You may remember from my first series of My Life in Books (links to both series are here) that my mother picked Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek as one of her choices. Indeed, she was rather dizzied by her love of one Jean-Benoit Aubrey, the Frenchman (and pirate) of the title. Tomorrow she will be guest-posting In Defence of Jean-Benoit because, dear reader, I have reservations about him, which I will disclose in time. What I have fewer reservations about is Frenchman’s Creek (1941) as a whole – I thought it wonderful, silly, fun.
Dona St. Columb is bored with her marriage to foolish, affable Harry, and as the novel opens she is haring off in the middle of the night to their Cornish estate, along with her two children and their nurse Prue. Dona is impetuous, a little wild, and wholly unsuited to the Restoration Court society in which she has found herself – although she also has gained something of a reputation, by drinking with the lower orders and generally acting in a manner which doesn’t befit the wife of Harry St. Columb.
At which point, all those boxes in our heads are being ticked – independent woman, check; impulsive and sassy, check. And yet… it’s also the first signs of the selfishness which Dona exhibits throughout the novel. Onto that later.
Well, Dona sets up home in her Cornish mansion (wouldn’t it be nice to have a spare mansion or two, dotted around the country?) Only the butler William is there, having fired all the staff (did I mention that the house is supposed to be fully staffed, even when they aren’t living there? All my spare mansions will be the same, of course.) Dona enjoys being away from London, but finds high society in Cornwall no less enervating than that in London.
But we know what’s coming. Let’s cut to the chase. A French pirate has been terrorising the local dignitaries – carrying out sophisticated robberies on the rich, and apparently distressing the local woman (although, as is pointed out by more than one person, they don’t seem that distressed…) Dona decides to investigate… and is captured, taken aboard the pirate ship, and brought before the pirate chief himself, Jean-Benoit Aubrey. But he isn’t in the Captain Hook line of pirates – indeed, he utterly ignores her, and continues drawing…
How remote he was, how detached, like some student in college studying for an examination; he had not even bothered to raise his head when she came into his presence, and what was he scribbling there anyway that was so important? She ventured to step forward closer to the table, so that she culd see, and now she realised he was not writing at all, he was drawing, he was sketching, finely, with great care, a heron standing on the mud-flats, as she had seen a heron stand, ten minutes before.
Then she was baffled, then she was at a loss for words, for thought even, for pirates were not like this, at least not the pirates of her imagination, and why could he not play the part she had assigned to him, become an evil, leering fellow, full of strange oaths, dirty, greasy-handed, not this grave figure seated at the polished table, holding her in contempt?
Well, I shan’t continue to give away the plot, but guess what? They fall in love. Surprise!
My favourite character, though, is William the butler. He, it turns out (er, spoilers) is actually also from the crew – and only stays on land because he gets seasick (and thus is the character most similar to the man my mother eventually married, leaving her pirate fantasies behind her.) William is a little like Jeeves, especially in the first half of the novel, in that he manages to convey a great deal of impertinence while still seeming obedient and non-committal.
“I have a wager with your master that I shall not succumb. Do you think I shall win?”
“It depends upon what your ladyship is alluding to.”
“That I shall not succumb to the motion of the ship, of course. What did you think I meant?”
“Forgive me, my lady. My mind, for the moment, had strayed to other things. Yes, I think you will win that wager,”
“It is the only wager we have, William.”
“Indeed, my lady.”
“You sound doubtful.”
“When two people make a voyage, my lady, and one of them a man like my master, and the other a woman like my mistress, the situation strikes me as being pregnant with possibilities.”
“William, you are very presumptuous.”
“I am sorry, my lady.”
“And – French in your ideas.”
“You must blame my mother, my lady.”
“You are forgetting that I have been married to Sir Harry for six years, and am the mother of two children, and that next month I shall be thirty.”
“On the contrary, my lady, it was these things that I was most remembering.”
“Then I am inexpressibly shocked at you. Open the door at once, and let me into the garden.”
“Yes, my lady.”
Before I go onto my main problem with Frenchman’s Creek, I will assure you that I love the novel. It isn’t in the same league as Rebecca in terms of neat, clever plotting. It’s an unashamedly silly historical romance – everything is improbable and over the top, but Daphne du Maurier never stumbles into improbable or over the top writing, and that’s the most important thing. Her style remains measured and unhysterical. It’s even an historical novel that I enjoyed, which is rarer than hen’s teeth. But…
I have a problem with Jean-Benoit as a romantic hero. That doesn’t stop me enjoying the novel a great deal, but it does prevent me putting J-B on a pedestal. He is, after all, a pirate. There is some suggestion that he has murdered people – he has certainly stolen from and humiliated them. A brief mention that he gives to the poor isn’t enough to make him a-ok, to my mind. Yes, it’s an historical romp, and he shouldn’t be held to the same moral standards as real life people today, but… it makes me question my mother’s taste a little…
But more than that, I came away from Frenchman’s Creek feeling desperately sorry for Harry. Yes, he is a buffoon. No, he will never be able to provide Dona with the intellectual, adventurous companionship she craves – but she never tries to make their marriage work, and he tries so, so hard. Read these lines, and see if you don’t feel sorry for him…
“I want to see you well,” he [husband] repeated. “That’s all I care about, damn it, to see you well and happy.” And he stared down at her, his blue eyes humble with adoration, and he reached clumsily for her hand.
Frenchman’s Creek probably shouldn’t be given this sort of scrutiny, but I just wanted to shake Dona for being an appalling mother and a cruel wife, and I can’t help wish that Harry had married some other woman, and that Dona and Jean-Benoit had sunk on their ship together…
Tomorrow my mother, Our Vicar’s Wife, will leap to Jean-Benoit’s defence!