Frenchman's Creek by Daphne Du Maurier
Published by: Virago Press
Publication Date: 1941
Format: Paperback, 260 Pages
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)
Dona St. Columb has tired of court. What she did with Rockingham shames her. It wasn't an infidelity against her husband Harry, it was a stupid prank that scared an old lady. A prank that has made her rethink her life, fleeing with her two children to Cornwall and Navron. Perhaps reconnecting with nature and leaving the din of London behind will help her to find a new Dona, one she can like. She hasn't been back to her husband's estate of Navron since they were first married; aside from the painting of herself hanging in the master bedroom it is quite different. There's only one servant, the almost impudent but ultimately amusing William, who seems to have run the household according to his whims. Soon Dona starts to suspect William of having another master other than her husband. There are artifacts left in her room that hint at another occupant while she was roistering in London.
But that partying Dona is gone, replaced by one reveling in the trill of a bird call and the smell of a flower. Therefore the Cornish society trying to thrust themselves on her is very unwelcome. Lord Godolphin and his ilk whinging on about French pirates are of no interest to her. Especially when she has formed a bond with the very pirate they hunt. The Frenchman is William's true master and is the one who has been sleeping in Dona's bed while she was away. She stumbled upon his ship, La Mouette, hidden in a creek near Navron. She could have given them up, told the law the secret base of the pirates, instead she joins the crew. With William as her conspirator every moment she can spare is spent with the Frenchman. They fish, they talk, he draws birds and Dona. But soon he must take again to the high seas and Dona wants to accompany him. Will his latest heist bring the law down on him or will he and Dona sail off into the sunset?
Frenchman's Creek was one of a very few books by Daphne Du Maurier that was available stateside when I was growing up, and yet it never caught my interest. I think again it's down to the misapplied moniker of "Romance Author" that Du Maurier was forever burdened with. A problem that isn't just with Du Maurier's unwelcome title but with me. For years I've often dismissed a book because it was labelled a romance. At least by this time in my life I'm willing to not let a book's genre classification sway me. Yet of all Du Maurier's books I've read this is the most romantic, but it's romantic in a way similar to The Princess Bride. There's just so much more than the romance that to brand it as such does the book a disservice. Though, playing devil's advocate, in the Frenchman, Jean-Benoit Aubéry, Du Maurier has created perhaps the ideal romantic hero. He is a classic, a paragon of the romantic ideal. He has poetry in his soul and the desire to capture nature on paper. Who wouldn't want to run away with him?
Even if years ago I could have brought myself to look past the "romance" label of the book I think the period aspect of it would have tripped me up. Frenchman's Creek is set during The Restoration, a time in England where the return of the monarchy and Charles II to the throne spurred a cultural and artistic revolution; as well as a lot of debauchery and excess. I studied this in two different history classes in college, as well as reading a plethora of plays from this time period in my theatre classes, I did mention artistic revolution didn't I? This was heavily in the theatre arena. At this point I hadn't actually hit saturation, that was to come with Charles II: The Power and the Passion. I had REALLY been looking forward to this miniseries airing and at about hour three I was flagging... in fact at about three and a half hours I reached a point where my love of Rufus Sewell couldn't compete with my boredom. So this Restoration revulsion that took place in me made me avoid Frenchman's Creek for too long because it is so fresh and so entertaining that it goes beyond the period trappings to be a timeless tale.
If I were to describe this book to someone who had a slight grasp of Du Maurier's canon I'd say Frenchman's Creek is the opposite of Jamaica Inn. Jamaica Inn is all about a good girl thrown in amongst scoundrels who are evil and bad ship-wreckers, whereas Frenchman's Creek is about a bad girl thrown in amongst pirates who do a world of good for her and are really not that bad a group of fellows. The genius of Du Maurier is that she can write two completely opposite stories and yet make you fall completely in love with both of them. In Jamaica Inn you were praying for Mary to be saved by the kindly gentry, yet here, here the gentry are fools who are to be laughed at and mocked and you are with Dona all the way as she schemes to steal from them with her Frenchman. What's more is that if you think on Dona she's an interesting character. Over the course of the book she turns away from her husband and her children and yet you are rooting her on. You sympathize enough with her that you WANT her to become a pirate. You are complicit in her crimes and you love every dangerous heart-stopping moment. Leave the children behind, take to the high seas!
And it's that desire to leave your life behind that clues you into the deeper meaning of Frenchman's Creek. Just below the surface of all Du Maurier's books you always see her. Even if she didn't openly acknowledge it she used her books as therapy. In Rebecca she dealt with the duality of a wife, who she was meant to be versus who she really was. Here it's the masculine versus the feminine self. She always viewed her creative impulses as masculine, and therefore Dona constantly referring to her adventurous side as masculine, as a cabin boy, makes sense in relation to Du Maurier. This desire to go out into the world, to please yourself, to seek adventure, to do, was in Du Maurier's mind a male impulse. Whereas the homemaker, the mother, that was the feminine self. In the atrocious TV Movie Daphne, you get the barest glimpse into her acting on her male instincts with Gertrude Lawrence. But, like Dona in the end, Du Maurier chose hearth and home, going back to her family. She may have tapped into her male side from time to time, but it was the female side that won out. But more importantly, it's the way she has dramatized this and her other struggles that have left us with such an impressive body of work. Here's to the writer with issues!
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Frenchman's Creek by Daphne Du Maurier