Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne du Maurier
This is not the typical novel that is written today. Looking at the style of the original cover, I would have turned away from it, and more’s the pity because I would have missed a book that demands an audience and perhaps a conversation about what we seek and how we live our lives. Written with a prose that is at once well-structured and coherent, it is also lyrical and sensitive. In Du Maurier’s novel about a place of refuge called Frenchman’s Creek, she achieves what most novels today, do not. Without crude language or vivid and graphic sex scenes, she elicits romance and adventure on almost every page. The lightness of the plot does not betray the beauty of its presentation.
Du Maurier introduces us to an enchanted area of Cornwall, England. This otherworldly locale from a time past, takes shape out of the shadows, near a hidden inlet. Lady Dona St Columb flees there to Navron House, in search of a different life than the one she was living in London as the wife of an aristocrat who was crude and fat, and no longer very appealing to her. She is ashamed of her previous behavior of cavorting with the men. She discovers Frenchman’s Creek on her property and it feels magical and mysterious. It is actually right there that a pirate, cut from a different mold, a pirate who is the antithesis of the swashbuckling crude pirate of fairy tales like Captain Hook, that Jean Benoit Aubéry, a Frenchman of ill repute, has made his place of respite for his crew and his ship called La Mouette, meaning the seagull; it is named for a bird that is gifted with flight and freedom, a bird that swoops down and steals from the water and the earth whatever it chooses in much the same way as this pirate does, this pirate who is painted as rather smooth talking and virile, which is a rather optimistic and romantic combination. Aubéry is no ordinary “yohoho” kind of pirate. Rather, he is a bit more sophisticated than that. I picture leading men like Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, heartthrobs from the past, playing his part. He is a pipe-smoking, poetry-reading pirate who is the stuff that dreams of young women are made of…the rake who carries them off to a land where they can fulfill their fantasies; he is the “prince” of their dreams and they immediately fall head over heels in love with this masculine soul with a heart and a mind, not just a handsome, strong body. Aubéry is not a cruel or coarse pirate. He is simply a man who wants to be free to move about at will, to live as he pleases without regard for anything else. He simply wants his adventure and he trusts to sheer good fortune for his survival. He is a bit arrogant, yet refined and courteous. It is his love of danger and excitement that propels him, and in his travels he discovered a secret cove that leads to Frenchman’s Creek, this hidden haven of safety where he and his mates could rest awhile. It is in that same sanctuary that the Dona and the pirate discover each other and their natural affinity for the same lifestyle unites them with a common bond as a romantic spark is ignited between them. Together they embark on a path that will change both of their lives forever.
Lady Dona St Columb in her attempt to run, actually enters another world that is similar to the world she runs from, and thus begins again a life of debauchery, but oh, a life that is so very much more exciting and romantic. Although her husband Harry adores her, and although she loves him, he holds no interest for her any longer; he is boring and pompous, weak and lacking in intellect. On the contrary, Jean is masculine and intriguing. She wants more from her life; her thirtieth birthday is nearing and she fears that her time is running out. She seeks to eat when she wishes, wear what she wishes and simply do as she wishes. She seeks more control of her own life. Her children are cared for by Prue, the able nanny, so that she is really no longer indispensable. Everyone, it would seem, is taken care of, but she herself is not. Her role is that of the caretaker and she no longer chooses it, rather she wants to be cared for in more than the mundane ways of the day. She wants to have fun and to finally and ultimately find love and to be loved and appreciated as more than just a female body. Isn’t it finally her turn to live? Thirty, after all, was fairly old in the time of Charles II.
In this novel, written in 1941, I found myself rooting for the “bad” guy and not for those that pretended to be on the side of right when it suited them. The villain was the more likable. The uptight, so-called upstanding citizens of the novel were a bit stodgy and obnoxious, demanding and self-righteous in a far different way than the pirate himself. He seemed to be good-natured in all of his attempts at piracy, albeit he was stealing from others. He was merely assuming the same rights as those pompous townspeople who were doing as they wished, ignoring the rights of those whose class was “beneath them”, basically stealing their lives from the labors of others. They were not portrayed as the brightest bulbs and so were easily duped by the pirate. He had simply turned the tables on them all. He ignored the rights of those he thought were behaving as if they were “above” him. And therein lies the rub, for both, behaving in similar ways, for different reasons which each justified, were capable of ignoring the rules and laws of society; and both believed in their right to do so as they ignored the rights of the other. How true it still is today as we justify our own behavior, which is often at the expense of others but which gratifies our own needs.
The characters banter with each other in a charming way. The humor is very subtle as they toy with each other, even in conversation, as they intuit their feelings and desires. The book is a wonderful examination of emotions and behavior, but it raises questions about the very nature of those sentiments and conduct. Was the Dona noble in her actions or self-serving, in the end? How many women could do as she did and never look back? Will she live to regret her choices, will the pirate? Was the ending satisfying?
DuMaurier takes the reader on a wonderful journey into the land of fantasy and romance, adventure and danger, and she does it with a certain flair and flourish. The subtle humor and sarcasm will bring a smile to the lips and invite a chuckle to escape. The author captivates the reader so that they, too, will be soaked by the rain, tossed by the waves, duck from the bullets and will run through the streets to escape capture with their fellow marauders as Dona and the pirates do the same. The fear and tension will build and half way through the book, even with the hokey kind of plot, a plot from the world of the fairy tales of yesterday and not today, I was captured by the prose and could not put it down, reading it late into the night until I reached the last page and smiled. It is rollicking good fun as Dona, the “cabin boy”, and Jean have their secret trysts and escapades, defying custom and decorum.
Frenchman’s Creek is the secret place of Dona and the pirate; it is hidden among the trees from the rest of the world; it offers privacy and a place to live out one’s desires, unimpeded by the requirements of the outside world. Real life does not intrude there, but living life to the fullest does! Of course, another conclusion can be drawn. Dona is also arrogant and rude. She behaves in a raucous manner without regard for others as does the pirate, often humiliating those weaker than they. The pirate, while polite, might also be considered cruel as he relieves his victims of their belongings and shames and frightens them. But somehow, that is not the message that comes through. Instead, we witness the joy that the people who choose to live with excitement, in a positive space that is open to adventure, have in living their life, while their opposites are victims of a world in which they seem only to plod through in negative space, but they are unfulfilled and unhappy.