Book review – “Frenchman’s Creek” by Daphne du Maurier

You will recall that I read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca a few weeks ago. I devoured it, could hardly put it down, loved the film too. Once I had written my review I went to put the book away and, being  a strictly alphabetical storer of books, discovered I had another du Maurier tucked away on the shelf that I had completely forgotten about. It looks like I bought it in 1989 (I used adhesive book plates in those days) so I was still at university and must have picked it up in a secondhand bookshop. It’s a 1965 Penguin edition, which means it has a very small typeface and is only a little over 230 pages long. I was very excited about this find and could not wait to get stuck in.

My vintage, pre-decimalisation copy!

I assumed that as the book appeared to be so short it would not take me too long to read. It took me the best part of three weeks! I kept falling asleep reading it, which may have been due to the fact that my life has been a bit topsy-turvy this last month or so and I have been tired, or the fact that 1960s typeface is actually impossible to read and a tremendous strain on the eyes. Or perhaps it is just that I was so decidedly underwhelmed. I think that is the kindest thing I can say about it. It was the first novel published after Rebecca, (the latter published in 1938, while Frenchman’s Creek came out in 1941) and yet it reads like it could have been her first, practice or unfinished novel, discovered posthumously. I was so disappointed.

The plot is a simple one – set in Restoration England, wealthy Dona St Columb, bored with the frivolousness of London life (and also bored with her husband), decides to take herself, her two young children and the nanny to the family’s estate in Cornwall, Navron House. The house has been locked up, unoccupied for some time, looked after solely by a single mysterious servant William. There is much gossip around the town in Cornwall about a French pirate, terrorising the locals, and jeopardising the noblemen whose fortunes are made through maritime activity. Dona is intrigued by the stories. At the same time, Dona begins to notice some strange things in her house: a jar of tobacco and a volume of French poetry in her private bedroom, and the feeling that there is more to the servant William than meets the eye.

When Dona confronts William she learns that he is in fact an associate of the infamous Breton pirate of the La Mouette, Jean-Benoit Aubery, who, between raids, lays his ship at anchor in the hidden creek below Navron. Dona is clearly immediately attracted to the idea of the mysterious pirate, and when she does finally meet him, he does not disappoint. They begin a fairly passionate (by the standards of the time!) love affair, and…well, I won’t give you any more spoilers. Suffice it to say, that Dona finds herself torn when her fellow Cornish nobles decide that they want to capture the Frenchman and hang him for his crimes. She will have to use all her feminine wiles to help her lover evade capture. This event is slightly comic (due largely to the ineptitude of most of the men invovled), but the threat grows somewhat darker when Dona’s husband Harry decides he will join her in the country and brings his friend, the rather sinister Lord Rockingham, who is not so gullible as Harry. Not only does he suspect that Dona is hiding something but is clearly intent upon using his suspicion to get what he wants out of her.

I feel like I have just outlined the plot of a Mills & Boon and I’m afraid that’s how I felt reading it. The novel is set in the Restoration era, presumably because that is when pirates were around terrorising coastal communities, but there is very little sense of either time or place in this novel, something that du Maurier does so brilliantly in Rebecca. The love affair between Dona and her pirate is so extremely implausible as is the interaction with the servant William, as are the key events of the novel. None of the characters are fully developed and our Breton pirate (himself a nobleman in his part of the world, but who, like Dona, is a restless soul who likes a bit of high-seas adventure) speaks impeccable English!

I read that du Maurier was often dismissed as a “romantic novelist”, but that she resisted this pigeonhole. Certainly, Rebecca, is so much more than a romance; perhaps not even a romance. But Frenchman’s Creek, in my view, is a poor follow-up to that novel, a throwaway romance that has little of real substance. I’d be interested to know what du Maurier fans think of it and how it is perceived critically. I’m going to try more du Maurier and hope that this novel is an aberration.

Read this book if you love Rebecca and are as intrigued as me by the contrasting quality!

Book review – “Zennor in Darkness” by Helen Dunmore

This was the April choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. At the start of the year I choose a particular theme for each month and April’s was historical fiction. Helen Dunmore was not much on my radar until I read Birdcage Walk last year, her final novel, published posthumously (Dunmore died in 2017). I thought the book was incredible and I was desperate to read more of her work. Dunmore was also a poet and acclaimed short story writer, but her historical fiction is what she is best known for, I think, and it is outstanding. Zennor in Darkness was in fact her debut novel, published in 1993, and it won the McKitterick Prize, which is awarded to debut novels of authors over 40 (there is hope for me yet!) I was open-minded; I did not expect it to be as polished as Birdcage Walk, in which she has fully matured as a writer and truly mastered her craft, but I did think it would be interesting to observe her burgeoning talent and to be able to see how she evolved as an artist.

Zennor in DarknessI really enjoyed Zennor in Darkness. It is a great story, two stories really, which become intertwined. Clare Coyne is the only daughter of widowed Francis Coyne, and the pair live together in the small town of Zennor in Cornwall. Clare’s mother was born there and the family moved from London when Clare was a baby in order to be near family. Clare’s father’s family had a higher social status, and Clare is clearly ‘different’ from her Cornish cousins, grandparents and aunts, with whom she has spent so much time, but Clare is largely disconnected from her paternal grandparents. Francis Coyne is an ineffectual character, a botanist who earns very little money from his publishing, who spends more time with his books than with his daughter, and who does not seem to understand her on any level. Clare has artistic ability and is a talented artist. She spends her time looking after her father, keeping house, and drawing plants for his latest book project.

Clare is very close to her cousins of her own age, particularly the girls Peggy and Hannah, and her slightly older male cousin, John. The novel is set in 1917, when Britain was in a state of trauma about its involvement in the First World War, the lives lost and the lives destroyed by battle.

Another (temporary) resident of the small Cornish community is the author DH Lawrence, who is renting a house there with his German wife Frieda (this part of the story is based on fact). The couple left London as Lawrence’s anti-war views had aroused great hostility, not helped by the fact of being married to a German. In Cornwall the couple hoped to find peace and quiet, but as the novel progresses it becomes increasingly clear that some of the locals are suspicious of Lawrence, the outsider, the anti-patriot, and rumours spread that Frieda is actually a spy; the audacious red curtains hanging in the window of their rented cottage are thought to be signals to passing German U-boats!

Clare strikes up a friendship with the Lawrences, and is excited by their bohemian lifestyle, such a contrast to her own humdrum life and community. Clare also becomes romantically and sexually involved with her beloved cousin John when he returns home briefly on leave from the trenches. Like Clare, John is a cut above, had ambitions to be a doctor when he was younger, though the war put paid to that. His ability has been recognised, however, and at the end of his leave he is to begin officer training.

The title of the novel has many meanings – the ‘Darkness’ could refer to the dark times of the war and the attendant human suffering, but also to the sometimes narrow-minded attitudes of the local community to the outsider Lawrence, to Clare and Francis even. The setting of the novel is at times idyllic; there is a sense of suspension of time and escape from war (in part why the Lawrences moved there), particularly in the wonderful scenes at the beginning of the girls paddling in the sea and the recollections of the idyllic rural childhood they enjoyed. But as the novel progresses, darkness descends ever more over the events. There is no ‘happy ending’ here (how could there be, set as it is in the First World War?) but there is a kind of peace, a reconciling and a coming of age which is partly positive.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it will spur me on to read more of Helen Dunmore.

Recommended.