aspects of du Maurier’s own complex character and the duality of her natural inward inclination versus the more extrovert role she was required to play. No doubt these experiences she was living through on a daily basis continued to feed her imagination and enrich the two female characters who really did seem to have little in common, the author giving away few clues as to why Maxim could have married two such opposite types of women.

Intrigue, tradition, a grand estate, a young naïve protagonist with an over active imagination, all contribute to a fascinating and compelling read – a classic that continues to enthrall readers as much today as it did in 1938 when it was first published, not to mention a Hitchcock film!

Don’t forget to leave a comment and your email address if you would like to enter the draw to receive this copy.

Do you have a Daphne du Maurier favourite?