The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier (1957)

One of the great joys of growing in Cornwall at the time I did was that Daphne Du Maurier’s books were everywhere; because she was a renowned author who was still living and writing at her much loved home on the Cornish coast. She was one of a small number of authors that my mother guided me towards when I progressed from the junior to the senior library. I don’t remember which book I read first, but I remember that I was captivated, and that I picked up another, and another, and another …. until I had read every novel and every collection of short stories.

When Virago started reissuing those books I was astonished to learn that all but one was out of print. How could that happen to books that told such wonderful stories; stories that were so very well written, that had such depths, that so many people must love ….  ?

I was delighted to be able to add copies to my collection; and to realise that I hadn’t looked for those books before because they made such an impression on me the first time I read them that I hadn’t needed to look for them again; and to know that those books would be ready and waiting for me when those impressions faded enough for me to need to go back.

That time might have come, certainly it is very near; because when you go on storing away memories of books, of stories, of characters, it is inevitable that older memories will be pushed further back.

I picked up ‘The Scapegoat’ for Daphne Du Maurier Reading Week because I have read two earlier books that spin around the same conceit – that two men who are physically identical but very different in other ways – change places – and I wanted to see if this book was as I remembered.

It was, and age and experience gave me a new appreciation of it.

John was a young Englishman, unmarried and with no family ties. He loved history, he earned his living as a lecturer, and though he worked diligently to ensure that his lectures were scholarly, precise and engaging, he was sure that he could never fully convey the glory of his subject.

Even if I held their flagging interest for a brief half hour, I should know, when I had finished, that nothing I had said to them was of any value, that I had only given them images of history brightly coloured – wax-work models, puppet figures strutting through a charade. The real meaning of history would have escaped me, because I had never been close enough to people.

He loved France, where most of the history that he loved had happened; and he could lose himself in the past as he explored old streets in different cities, but there would always be something that pulled him back to the present day and a sad realisation.

I was an alien, I was not one of them. Years of study, years of training, the fluency with which I spoke their language, taught their history, described their culture, had never brought me closer to the people themselves.

It is in one of those cities, in a bar near the railway station, that he encounters a Frenchman named Jean who both looks and sounds exactly like him. The two men talk, they drink together, and John remembers nothing more until he wakes in a hotel room. He finds that he has none of his own papers and possessions, but that he does have those of a certain Jean de Gue.

A chauffeur appears and anxiously asks:

“Monsieur le Comte is himself again?”

John makes a rapid decision, not to protest but to step into a different life. Quite unexpectedly, and almost inadvertently, he has many of the things he always wanted, though not in the way he had thought he might gain those things, and in a way that is rather difficult to handle.

He has inherited a troubled family, a struggling business, and another life to one side of that, all rooted in and shaped by a history that he knows nothing about. At first John feels that he has is watching a play, but of course he is an actor not a spectator. He plays the part of Jean, and that frees him from the aspects of John’s life that disappoint him and allows him to live a very different life, but that comes at a price.

Not only does he have to have to think carefully about every word and every action, he has to deal with situations and relationships that he lacks the skill and experience to handle, and that forces him to think deeply about his own motives and actions.

Most significantly he has to wonder if he is playing the part of Jean, if he is becoming Jean, and if John can influence Jean and shape a different future.

As Jean he is amused, but as John he is deeply concerned.

He faces one moral dilemma after another, and though his actions seem benign he quite inadvertently causes harm. And so he becomes a scapegoat:

I could not ask forgiveness for something I had not done. As scapegoat, I could only bear the fault.

The exploration of what makes a man and a life, of to what degree a man plays different roles as he live that life, and to what degree good and evil coexist in that man is quite brilliant; and all of that is wrapped up in a cleverly plotted, beautifully written, compulsively readable story.

Words were carefully chosen, and there were so many seemingly simple sentences and passages that were heavy with meaning; leaving me torn between turning the pages to find out what would happen and pausing to think about what was being said.

I was caught up with John from the first page, I cared about what would happen to him, and I really feel that I shared all of his thoughts and emotions and experiences. I understood why he came to care about the people in Jean’s life and about what happened to them. They were real, fallible human beings, and as John and I learned more about their past – and about Jean – I understood how their characters and attitude had been formed.

The resolution was perfect; but it left me wanting to know what would happen next.

And inclined to do a little more re-reading ….