The Glass-Blowers


By Daphne du Maurier

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A "consistently entertaining" saga of beauty, war, and family set during the French Revolution, from the author of Rebecca and The Birds (New York Times). 

The world of the glass-blowers has its own traditions, its own language — and its own rules. "If you marry into glass," Pierre Labbe warns his daughter, "you will say goodbye to everything familiar, and enter a closed world." But crashing into this world comes the violence and terror of the French Revolution, against which the family struggles to survive.

Years later, Sophie Duval reveals to her long-lost nephew the tragic story of a family of master craftsmen in eighteenth-century France. Drawing on her own family's tale of tradition and sorrow, Daphne du Maurier weaves an unforgettable saga of beauty, war, and family.



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Part One

La Reyne d'Hongrie


"If you marry into glass," Pierre Labbé warned my mother, his daughter Magdaleine, in 1747, "you will say goodbye to everything familiar, and enter a closed world."

She was twenty-two years old, and her prospective bridegroom, Mathurin Busson, master glass-maker from the neighboring village of Chenu, was a childhood sweetheart, four years older than herself. They had never had eyes for anyone but each other from the day they met, and my father, the son of a merchant in glass, orphaned at an early age, had been apprenticed with his brother Michel to the glass-house known as la Brûlonnerie, in the Vendôme, between Busloup and la Ville-aux-Clercs. Both brothers showed great promise, and my father Mathurin had risen rapidly to the rank of master glass-maker, working directly under Robert Brossard the proprietor, who was a member of one of the four great glassmaking families in France.

"I have no doubt Mathurin Busson will succeed in everything he undertakes," continued Pierre Labbé, who was himself bailiff at St. Christophe and law officer to the district, and a man of some importance. "He is steady, hardworking, and a very fine craftsman; but it is breaking with tradition for a glass-maker to marry outside his own community. As his bride you will find it hard to adapt yourself to their way of life."

He knew what he was talking about. So did she. She was not afraid. The glass world was unique, a law unto itself. It had its own rules and customs, and a separate language too, handed down not only from father to son but from master to apprentice, instituted heaven knows how many centuries ago wherever the glass-makers settled—in Normandy, in Lorraine, by the Loire—but always, naturally, by forests, for wood was the glass foundry's food, the mainstay of its existence.

The laws, customs, and privileges of the glass-makers were more strictly observed than the feudal rights of the aristocracy; they had more justice too, and they made more sense. Theirs was indeed a closed community, with every man, woman, and child knowing his place within the walls, from the director himself, who worked beside his men, sharing their labor, wearing the same apparel, yet looked upon by all as lord and master, to the little child of six or seven who fetched and carried, taking his shift with his elders, seizing his chance to approach the foundry fire.

"What I do," said Magdaleine Labbé, my mother, "I do with my eyes open, without any vain ideas of an easy life, or believing I can sit back and be waited upon. Mathurin has already disabused me about that."

Nevertheless, as she stood beside her bridegroom on that 18th day of September in the year 1747, in the church of her native village of St. Christophe in the Touraine, and looked from her own relatives—her wealthy uncle Georget, her lawyer uncle Thiezie, her own father in his bailiff's dress—to the opposite side of the nave, where her bridegroom's relatives were assembled, and a number of his workmen and their wives, all glass-makers, all watching her with suspicion, almost with hostility, she certainly experienced—so she told us children years afterwards—a brief moment of doubt; she refused to call it fear.

"I felt," she said, "as a white man must feel when he is surrounded for the first time by American Indians, and knows that by sundown he must enter their encampment, never to return."

The workmen from the glass-house were certainly not in war paint, but their uniform of black coat and breeches and black flat hat, worn on saints' days and holidays, set them apart from my mother's relatives, giving them the appearance of a religious sect.

Nor did they mix with the rest of the company afterwards at the wedding breakfast, which, because Pierre Labbé was a man of standing in St. Christophe, was necessarily a big event, with almost everyone in the neighborhood present. They stood aside in a group of their own, too proud, perhaps, to exchange the usual quips and compliments with the rest of the guests, laughing and joking among themselves and making a great deal of noise about it too.

The only one to be perfectly at ease was Monsieur Brossard, my father's employer, but then, he was not only a seigneur by birth but the proprietor of three or four other glass-houses besides la Brûlonnerie, and it was a great condescension on his part to be present at the wedding. He did so because of the regard he had for my father: he had already promised him, within the year, the directorship of la Brûlonnerie.

The wedding was held at midday, so that the happy pair and their cortège could reach their destination the other side of Vendôme before midnight. When the last toast had been given my mother had to take off her finery and put on a traveling dress, then mount one of the foundry wagons with the rest of them, and so drive away to her new home in the forest of Fréteval. Monsieur Brossard did not accompany them. He was bound in the opposite direction. My father Mathurin and my mother Magdaleine, with his sister Françoise and her husband Louis Déméré—a master glass-maker like himself—seated themselves in the front of the wagon beside the driver, and behind them, in order of precedence, came the various craftsmen with their wives: the souffleurs, or blowers, the melters, and the flux-burners. The stokers, along with the driers, came in the second wagon, and a crowd of apprentices filled the third, with my father's brother Michel in charge.

During the first half of the journey, my mother Magdaleine said, she listened to the singing, for all glass-makers are musicians after their own fashion, and play some instrument or other, and have the special songs of their trade. When they ceased singing they began to discuss the plans for the day ahead, and the week's work. None of it as yet made sense to her, the newcomer, and when darkness fell she was so worn out with excitement and expectation, and the motion of the wagon, that she fell asleep on her bridegroom's shoulder, and did not wake up until they were past Vendôme and entering the forest of Fréteval.

She awoke suddenly, for the wagon had left the road, and she was aware of an immense darkness all about her, seemingly impenetrable. Even the stars were lost, for the interlaced branches of the forest trees made a vault where the sky had been. The silence was as deep as the darkness. The wagon wheels made no sound on the muddied track. As they lurched on into even greater depths of forest she was reminded once more of her fancy of an approach to an Indian encampment.

Then of a sudden she saw the fires of the charcoal burners, and smelled, for the first time, the bittersweet smell of blackened wood and ashes that would remain with her throughout the whole of her married life—the smell that all of us were to know as children and inhale with our first breath, that would become synonymous with our very existence.

The silence ceased. Figures came out of the forest clearing and ran towards the wagons. There was sudden shouting, sudden laughter. "Then indeed," my mother Magdaleine said, "I thought I was among the Indians, for the charcoal burners, their faces blackened with the smoke, their long hair falling about their shoulders, had their huts as outposts to the glass-house itself, and they were the first to greet me, the bride. What I took to be an assault upon all of us in the wagon was in reality their welcome."

This astonished us as children, for we grew up beside the charcoal burners, called them by their Christian names, watched them at work, visited them in their log huts when they were ill; but to my mother, the bailiff's daughter from St. Christophe, gently nurtured, educated and well spoken, the rude shouts of these wild men of the woods at midnight must have sounded like devils in hell.

They had to look at her, of course, by the light of their flaring torches, and then with a friendly laugh and a wave of his hand my father Mathurin bade them goodnight, and the wagon plunged on again out of the clearing into the forest, and along the remainder of the track to the glass-house itself. La Brûlonnerie, in those days, consisted of the big furnace house itself, surrounded by the work buildings, the potting rooms, storerooms, and drying rooms, and behind these the living quarters of the workmen; while further across the big yard were the small houses for the masters. The first thought to strike my mother was that the furnace chimney was on fire. Tongues of flame shot into the air, with sparks flying in all directions; a belching volcano could not be more malevolent.

"We have arrived just in time," she said abruptly.

"In time for what?" asked my father.

"To put out the fire," she said, pointing to the chimney. A moment later she realized her mistake, and could have bitten out her tongue for making a fool of herself before she had even set foot within the glass-house precincts. Of course her remark was repeated, amidst laughter, to everyone else within the wagon, and so back to the other wagons. Her arrival, instead of being a dignified affair with the workmen standing aside to let her pass, became a triumphant procession into the furnace house itself, hemmed about with grinning faces, so that she could see for herself the "fire" upon which the livelihood of them all depended.

"There I stood," she told us, "on the threshold of the great vaulted space, some ninety feet long, with the two furnaces in the center, enclosed, of course, so that I could not see the fire. It was the rest period, between midnight and one thirty, and some of the workmen were sleeping, wherever they could find space upon the floor, and as close to the furnaces as possible, little children among them, while the rest were drinking great jugfuls of strong black coffee brewed by the women, and the stokers, naked to the waist, stood ready to feed the two fires before the next shift. I thought I had entered an inferno, and that the curled-up bodies of the children were sacrifices, to be shoveled into the pots and melted. The men stopped drinking their coffee and stared at me, and the women too, and they all waited to see what I would do."

"And what did you do?" we asked, for this was a favorite story, one which we never tired of hearing.

"There was only one thing I could do," she told us. "I took off my traveling cloak and walked over to the women, and asked them if I could help with the coffee. They were so surprised at my boldness that they handed a jug to me without a word. It was not much of a start to a bridal night, perhaps, but nobody afterwards ever called me too delicate for work, or mocked at me for being a bailiff's daughter."

I do not think they would have mocked my mother whatever she had done. She had a look in her eye, our father told us, even in those days, when she was twenty-two, that would silence anyone who thought to take a liberty. She was immensely tall for a woman, five foot ten or thereabouts, with square shoulders, dwarfing the other foundry women; she even made my father, who was of medium height, look small. She dressed her blonde hair high, which added to her stature, and she kept this style throughout her life; I believe it was her secret vanity.

"Such was my introduction to glass," she told us. "The next morning another shift began, and I watched my bridegroom dress in his working blouse and go off to the furnace house, leaving me to get accustomed to the smell of the wood smoke, with work sheds all about me, and nothing outside the foundry fence but forest forever and ever."

When her sister-in-law Françoise Déméré came to the house at mid-morning to help her unpack she found everything put away and the linen sorted, and my mother Magdaleine gone across to the workshops to talk to the flux-burner, the craftsman who prepared the potash. She wanted to see how the ash was sieved and mixed with the lime, and then placed in the cauldron to boil, before being passed on to the melter.

My aunt Déméré was shocked. Her husband, my uncle Déméré, was one of the foremost important men in the foundry. He was a master melter, that is to say he prepared the mixture for the pots, and saw to it that the pots were filled with the right amount for the furnaces before the day's melt, and never, since they had been married, had my aunt Déméré watched the potash being prepared by the flux-burner.

"The first duty of a master's wife is to have food ready for her husband between shifts," she told my mother, "and then to attend to any women or children directly employed by her husband who may be sick. The work in the furnace house, or outside it, is nothing to do with us."

My mother Magdaleine was silent for a moment. She had sense enough not to argue with someone well versed in glass-house law. "Mathurin's dinner will be ready for him when he comes in," she said at last, "and if I broke one of the rules I'm sorry for it."

"It is not a question of rule," replied my aunt Déméré, "but a matter of principle."

During the next few days my mother remained within doors, where she could not cause gossip, but later in the week curiosity became too strong for her, and she made another break with tradition. She went down to the stamping mill, as they called it, where the blocks of quartz were ground to powder which, after sieving, formed the core of the glass. Before the quartz was ground it had to be sorted and freed from all impurities, and this was one of the tasks of the women, who knelt by the stream, sorting the quartz on large flat boards. My mother Magdaleine went straight to the woman who seemed to be in charge, introduced herself, and asked if she might take her place in the line and learn how the work was done.

They must have been too overcome by her manner and her appearance to say much, but they let her sort the quartz side by side with them until midday, when the ringer-boy sounded the great bell, and those among the women who expected their husbands back from morning shift went home. By this time, of course, word had gone round what had happened, for news spreads fast in a glass-house, and when my father came back to the house, and changed from his working blouse into his Sunday coat and breeches, she sensed that something was wrong. He looked grave too.

"I have to see Monsieur Brossard," he told her, "on account of your behavior this morning. It seems that he has heard all about it, and demands an explanation."

Here was an issue, my mother Magdaleine told us, upon which the whole of their future might depend, and it had to come up during their first week of married life.

"Did I do anything wrong by working with the women?" she asked him.

"No," he answered, "but a master's wife is on a different footing from the workmen's wives. She is not expected to do manual work, and only loses face by doing so."

Once again my mother did not argue the point. But she too changed her dress, and when my father left the house to see Monsieur Brossard she went with him.

Monsieur Brossard received them in the entrance lodge, which he reserved for his own use when he visited the glass-house. He never spent more than a few days in any place, and was proceeding to another of his foundries later that evening. His manner was more distant than it had been at the wedding, my mother said, when he had given the toast to the bride and kissed her cheek. Now he was the proprietor of la Brûlonnerie, and my father Mathurin one of the master glass-makers in his employ.

"You know why I have sent for you, Monsieur Busson," he said. He had called my father Mathurin at the wedding, but in the glass-house precincts formality between proprietor and master was strictly observed.

"Yes, Monsieur Brossard," replied my father, "and I have come to apologize for what was observed down by the stamping mill this morning. My wife let her curiosity overcome her sense of propriety, and what is due to my position. As you know, she has only lived among us for a week."

Monsieur Brossard nodded, and turned to my mother.

"You will soon learn our ways," he said, "and come to understand our traditions. If you are in any quandary as to procedure, and your husband is at work, you have only to ask your sister-in-law Madame Déméré, who is well acquainted with every facet of glass-house life."

He rose to his feet, the interview at an end. He was a small man, with great presence and dignity, but he had to look up at my mother, who overtopped him by a good four inches.

"Am I permitted to speak?" she enquired.

Monsieur Brossard bowed. "Naturally, Madame Busson," he replied.

"I'm a bailiff's daughter, as you know," she said. "I have grown up with some experience of the law. I used to help my father sort his papers and make out his assessments, before cases were brought to trial."

Monsieur Brossard bowed again. "I have no doubt you were very helpful to him," he remarked.

"I was," answered my mother, "and I want to be helpful to my husband too. You have promised him a directorship before long, either here or in a glass-house of his own. When this happens, and he is obliged to be absent from time to time, I want to be able to direct the glass-house myself. I cannot do that without first knowing how all the work is done. This morning I took my first lesson in sorting the quartz."

Monsieur Brossard stared at her. So did my father. She did not give them time to answer, but continued her speech.

"Mathurin, as you know, is a designer," she went on. "His head is full of his inventions. Even now he is not thinking about me, but about some new design. When he has a glass-house of his own he will be too busy to occupy himself with day-to-day business. I intend to do that for him."

Monsieur Brossard was nonplussed. None of his master glass-makers, until now, had taken unto themselves so formidable a wife.

"Madame Busson," he said, "all this is very praiseworthy, but you forget your first duty, which is that of rearing a family."

"I have not forgotten," she replied. "A large family will be only part of my work. Thank God I am strong. Childbearing will not worry me. I will stop working with the women if you consider that it makes Mathurin lose face, but, if I consent to this, perhaps you will do something for me in return. I should like to know how to keep the glass-house records, and how to deal with the merchant buyers. This seems to me the most important business of all."

My mother achieved her purpose. Whether it was her looks that did it, or her tenacity of will, she never disclosed, and I don't think my father knew either; but within the month she had surrounded herself with books and ledgers, and Monsieur Brossard himself gave orders to the storekeeper to instruct her in all matters relating to finance. Perhaps he thought it the best way of keeping her within doors, and from distracting the attention of the workmen and their wives. It did not prevent her, though, from rising at midnight, with the rest of the women, when my father was on night shift, and crossing to the furnace house to brew coffee. This was part of the tradition she believed in following, and I doubt if she missed a night shift during the whole of her married life. Whether there was any small jealousy or not on the part of the other craftsmen's wives because of my mother's superior intelligence, and the favor she had found with Monsieur Brossard, I cannot say, but I hardly think so. None of them, except my aunt Déméré, could read or write, and they certainly did not know how to keep figures in a ledger.

However it may have been with the women, it was during the first year at la Brûlonnerie, in the forest of Fréteval, that she came by the nickname which stayed with her to the end of her days and by which she was known, not only there and in later houses, but throughout the whole of the glass trade, wherever my father did business.

It was his particular ambition, in these early days as a young man, to design for the Paris market, and for the American continent too, scientific instruments to be used in chemistry and astronomy—for it was the start of an age when new ideas were spreading fast. Because he was ahead of his time he succeeded in inventing, during this period at la Brûlonnerie, certain pieces of an entirely new form. These instruments are now made in bulk and used by doctors and chemists all over France, while my father's name is forgotten, but a hundred years ago the "instruments de chimie" designed at la Brûlonnerie were sought after by all the apothecaries in Paris.

The demand spread to the perfumery trade. The great ladies at Court wished for bottles and flasks of unusual designs to place on their dressing tables—the more extravagant the better, for this was the moment when the Pompadour had such sway over the King, and all luxury goods were very much in fashion. Monsieur Brossard, bombarded on all sides by tradesmen and merchants eager to make their fortune, implored my father to forget for a moment his scientific instruments, and design a flask to please the highest in the land.

It began as a jest on my father's part. He told my mother to stand up before him while he drew the outline of her figure. First the head, then the square shoulders—so singular in a woman—then the slim hips, the long straight body. He compared his drawing with the last apothecary's bottle he had designed; they were almost identical. "You know what it is," he said to my mother. "I thought I was working to a mathematical formula, when all the while I've been drawing my inspiration from you."

He put on his blouse and went over to the furnace house to see about his molds. No one to this day will know whether it was the apothecary's bottle he shaped into a new form or my mother's body—he said it was the latter—but the flask he designed for the perfumeries of Paris delighted the merchants, and the buyers too. They filled the flask with eau de toilette, calling it the perfume of "la Reyne d'Hongrie" after Elizabeth of Hungary, who had remained beautiful until she was past seventy, and my father laughed so much that he went and told everybody in the glass-house. My mother was very much annoyed. Nevertheless, she became la Reyne d'Hongrie from that moment, and was affectionately known as this throughout the glass trade until the Revolution, when she became la citoyenne Busson, and the title was prudently dropped.

Even then it was revived, from time to time, by my youngest brother Michel, when he wished to be particularly offensive. He would tell his workmen, within earshot of my mother, that all Paris knew that the odor emanating from the corpses of those ladies whose heads had but recently rolled into the basket was none other than that of a famous eau de toilette, distilled by the mistress of the glass-house some forty years before, and bottled by her own fair hands for the use of the beauties of Versailles.


One of Monsieur Brossard's associates was the marquis de Cherbon, whose family had, in the previous century, constructed a small glass-house in the grounds of their château of Chérigny, only a few miles from my father's native village of Chenu and my mother's home at St. Christophe. This little foundry was at present in a poor state, through indifferent supervision, and the marquis de Cherbon, who had lately married and succeeded to his estate at the same time, was determined to put his glass-house to rights and make a profit from it. He consulted Monsieur Brossard, who at once recommended my father as director and lessee, the idea being that my father would thus have his first chance to prove himself a good organizer and businessman, as well as a fine craftsman.

The marquis de Cherbon was well satisfied. He already knew my father, and my mother's uncle Georget of St. Paterne, and felt sure that the administration of his glass-house would be in capable hands.

My mother Magdaleine and my father moved to Chérigny in the spring of 1749, and it was here in September that my brother Robert was born, and three years later my brother Pierre.

The setting was very different from la Brûlonnerie. Here at Chérigny the glass-house was on a nobleman's private estate, and consisted of a small furnace house, with work buildings attached, and workmen's cabins alongside, only a few hundred yards distant from the château itself. There was barely a quarter of the men employed here compared with la Brûlonnerie, and it was truly a family affair, with the marquis de Cherbon taking a personal interest in all that went on, though he never interfered with the work.

My uncle Déméré had remained at la Brûlonnerie, but my father's brother Michel Busson had moved to Chérigny with my parents, and about this time another sister, Anne, married Jacques Viau, the melting master at Chérigny. All the members of this small community were closely related, but the differences in status were still strictly kept, and my father and mother lived apart from the others in the farmhouse known as le Maurier, about five minutes' walk from the glass-house. This gave them not only privacy, which had been lacking at la Brûlonnerie, but the necessary degree of importance and privilege which was so strictly adhered to in the glass trade.

It meant more hard work for my mother, though. Besides keeping the records and writing to the merchants—for she had taken upon herself this part of the business—she had to manage the whole of the farm, see that the cattle were milked and put to pasture, the chickens reared, the pigs killed, and the few acres of ground about the farmstead tilled. None of this dismayed her. She was capable of writing three pages disputing the amount paid for a consignment of goods to Paris—and this at ten o'clock at night after a long day's work in the house and about the farm—of walking across to the glass-house and brewing coffee for my father and those on night shift, returning and snatching a few hours of sleep, and then rising at five to see that the cows were milked.

The fact that she was carrying my brother Robert, and later nursing him, made no difference to her activities. Here, at le Maurier, she was free to organize her own day as she pleased. There were no watchful eyes about her, no one to criticize or accuse her of breaking with tradition; and if any of my father's relatives should venture to do so, she was the wife of the director, and they never did so twice.

One of the pleasantest things about life at the glass-house of Chérigny was the relationship between my parents and the marquis and marquise de Cherbon. Unlike many aristocrats at that time they were seldom absent from their property for long periods, never went to Court, and were respected and loved by their tenants and the peasantry. The marquise, in particular, made a great favorite of my mother Magdaleine—for they were about the same age, the de Cherbons having been married two years before my parents—and when my mother could spare the time from the farm she would go across to the château, taking my brother with her, and there in the salon the pair of them, my mother and the marquise, would read together, or play and sing, with my brother Robert crawling about the floor between them or taking his first unsteady steps.


On Sale
Dec 17, 2013
Page Count
384 pages

Daphne du Maurier

About the Author

Daphne du Maurier (1907-89) was born in London, the daughter of the actor Sir Gerald du Maurier and granddaughter of the author and artist George du Maurier. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931, but it would be her fifth novel, Rebecca, that made her one of the most popular authors of her day.

Besides novels, du Maurier wrote plays, biographies, and several collections of short fiction. Many of her works were made into films, including Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel, “Don’t Look Now,” and “The Birds.” She lived most of her life in Cornwall, and was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1969.

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