A kind friend (thanks, SD!), on learning that I wanted to read some Daphne du Maurier besides Rebecca, sent me a wonderfully enticing stack of her novels, including the pictured 1959 edition of her 1941 novel Frenchman’s Creek. I was hooked from the moment I saw the cover (not just the picture, which you have to agree is delicious, but the caption, which begins “A memorable novel about a lady and a pirate”). Notice that it sold for the bargain price of 35¢ (inside is a tear-away card for a special promotional offer on a subscription to Time–27 weeks for $1.97). The volume itself is a wonderful period piece.
Frenchman’s Creek is a ridiculous novel. It features a bored 18th-century aristocratic lady impatient with the artifice of her pampered life and with “her fat and stupid husband” (to quote the back cover). She meets Jean-Benoit Aubery, a sexy Frenchman who shares her restless spirit–but in his case he has found an outlet for it, in piracy. Is there really any need for me to fill in the rest? The only surprise, really, in a quiet sort of way, is the ending…but of course I won’t give that away.
There is one other surprise, actually, something that shouldn’t have surprised me because, after all, I had already read Rebecca. Daphne du Maurier is a beautiful writer. I haven’t read any recent examples of this genre, which I would call a hybrid of historical fiction and romantic suspense, but I am skeptical that many writers today would either be able to or bother to surround their plots with the kind of detailed, luxurious, but never cheaply self-indulgent prose du Maurier lavishes (wastes, I’m tempted to say) on Lady Dona St. Columb and her piratical escapades. The opening of the novel, for example, is an evocative historical palimpsest, layering the homely present of Navron House and the nearby waters over the lingering traces of the past, filling the dreams of a contemporary yachtsman: “as the tide surges gently about his ship and the moon shines on the quiet river, soft murmurs come to him, and the past becomes the present”:
All the whispers and echoes from a past that is gone teem into the sleeper’s brain, and he is with them, and part of them; part of the sea, the ship, the walls of Navron House, part of a carriage that rumbles and lurches in the rough roads of Cornwall, part even of that lost forgotten London, artificial, painted, where link-boys carried flares, and tipsy gallants laughed at the corner of a cobbled mud-splashed street. He sees Harry in his satin coat, his spaniels at his heels, blundering into Dona’s bedroom, as she places the rubies in her ears. He sees William with his button mouth, his small inscrutable face. And last he sees La Mouette at anchor in a narrow twisting stream, he sees the trees at the water’s edge, he hears the heron and the curlew cry, and lying on his back asleep he breathes and lives the lovely folly of that lost midsummer which first made the creek a refuge, and a symbol of escape.
Curlews, herons, and other wildlife figure largely in the novel, suggesting that du Maurier herself was, if not a birder, at least an avid naturalist; certainly her care to evoke the local fauna goes beyond what would be strictly necessary for a plot about running away to sea in borrowed britches and finding freedom and passion there. As for the sea, du Maurier is in her element there:
Slowly the ship gathered way, and the wind of the morning, coming across the hills, filled the great sails. She crept down the creek like a ghost upon the still water, now and again almost brushing the trees where the channel ran inshore, and all the while he stood beside the helmsman, giving the course, watching the curving banks of the creek. The wide parent river opened up before them, and now the wind came full and true from the west, sending a ripple on the surface, and as La Mouette met the strength of it she heeled slightly, her decks aslant, and a little whipping spray came over the bulwark. The dawn was breaking in the east, and the sky had a dull haze about it and a glow that promised fine weather. There was a salty tang in the air, a freshness that came from the open sea beyond the estuary, and as the ship entered the main channel of the river the sea-gulls rose in the air and followed them.
Even her melodrama is finely tuned. Here’s Lady Dona presiding over a dinner party for the fat stupid husband and his obnoxious cronies, who have gathered to plot the pirate’s capture:
She held her head high in the air, and there was a smile on her lips, but she saw nothing, not the blaze of the candles, nor the long table piled with dishes, nor Godolphin in his plum-coloured coat, nor Rashleigh with his grey wig, nor Eustick fingering his sword, not all the eyes of the men who stared at her and bowed low as she passed to her seat at the head of the table, but only one man, who stood on the deck of his ship in the silent creek, saying farewell to her in thought as he waited for the tide.
Lady Dona and her pirate may be, at best, lavishly presented cliches, and their adventures (though entertaining, I confess), ridiculous, but the long rhythmic sentences, the abundant details, even the vocabulary all give the novel a richness that makes reading it quite a paradoxical experience. Purple prose perhaps (as I was warned on the outside of the package)–but it’s royal purple, richest velvet. I can’t wait to work my way through the rest of the pile, which includes Mary Anne (a Regency novel), My Cousin Rachel (about the “enigmatic Countess Sangalletti”!), The Parasites (“They were the fabulous Delaneys–chasing love and luxury in a world they believed was strictly their own”!), and Kiss Me Again, Stranger, which may have the best cover of all: