Posts Tagged ‘The Scapegoat’

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier ~ 1957. This edition: Doubleday, 1957. Hardcover. 348 pages.

Ah, nothing like a good old gothicky doppelgänger story, right along the lines of Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, and Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree. Suspend your disbelief, embrace your acceptance of lucky coincidence, and come along, step inside…

Middle-aged Englishman John, introverted historian-lecturer in French history back home in Britain, and, incidentally, very accomplished French linguist (this is important!), is facing an existential crisis of sorts as he mopes through his summer holiday in his beloved France.

John is heading for a religious retreat in a Trappist monastery near Le Mans, which he hopes will help him chart his personal path forward. Utterly alone in the world, with no responsibilities and no one responsible for him, he feels that his life has no meaning, that he is an utter failure, and he debates stepping out of the world, though whether he intends to do so literally or figuratively is not specified; it is possible John himself does not know how far he is prepared to go to find peace.

A coincidental meeting with a man who is his exact physical double results in a night of sharing life stories (though one of the pair is, it will soon be discovered, less than fully forthcoming in his private confessions) and heavy drinking; when John awakes in his hotel room the next morning, he is dressed in his double’s clothing, and there in the room are the other’s personal effects. His own things have vanished.

Still drink-befuddled, when a chauffeur shows up to collect “Jean, Comte de Gué”, John stumbles along, bemused by his dilemma, his terse replies to “his” employee being taken in stride, as if a sullen silence is an accepted character trait of the vanished count.

John finds himself decanted at the front door of a large but desperately rundown French château, and giving in to an impulse, decides to carry on with the mistaken identity, to see what will happen next.

What happens is that everyone whom he comes in contact with – not just the family servants but a brother, sister, aged (and drug-addicted) mother, highly pregnant wife, an amorous sister-in-law, a precocious and religion-obsessed eleven-year-old daughter, and even a beautiful Hungarian mistress – accept him as the real Jean, much to his (and the reader’s) shocked surprise.

Over the period of one intense week, John-Jean discovers the many dark secrets of the Comte’s family, and of Jean de Gué himself. Not knowing where the real Jean is and what his intentions are, but assuming from much he has found out that his double has departed permanently from his complicated life to reinvent himself elsewhere, John allows himself to be drawn into his angst-beset new family; he soon develops a sense of responsibility and even of love for the troubled members of “his” household.

But can he really take Jean’s place? What secrets doesn’t he know, and how will they effect his attempts to heal old wounds and bring about better times for all of the people who are looking to him for leadership?

Tragedy strikes; a fortune becomes accessible; and the real Jean makes contact: he wants to return.

What happens next? I won’t tell, you must read it for yourself.

Could this sort of thing actually happen in the real world? Not likely, but it makes a grand fictional drama, dark as night and emotionally fraught on a multitude of levels.

One of Daphne du Maurier’s best, right up there with the also-improbable but mesmerizingly memorable Rebecca.

Let’s give it a 9/10. Definitely a keeper.

 

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