In ‘Frenchman’s Creek’, the writing is still vivid, and there are evocative descriptions, and certainly the darker side of the human psyche comes into play, but overall it just reads as a ‘The Lady and the Pirate’ romance with more vivid writing than usual. I expected something better from this author.
This book has mainly glowing reviews. I expected to enjoy it myself. After all, it has pirates, and swashbuckling adventure, and a heroine rebelling against the female role and joining in the raids, while the male lead likes to emulate Robin Hood in stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Those are the sort of themes I enjoy. There is also an element of criticism of patriarchy, and I’m all for that; but again, the heroine substituing one demanding man for another in a love affair on the side carried on through lying and cheating just doesn’t come across to me as the right solution. Perhaps it is implied that there isn’t an honourable solution to the female lead’s problems in the society in which she lives; it is indicated that she couldn’t be honest without paying the enormous price of social disgrace and estrangement from her family which she obvoiusly cannot face. Still, her lack of introspection makes it difficult to assess if she feels any guilt about duping Harry. I was left with the impression that she didn’t. I think it is mainly because the two lead characters were so self-righteous that I found them so unsympathetic. They claim that their love affair was meant to be, that they belong together, and that is that and too bad for everyone else. This seemed all wrong to me.
There are circumstances in which I would sympathize with a story romanticising adultery, as when the woman had been forced into marriage at an early age, as was routine in seventeenth century Britain, and where the husband is unattractive or abusive and so on. These don’t apply in this story: the foolish Sir Harry was the female lead’s free choice when she was twenty-four, just six years previously. He is handsome, allows her astonishing freedoms for a husband of that era, and dotes on her.
Also, the whole wildly improbable tale is related solemnly, without irony. True, some characters are presented as ridiculous; the lead pair, though, are always depicted as admirable.
Clearly, Daphne du Maurier fancied writing a piece of escapist nonsense. There is nothing wrong with that, but the tone just isn’t right; it isn’t light enough for escapism, and her characters don’t go through enough real suffering and change for it to be anything deeper. Dona is supposed to be somehow transformed by love, with her eyes increasing in size and her sulky look disappearing, but this change seems to be purely physical.
[Spoiler] I hope that she is meant to change in her attitude towards Harry, and becomes more tender and receptive, but there is only the slightest hint of that. I was dismayed that she seriously considers running off with the pirate, leaving the children behind. Even if he wasn’t an outlaw, if she left her husband she would lose all right ever to see her children again. Everything is arranged by the author so that Donna escapes from any consequences from her fling with the pirate or her involvement with the raid, with lucky co-incidences, the locals missing everything, all the servants believing in her supposedly being confined to her bed with a fever for days, the men failing to recognise her and Harry not even asking her why she wants to stay an extra night before coming back to Town. He never seems to suspect her of being involved with the pirate for an instant, whatever doubts the jealous Rockingham has tried to sow in his mind. On Rockingham, he is far too respectful in the confrontation where he attacks her. ‘Whore’ and ‘strumpet’ are surely the mildest insults he would have directed at Dona as an unfaithful woman in that era, particularly a sadist like him. [End of Spoiler]
I almost always take the part of the woman – sometimes unfairly – when I hear about relationship problems in fact or fiction. Not so here. I really sympathized with poor Sir Harry.
I actively disliked the female lead: that might not have mattered so much, if the pirate had come across as vividly portrayed, but to me he was just a collection of attributes that didn’t cohere: hair too attractive to hide under a wig, smiling eyes, a habit of calling her ‘my Dona’, a taste for strong tobacco, great skill at sailing, swordsmanship and fishing, a poetry book here, the talent for sketching there. He never looks silly, is never seasick, even in a gale, is worshipped by his men, is never caught off guard, always has a suave retort, and makes every man look like a fool in an encounter. In fact, he strays dangerously close to ‘Dark Hole Marty-Stu’ territory.
In one online review, one reader suggests that he is meant to be Dona’s (or Daphne du Maurier’s)
animus, and to me that makes a lot of sense.
I found the pirate’s liking for the unexpected too predictable – [Spoiler] I saw that he would steal R’s ship from under its owner’s nose, pluck Godalming’s wig from his head, and turn up at poor Sir Harry’s dinner party. [End of Spoiler]
As for Dona, though she is constantly rude to most of the other characters, except when she wants to win them over to help her lover escape the shore, they are too dazzled by her imperious air and her dark ringlets to care. By the way, these remain as ringlets, even on the deck of a ship in a storm; whatever sort of pomade did she use?
Dona ‘The Lady St. Columb’ (as it is emphasized continually, though she is only a baronet’s lady, and they were two a penny) is a dissatisfied member of the Restoration court of Charles II.
She insists on dining with Sir Harry and his friends in the sort of places only women of the town frequent, and even going off on a highway robbery jape. This is because she is bored, and her husband insists on fondling her with clumsy fingers and bringing his pet King Charles spaniels into their bedroom.
Here, one of those ridiculous old cartoon advertisements sprang up before my eyes: ‘Sir Harry’s Married Life was a Sad Business Until He Bought One of Our Pamphlets on Conjugal Relations and Realised That Spaniels Should be Kept from Sleeping on the Marital Bed’ (We may safely assume that with regard to the spaniels, Harry is meant to be insensitive rather than perverted). There are suggestions that he is a clumsy lover. The pirate hints that Dona should teach him, and though he clearly would almost certainly be responsive, Dona cannot be bothered.
As an aside, King Charles slept with his spaniels, too. As the King, of course he had access to the bodies of all the most voluptuous and desirable women save Frances Stuart. One spaniel whelped on his bed and nobody noticed, the hygiene amongst the court seemingly being poor even by the standards of the time. Still, I suppose being a monarch, his mistresses were so eager to gain his favour they put up with it and his ‘foolish tales’ about his dogs.
Anyway, to escape court life and the heat of London, Dona sets off to one of Sir Harry’s mansions in Cornwall with her two children, but incredibly, without a ladies maid or an armed escort, though the highway robbers she has impersonated notoriously harassed wealthy travellers in this era. You would think that Harry, who is protective if despised, would have insisted on that.
She also achieves a miracle in travelling over two hundred miles in two days on the roads of the seventeenth century without killing the horses. She originally earned my dislike for rebuking the coachman for stopping at a coaching house to water them.
Arriving at Navron House, she finds only one strange manservant there, William, who has an odd accent for a Cornishman, seems to find the situation amusing, and speaks of his former master, who was a wild roving type. Dona feels a strange empathy with him and his former master…
Daphne du Maurier’s research is usually good overall, but here she really let things slide. At once point Dona (not a name used before the late nineteenth century in England) and her true love eat a meal that includes ‘new potatoes’ as a delicacy. Windows are open by night and day, though that age had a dread of the poison of ‘night air’.
Then, though the seventeenth century was a religious age, no mention of religion, of churchgoing (even if wholly routine) or of the fact that adultery was seen as a mortal sin is ever given, even to be dismissed in passing.
Generally, then, I found this such a disappointment it’s put me off reading any more du Maurier for a while. At times, I could hardly credit it had been written by the author of ‘Rebecca’ and ‘The House on the Strand’. Two and a half stars, which will show up as three.