Frenchman’s Creek is the first non-Rebecca novel I have read by Daphne du Maurier, and it did not disappoint. It tells the story of Lady Dona St Columb, who runs away from Restoration London to her husband’s country seat, Navron, because she is so tired of playing the high society wife. When she leaves London, the whole court is full of gossip about her: she drinks with her husband in pubs where respectable men normally only go with their mistresses or prostitutes; she has probably had an affair with the King; she gets drunk and runs around town in breeches instead of a gown. In Cornwall, she meets an unusual manservant, William, and the French pirate Jean-Benoît Aubrey, who is also running from something.
It would be difficult to review this without comparing it to Rebecca, since that is the example of du Maurier’s work that ended up becoming a classic. I am not going to try. I can see why that became so widely loved, and this one didn’t; Frenchman’s Creek lacks the edge of menace that underpins Rebecca, and even though there is arguably more on-page violence in the former, it is much less suspenseful. However, it is still recognisably by the same author: the same absurdly run-on sentences (it was not rare for a single sentence to take up half a page); the same fixation with nature. There is even a sense of a magical country house – a place where you live for a short while that changes you forever.
However, despite the similarities, and despite the fact that this book has not become a classic in quite the same way that Rebecca has, I love it much more. When I was reading Rebecca, I was admiring and tense, but I was also always aware of the fact that what I was reading was a fictional world created intentionally by an author. In the opening pages, the nature imagery is clearly intended to foreshadow an unhappy marriage, for example. It felt a bit like it had been written intentionally to be studied in an English literature class, with 15-year-olds writing sententious essays about the deep symbolism of the twisted briars. Frenchman’s Creek, though the writing is equally beautiful, felt much less deliberate. It read as though du Maurier wrote it all in a single spurt after some haphazard fever dream, just needing to get it out on the page.
In fact, perhaps that is the reason I loved it so much. The novel is framed as a forgotten folk story, something that may or may not have taken place on the Cornish coast a few hundred years ago. It has a dreamy, unreal quality to it, yet somehow this does not affect its vividness. Because of the way it is set up and told, I closed the book feeling like Dona’s story had never really ended: that she is always seeing the Frenchman’s ship come in for the first time, always slipping out of the house for freedom in the woods, and always putting on her best gowns like dressing for battle – over and over. That made the moments of melodrama – and this is a pirate romance story, so there were plenty – completely believable. The tone of the story easily allowed for them, so that I never felt jerked out of the world by incredulity.
And on that note, to the romance. I don’t particularly care for romance in novels, especially in the form of extramarital affairs, and this book was not an exception. I was not particularly interested in Dona’s relationship with Jean-Benoît, except as a representation of freedom in her life. My heart is cold and cynical and cannot be won over by pirates, even if they are very dashing men with nice hair. However, Jean-Benoît is an interesting character nonetheless. His position as an outsider, a foreigner, and an intellectual – the opposite of the Restoration court Dona has run away from – gives him a unique perspective on the world she has left. Their romance is not terribly plausible, but it makes for some fascinating conversations about gender and freedom. Dona is acutely aware of the restrictions she deals with as a woman, and particularly as a lady; her discussions with Jean-Benoît are passionate and engaging.
The adventure story that underpins this all is delightful. Despite the dreamy, hazy feeling that much of the novel has, du Maurier still manages to create some tension in the scenes that warrant it. There are some definite surprises in the way the plot unfolds, and I wasn’t sure right up until the end what direction the story was going to go. I suspect that du Maurier takes rather a romantic view of pirate life, but I loved the descriptions of the ship nonetheless. The antagonist characters are appropriately dreadful and mustache-twirling, and Dona gets a couple of opportunities to be a real hero. Even though the story draws on so many stock characters and scenarios, it felt fresh and original. I think, again, it seemed like a folk tale retold by a very talented narrator – warm and engaging and even familiar, but without being boring.
In short, I highly recommend this. I borrowed it from the library, but I am going to buy a copy for my own shelves, as I anticipate that I will want to reread it in years to come, and perhaps lend it out as well. Even though on the face of it I shouldn’t like it – a big, melodramatic romance, full of tropes I have encountered before – it is still sticking with me a month after I read it. If you pick it up, please let me know what you think!