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Sunday 22 August 2021

A Favourite Book: ‘The Scapegoat’ by Daphne du Maurier

A recent computer problem has resulted in many formerly posted items disappearing. I  have been slowly re-posting them. It has actually been interesting going back over past newsletters checking what had got lost.  Yesterday I came across this posting from 2012.

When I picked up the Radio Times last week (September 2012), I saw advertised on Sunday night on ITV a two hour drama called The Scapegoat, based on Daphne du Maurier’s book of the same name. The write-up on the Sunday Choices page trashed it as ‘bonkers. Utterly bonkers. Sadly, the writer was someone whose write-ups’ I have for many years enjoyed. But the really sad thing is, that reading it, as she had laid out the ‘plot’, it did sound implausible and when I watched it, I could see gaping holes in the presentation of the story, that could maybe hold it up to ridicule. But clearly the critic hadn’t read the book. Unfortunately, she trashed The Scapegoat not the dramatised version. That I could have forgiven.

The setting of The Scapegoat is post WW2. John is a historian, fluent in French, who gives lectures on France. A man with no family, he is now homeward bound from his solitary holiday touring France making notes for his forthcoming series of lectures. Depression has settled on him as he drives into Le Mans. In a crowded bar he turns to apologise for jogging the elbow of a neighbouring drinker and comes face to face with himself.

Jean de Gué is as shocked as he is, and after introducing himself asks where in France he comes from. John is gratified that Jean has taken him for a Frenchman. (So DdM sets the scene).

Fascinated by their remarkable likeness they drink together. Jean de Gué is interested in every aspect of John’s life. When the morning comes, John is awoken by a banging on his hotel room door as well as in his head. The chauffeur respectfully asking when Monsieur le Comte will be ready to return to the chateau? Frantically John searches for his clothes, but the only things in his hotel room are the clothes and papers of Jean de Gué. John’s passport and papers are gone, along with his suitcase and anything that can prove his identity. And so, John, the historian expert in everything French, despite protesting he is not Jean de Gué, finds himself on route to the home of Jean de Gué.

On arrival at the chateau, he discovers he has a pregnant wife, a daughter obsessed by the saints, a sister to whom he has not spoken for years, a brother and sister-in-law, a mother who has taken to her bed, and an extended (for want of a better word), family of people who for generations have relied for work on the de Gué family. It quickly becomes apparent that Jean de Gué had been on what was expected to be a fruitless mission to secure a continuing contract for the glass works, to guarantee future work for the company and its employees.

The strength and power of the book is in the relationships within the family. And the hostilities stretch back to the war. But although his mirror image, John, is not Jean. Whilst John’s blunders are initially catastrophic, his innate decency as a person begins to make a difference. It is this that is so fascinating, being just himself, he begins to make changes in the dysfunctional family. Despite the hopelessness of the business, which in his ignorance he has made worse, he begins to see ways it might be improved. But fails to take into account the hostilities that have festered since the war. Only one person guesses that he is not Jean de Gué, but even that is in itself is a surprise. And, yes, there is intrigue and death, but it is the effect of John as a catalyst that marks the book so exceptional. Not forgetting the incredible power of the writer, a storyteller who for me remains unsurpassed.

To return to the TV drama, well first, they (presumably the writers under direction), set the story in the north of England. This for me immediately destroyed its authenticity. What was believable in workers in a relatively feudal system in rural France post WW2, was not credible in the north of England, which presumably is why Daphne du Maurier set the story in France. Some of the family intrigue was followed to the letter, but as the story progressed the happy ending took the story to an unbelievable situation. I am not at saying whether the story in the book had a happy or unhappy ending, but it was more believable than the TV adaptation.

Daphne du Maurier wrote many books, but is remembered mainly for Rebecca, which is up there with Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice when it comes to famous first lines. But Daphne du Maurier wrote many brilliant books, and with many great first lines. All her books are good, but The Scapegoat, The House on the Strand and Rebecca, remain my favourites. If you get a chance read The Scapegoat. It will not disappoint.
Lizzie Hayes

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