John (no last name) is a middle-aged British professor of French history. He lives in a flat in London during the school year and travels in France, doing research, during the summer holidays. His parents died long ago, he has never married, has no children or relations of any kind, no particularly close friends. His summer travels are coming to a close and he’s not sure he wants to return to England and his isolated, academic life. He stops for supper in a small town near a monastery. He wonders if the monks might have the answer for his sterile, disconnected life.
Comte Jean de Gue is the aristocratic, titled head of the de Gue family. He is a son, husband, brother, brother-in-law, father, lover, master to a household of servants, leader of the local hunt, and manager of the family glass business, which employs all the workers in a small village near his chateau. The business has been in his family for generations and is failing now because it can’t compete with modern factories. Every member of his family, extended family, household staff, and glassworks shop depend on him, with decidedly mixed feelings. Some resent him, some love him, some feel threatened, some have grudges. He is returning from Paris after a last-ditch effort to prevent the cancellation of a glass contract which could spell the end of production and the village’s livelihood. He stops for supper in small town near his estate. He wonders what life would be like without his family’s demands and expectations.
John and Jean meet. They stop. One of them asks,” You aren’t the devil, by any chance?” For on the outside, they are the same man. The mirror behind the bar reveals that they are doubles. In shock, they join in a night of talk and drink. They decide to share a room in a seedy part of town. In the morning, John wakes up alone – with Jean’s clothes, possessions, and identification. His meager belongings and car – and Jean – are gone.
The top ten bestselling novels of 1957 include Daphne du Maurier’s twelfth novel, The Scapegoat, the story of John and Jean, in slot number five. By 1957, du Maurier was solidly famous and successful, particularly for her 1938 award-winning Rebecca. She was a gifted storyteller and scene setter, deftly navigating the waters of psychological suspense and moody atmosphere. Her plots acknowledged that some of the deepest horrors can be found in the evil that humans are capable of. At times she drifts into emotionally overdone narrative, but her vivid plots and personifications satisfy our childhood desire for someone to “tell me a story”. In The Scapegoat, du Maurier drew on the du Maurier family history, running a glassworks in France, before she was born in England in 1907. The pleasures of the French countryside, the authentic portraits of both aristocratic and country people, the freighted aftermath of the Occupation during World War II, the questions about identity and relationships, are all crafted with skill and care (if occasional emotive excess). What happens to John and Jean? You’ll have to read the book (the title is a clue)!
My read of The Scapegoat posed a most intriguing question: If someone were to step into my life and take over, someone with energy and objectivity, what would they change? Who or what do I hang on to that I should let go? Who or what do I not appreciate as I should? In what ways do I refuse to grow up? What would a clean sweep of my life look like (and I’m not just talking about the hall closet)?
Daphne du Maurier poses other questions worth asking in The Scapegoat, many centered around identity and obligation to self and others. It was a good read in 1957, and it’s still a good read, passing the test of time remarkably well.