When I was 7 I was sent to stay with my grandparents in the seaside town of Broadstairs, where I was seen and not heard, learned good table manners and pretended I was a landlocked mermaid. I also read books, for what else can an imaginative little girl do when television is forbidden and conversations rarely take account of her age?
My grandmother was not a reader and so there were few books in the house, just some nineteenth-century novels which had belonged to her mother, and a single shelf of books in a glass-fronted cabinet containing The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, coffee-table books about the Yorkshire Dales, the Lakes and Cornwall, and Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. I fell on the latter, and I have read it many times since.
Set in Cornwall, it is a brilliantly compelling story told in recognizable du Maurier style: civil disturbance lurks in the background; it has a frustratingly passive narrator; and it deals with that all too painful subject, unrequited love. But whereas some of her novels hint at the supernatural, this one is a true time-travel story.
Dick Young is staying in Kilmarth, the large Cornish house of his eccentric friend from Cambridge days, the scientist Magnus Lane. Ostensibly using the holiday to decide whether or not to take a publishing job in the United States, Dick seems actually to be in escape mode, running from a tricky marriage and from his future. A more profound escape is offered him in the form of some experimental potions Magnus has been brewing in what he calls ‘Bluebeard’s Chamber’. One dose and Dick finds himself standing in exactly the same building, but 650 years earlier. Shadowing an apparent alter ego Roger Kylmerth, he observes the noble families of that period, their love affairs, their betrayals, their political choices and, in several cases, their deaths. But Dick can do nothing to intervene: if he so much as touches one of these apparitions, he is prop
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