Frenchman’s Creek – Daphne du Maurier with Guest Review By My Dad

In the summer, Virago Books reissued several of du Maurier’s novels with covers designed to appeal to a Young Adult audience. At the time, I was asked whether I’d review one of them and was there any possibility of it being a cross-generational review? Then I took time out of the blog so it didn’t happen. But I’d already mentioned it to my dad and he read the book and sent me a review. So today you get two for one.

Frizbot’s dad’s review:

A well-written novel that is relaxing to read. It covers the problems of boredom, escapism, jealousy, loyalty and romance as well as highlighting the differences between “upper class” of 19th century England and the working people of the Cornish countryside.

Lady Dona St Columb bored with the London lifestyle of her husband and fellow companions, dressed as a boy, sets out on various nighttime escapades. All bodes well until one of her pranks goes wrong and her victim is mortified. She decides it would be prudent to retreat to their country house Navron, in Cornwall and seek solitude and retribution.

Jean-Benoit Aubéry disliked the solitude of his cottage in Bretton so took to a life on the open seas as captain of an oceangoing vessel. Soon his sea bound lifestyle became that of a pirate seeking prey and bounty along the Cornish coast. As his ship lay in hiding in the river inlet near Navron it was inevitable that the paths of Dona and the Frenchman would cross.

What follows is a story of love at first sight, passion, jealousy, adventure and loyalty beyond expectation. Mingled in this is the misunderstanding the English gentry have of foreigners, and the loyalty and discretion of servants that are respected and well treated by their employees

After all this though, one must not forget that this is all a figment of imagination of the holidaymaker in the little boat who fell asleep while pausing for thought when rowing up the inlet where La Mouette hid from the English.

Thanks, Dad.

Here’s mine:

I’ll start with a confession: I’d only read one du Maurier before this – no prizes for guessing that it was Rebecca – and I wasn’t a fan (no one tell Savidge Reads!) so I approached Fisherman’s Creek reluctantly.

The novel begins with an unnamed narrator introducing the reader to Helford village and Navron House where ghosts of the past wander about. We then move to Frenchman’s Creek, the second key location for the story.

By the end of the second chapter, in which we’re introduced to Dona St. Columb, the novel’s protagonist, I knew I was going to enjoy this.

29, married to Harry with two children, Dona’s bored of their lifestyle.

She had played too long a part unworthy of her. She had consented to be the Dona her world had demanded – a superficial, lovely creature, who walked, and talked, and laughed, accepting praise and admiration with a shrug of the shoulder as natural homage to her beauty, careless, insolent deliberately indifferent, and all the while another Dona, a strange, phantom Dona, peered at her from a dark mirror and was ashamed.

This other self knew that life need not be bitter, nor worthless, nor bounded by a narrow casement, but could be limitless, infinite – that it meant suffering, and love, and danger, and sweetness, and more than this even, much more.

Dona’s gained a reputation for being the only wife to frequent the taverns where husbands meet their mistresses. The Friday before we meet her, she’s borrowed Rockingham’s breeches and cloak, donned a mask and – along with Rockingham and some others in their crowd – held up a countess’ carriage, demanding “A hundred guineas or your honour”. Now she’s embarrassed at her behaviour and has removed herself and her children to Cornwall, leaving Harry in London.

Arriving at the house she’s greeted by William, a servant she doesn’t recall from her previous visit, who’s spent the last year living alone in the house. When Dona retires to bed that evening, she discovers a jar of tobacco and a book of French poetry in the drawer of the bedside table. She realises they don’t belong to William but when her neighbour, Lord Godolphin, visits wanting Harry’s help the reader’s a step in front of her:

‘My dear lady,’ he said, ‘there is nothing you can do, except ask your husband to come down, and rally around his friends, so that we can fight this damned Frenchman.’

‘Frenchman?’ she said.

‘Why that’s the plague of it,’ he said, almost shouting in his anger; ‘this fellow’s a low sneaking foreigner, who for some reason or other seems to know our coast like the back of his hand, and slips away to the other side, to Brittany, before we can lay our hands on him. His craft is like quicksilver, none of our ships down here can catch him. He’ll creep into our harbours by night, land silently like the stealth rat he is, seize our goods, break open our stores and merchandise, and be away on the morning tide while our fellows are rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.

It’s not long before Dona’s wandered down to the creek and had her own encounter with the French pirate, one that leads to adventure, freedom, romance and excitement. At least until her husband and his friends arrive.

Frenchman’s Creep is a fun, fast-paced romp that considers women’s roles and the freedom they can gain by disguising themselves as men. There are questions about Dona’s role as a mother, a wife and an object, particularly with regards to Rockingham’s attitude towards her.

I have two complaints though: one is the repeated correlation between sun-tanned skin and ‘gypsies’ which made me wince every time it appeared and the second is a plan almost at the end of the book which is completely ludicrous. Despite this, however, Du Maurier’s plotting is tight and I thoroughly enjoyed Frenchman’s Creek. It might even have convinced me to try some more of her novels.