Frenchman’s Creek is a novel of romance, of adventure, of pirates and of Cornwall, and rather different from the gothic, suspense/thriller themes one usually associates with her. A novel I’d enjoyed very much on my first read years ago, this was a revisit for Ali’s #DDMReadingWeek for this year.
In Frenchman’s Creek, we meet the daring and impetuous, Lady Dona St Colomb, married to a baronet, the good natured, but clumsy and not very bright Harry. She scandalises those around her and makes herself the talk of London by going out drinking and dining with Harry, ‘the only wife amongst a crowd of mistresses’, flirts with his friend Rockingham (who proves to be a rather unpleasant person, to say the least), and plays pranks. But one prank having gone too far, she realises how much she actually despises London life and all that she’s become, and decides to escape with her two children, Henrietta and James, and their governess Prue to Navron House, Harry’s family home in Cornwall, which has been unoccupied many years. This decision too is on the spur of the moment and must be given effect to as rapidly, irrespective of how any one else feels in the matter. At Navron, she finds the house in the charge of only one servant, William, who unlike the usual rung of servants is quite forward in his responses, but somehow Dona takes to him and allows him to remain. She begins to spend her days simply enjoying the peace and quiet, and nature. A short visit from Goldolphin one of her husband’s old friends (whom she finds a ‘turnip’) makes her aware of the presence of pirates in the neighbourhood, but she knows even from his account that their deeds seem far too exaggerated, and the local nobility far too dim-witted to be able to outwit them. Nonetheless when she falls within their path, she is a little afraid but soon finds the band, and indeed their leader Aubéry very different from what she’d pictured pirates to be. Soon, she finds herself falling in love and also finding excitement in life once again, joining in on their adventures. But these adventures are no pranks that she played in London and the consequences and dangers very real, and the decisions she takes will impact her whole life!
Like my first time reading the book, once again, I found this one entertaining and thorough good fun. The story is a romance at its heart, no doubt, but there is plenty more too it as well which makes it a far richer reading experience. The ‘pirate’ that Dona falls in love with, Jean-Benoit Aubéry, is a gentleman-pirate, who like her has escaped the life he was leading back on his estates, his adventures (usually well planned and executed) bringing him a sense of contentment that he never had. Dona joining the crew on its adventures, finds excitement, and feels herself alive once again, bringing about a complete change in her.
As is the case with most of du Maurier’s novels, Cornwall shines through in this book as well. There are some lovely descriptions of the area around Helston River, and of course, of the sea, and the experience of sailing. In fact, on this reading I noticed more consciously how much nature played a part in this book. Aubéry is fond of birds, observes them carefully and makes sketches of them often; when Dona first comes to Cornwall and starts spending time outdoors, simply lying in the grass, she begins to observe the butterflies, and more so, when she meets and begins spending time with Aubéry, she too begins to appreciate nature, observing the birds—curlews and swans, night-jars and herons—and really also all the beauty around her.
More generally also, she begins to appreciate the joy that simple pleasures bring—among them food—the meals she enjoys whether of vegetable soup or fish or chicken roasted over an open fire or a spit, or simply a hunk of toasty (almost black) bread with butter and cheese—all of these bring her much more pleasure than the elaborate meals she is accustomed to. So as much as the sense of excitement, and adventure, the feelings of peace and contentment that simple things in life bring, even time spend in silence amidst nature, are also what contribute to Dona’s happiness.
Dona in her rebellion whether in her London life or here again in Cornwall, is in a way also bringing up the issue of the lot of women in her day—she longed to ride with her brothers as a child but couldn’t being a girl, and tries perhaps to achieve that sense of excitement and pleasure through her daring as an adult. That rebellion also reflects in her contempt of the more dull and conventional men around her or in her reaction at ‘dutiful’ wives having to endlessly bear children till the desired heir is born.
I had fun with the adventure elements of the story, especially when Dona joins the crew on a pirating adventure. The thoughts and doubts in her mind during this episode were well done, and ones one would expect someone in her position to experience. But towards the end when things take a more dangerous turn, I felt things became a little too dramatic for my liking. However, I did like how du Maurier chose to end the book—it seems just right somehow.
I was pleased to have revisited this book after so long.
p.s. I also rather liked the opening chapter which reminded me of Kipling’s Way Through the Woods.