In 2018, I was lucky enough to read two of the gothic queen, Daphne du Maurier’s novels. First, in June, I read the superb, time-travelling horror, The House on the Strand and then, at the end of the year, Frenchman’s Creek.
Restless with the pomp, ritual and debauchery of London’s Restoration Court, Lady Dona St Columb takes her children and retreats to the hidden creeks and secret woods of her husband’s family estate of Navron, in Cornwall. The peace Lady Dona craves, however, eludes her from the moment she stumbles across the hidden mooring place for a white-sailed ship, known to plunder the Cornish coast. And once she has met its captain: the daring, French philosopher-pirate, Jean Aubrey, she finds her heart besieged and her person embroiled in a quest fraught with danger and glory.
Our protagonist, Dona is a beautiful, headstrong woman; a loving mother; an unhappy wife and a prisoner of her own making. Flightily she married her husband, Henry because he had a charming smile, so now she finds herself trapped with a man she feels she’s outgrown and finds herself increasing her daring, gossip-inducing behaviour to relieve her boredom. Which culminates in her taking part in a cruel, drunken prank, that finally shames her into breaking out of the vicious circle by leaving London, Henry and his insidious friend, Lord Rockingham behind.
Once at Navron, Dona spends her long, summer days of freedom sleeping in late; frolicking and picnicking with the children and walking along the coast; which is where she first catches sight of the white-sailed ship that is to turn her life upside down. As one would expect, du Maurier brings the stately but neglected estate of Navron, on her native Cornwall’s coast, beautifully to life. As the windows are unshuttered and thrown wide-open, light and the fresh sea breeze re-awaken the large, musty rooms, and from her room Dona has a view straight down to the sea.
Later in the novel, du Maurier actually takes us out to sea – with the dashing Jean Aubrey and his crew – showing us at its calm, serene best, but also at its turbulent, thrashing worst. While I am a self-confessed landlubber, I couldn’t help finding myself swept away with the beauty, adventure and romance of it all. Likewise, on meeting Jean, Dona finds herself swept away – selfishly abandoning her children to their maid – to read poetry, fish, dine and maraud with this charismatic man. However things come to a head, after their plans go terribly awry and Henry arrives unexpectedly to reclaim his wife. Will Dona return to her husband and children or risk it all for her pirate lover?!
Overall I thought Frenchman’s Creek was a beautifully written, sweeping romance. Quite a few of my fellow du Maurier fans have told me this is one of their least favourite of her novels, and on finishing it, I can understand why, because there is little to no gothic influence and Dona is not the most likable of characters. But while it pales in comparison to the stunning Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel it is still a… Great read.
Have you read this? What is your favourite of Du Maurier’s novels?
This also ticked off a title with a nationality in it for my What’s in a Name 2018 reading challenge. (5/6)