In contrast to the uncertainty and danger created by the priory’s connection with the sea in history, du Maurier presents the sea as a somewhat grounding force in her novel The House on the Strand.
It is by the alternating presence or absence of the sea that her protagonist, Richard Young can distinguish between past and present. The story draws upon several characters, both historical and fictional, whose lives are entangled with the priory that once stood in the village.
The novel opens with Richard’s first experience of being able to see into the past, commenting on the differences in landscape:
‘before me the sea rolled into the bay, covering the whole stretch of sand as if a tidal wave had swept over the land, swallowing it in one rapacious draught.’
Richard’s observations illuminate the significant role of the sea to Tywardreath in the fourteenth century. Du Maurier herself emphasises this point, including a map with the story that shows the boundaries of the old estuary, in order to demonstrate visually the changes to the landscape where the priory once stood.
In addition to the changing landscape, The House on the Strand draws attention to the changes within the church architecture, from its time as part of the priory to modern day:
Nothing of what I observed bore any resemblance to the small church I had so lately seen, with the grille in the wall dividing it from the Priory chapel; nor, as I stood here now beside the vicar, could I reconstruct from memory anything of an older transept, an older aisle.
“Everything’s changed,” I said.
“Changed?” he repeated, puzzled. “Oh, no doubt. The church was largely restored in 1880, possibly not altogether successfully. Are you disappointed?”
Du Maurier’s vicar, a small cameo character in the story, is very knowledgeable about the history of the priory to which his church once belonged. Thus, he exposits to Richard, and therefore the reader, facts about the origins and dissolution of the priory.
Although an embellished work of historical fiction, The House on the Strand is nonetheless an interesting record of the priory’s history. Indeed, du Maurier consulted a number of historical sources in order to ground her work of historical and science fiction in a setting of reality. As the priory itself is now lost to us, the narrative of The House on the Strand allows us to creatively imagine what it may have looked like, and what life within it may have been.
Unfortunately, unlike Richard, we are unable to see the priory in its prime. The priory as a religious house was dissolved in 1536 under Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries act.
However, the past has been somewhat recovered by an amateur excavation of the priory site in 1822. Just as in du Maurier’s novel, past and present are able to blend ever so slightly through the rediscovery of the priory location, revealing the approximate shape and size of its chapel, and the retrieval of some of its original stonework.