I haven’t read that many of Daphne du Maurier’s books, and in fact hadn’t read any at all until I borrowed Rebecca and Jamaica Inn from the library a couple of years ago. Both captivated me (although The House on the Strand, which I borrowed next, left me rather cold) and I decided to track down Frenchman’s Creek to complement them. I could have predicted that I would love it. Featuring pirates, cavaliers, disguise, adventure and a good dose of old-fashioned romance, it was a self-indulgent joy to read and has entered the Idle Woman Swashbuckling Hall of Fame.
Dona St Columb is a celebrated Restoration beauty: irreverent, heartless and irresistible to men. Unhappily married to the doltish Harry, she seeks diversion in extravagant escapades with his friends; until one day she forces herself to confront the truth. Hollow and unfulfilled, she is becoming someone she is ashamed of; and so, ever-impulsive, she decides to leave the corrupting glitter of the Court behind. Taking her children, but leaving Harry behind to gamble and drink with his friend Rockingham, Dona goes down to Harry’s ancestral home at Navron in Cornwall. Here there is sunlight, the gentle rustle of the breeze in the trees and the refreshing calm of a slow-paced country life.
Finally Dona begins to blossom again. Even Navron itself is peaceful: the house has only one servant, the capable and secretive William, who becomes Dona’s ally in her desire to escape from her London self. As she recovers her joie de vivre, Dona begins to hear rumours that her wealthy Cornish neighbours are being troubled by the ravages of a dastardly and elusive French pirate. Suddenly certain strange things about Navron start to make sense to Dona; and then one day, while exploring the woods around her home, she discovers a ship moored in a nearby creek. Here is the Frenchman: courteous, educated and entirely different from any other man Dona has met. He treats her as a woman, not an ornament, and invites her to redouble her efforts to escape from society’s expectations. Coaxing her spirit back into life, he offers her the pleasures of a world beyond the rules: adventure, companionship and, always, the underlying spice of danger.
Dona’s idyll, after all, does not exist in a vacuum. As she learns to fish, to cook over woodland fires by moonlight, to handle a ship’s wheel, and to understand the full power of love, her neighbours are gathering their strengths, sharpening their wits and their swords, and plotting to bring this French pirate to heel.
And all this, she thought, is only momentary, is only a fragment in time that will never come again, for yesterday already belongs to the past and is ours no longer, and tomorrow is an unknown thing that may be hostile… This day is forever a day to be held and cherished, because in it we shall have lived and loved, and nothing else matters but that in this world of our own making to which we have escaped.
Moving with the gentle rhythm of the ebb and flow of the tide, this is not only a lovely story but also beautifully written. Throughout there is a poignant sense of nostalgia: from the very beginning, when du Maurier carries us back through time from modern Cornwall to the 17th century, she makes it clear that this is a glimpse of history: a mere flicker of the past. Although the past may be lost in its material aspect, she suggests, hints of its spirit still remain: a shadow caught from the corner of the eye; the smell of woodsmoke, or the soft creaking of ship’s timbers. This sense of permeance between past and present reminded me very strongly of Kipling’s The Way Through The Woods, which is one of my favourite poems; and in fact du Maurier very soon afterwards reminded me of another adored piece of poetry: Alfred Noyes’s The Highwayman, which came to mind as Dona leans out of her casement to listen to the whistled signals in the garden below. The book has the kind of haunting, languid air that I always love, where everything is bathed in a golden haze, but there are also dashes of humour all the way through, which prevents everything getting too slow and dreamy. Dona’s interaction with William is always delicious:
‘Do you think me mad, William?’
‘Shall we say – not entirely sane, my lady?’
‘It is rather a lovely feeling, William’.
‘So I have always understood, my lady’.
The characters aren’t the most complex that I’ve come across, but they were rich enough to keep me thoroughly engaged. Dona doesn’t quite break the mould of the romantic heroine, but she has a psychological depth and a strength to her that made me warm to her by the end. And, of course, the eponymous Frenchman – Jean-Benoit Aubéry – is a thoroughly appealing hero. I found it slightly hard to believe that anyone would take up piracy as a philosophical experiment, just to keep ennui at bay, and he is rather too good to be true; but there are times to be strict about these things, and then there are times one should just give in to one’s inner fifteen-year-old. I tried very hard not to fall slightly in love with the Frenchman, because it was obvious that this reaction was expected, and I hate conforming to expectations; but I didn’t quite succeed.
This is a gloriously cosy piece of escapism: its comfort factor is roughly on a par with drinking a cup of chamomile tea while wrapped in a warm blanket in front of a crackling fire, after a hot bath. Yes, it’s ever so slightly frothy, but frankly I don’t care. It’s an old-fashioned story of the best kind, in which the heroine is beautiful, the hero is noble and brave, and the villains are either wicked rakes or buffoons; plus, the sheer quality of the writing makes it a real treat. I actually feel tempted to go back to the beginning and start again immediately, which doesn’t happen often. Highly recommended either to fans of swashbucklers or pirate novels, or to those just starting out on du Maurier (like me) and wondering what to read next.