Monday, 25 June 2012

Frenchman's Creek - Daphne du Maurier

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!


50 comments:

  1. Oh, Simon, how can I explain this ... women do not want humble adoration. They want Real Men. Which is why I fell head over heels in love with the Frenchman when I was 13. And I imagine your Mum probably did the same. Trouble is, I loved this so much that I've never dared to read it again ... it would be so dispiriting if I discovered I was too staid to fall in love with him again.

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    1. You'll understand, Mary, that your first statement makes me as cross as hearing men say that want a woman who never leaves the kitchen... ;)

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    2. Well, I'm not saying we'd like a Real Man on a daily basis ... but the Frenchman is the stuff of our fantasies.

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  2. I read this for the first and only time when I was 12 and just discovering du Maurier. The entire time I was reading I couldn't shake the feeling that I was supposed to fall desperately in love with Jean-Benoit, which made me a little angry with the book as the more we saw of the Frenchman, the more I unappealing I found him. I found Dona equally obnoxious and all my sympathy was reserved for poor Harry. Though I've never reread the book, I was actually listening to an old BBC radio dramatization of this last week; yes, I may not love the characters but the story is still great fun.

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    1. Hurrah, Claire! So glad to have a voice of sense (i.e. someone who agrees with me ;))

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  3. Ah,but Simon, some of us (ladies I mean) love 'the bad boy'alpha male in our romantic fiction, and du Maurier's pirate is, in any case, very mild and gentlemanly compared to (for example) Heathcliff! Try the anti-hero of Joanne Harris's 'Holy Fools' for example and read Joanne's defence of the character too....

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    1. Don't get me started on Heathcliff! Oh, how I loathe him. I've never understood how a novel about hatred and evil has come to be thought of as a romance.

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    2. Sue has expressed it perfectly, Simon ... the bad-boy Alpha male. Needless to say, I adored Heathcliff.

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    3. Oh Mary! There is no help for you. Heathcliff is essentially the devil! There's bad-boy and then there's "I loved you so much that I married someone else and killed their dog."

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    4. I couldn't agree more about Heathcliff Simon, also couldn't have laughed more over your description. Wild men are one thing but men who defile your grave are not good husband material. My understanding of restoration London makes me think that wilful women with a taste for low company would have found plenty to amuse themselves with at court.

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  4. I'm afraid I agree with Mary about the humble adoration. Very off-putting. I did re-read it fairly recently, or tried to, but I didn't like it, I'm afraid. I prefer Daphne in a more serious mode. Love pirates, though.

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    1. Which would you recommend? I love Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel - would those count as serious mode?

      And, oh, HARRIET. I despair of all of you! ;)

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    2. Yes those are the ones I meant. But your mum has now persuaded me that this one needs another go.

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  5. I'm with Mary on this one as well... who wants dull but good Harry with his dog-like devotion when they could have a dashing, cultured, intelligent,French pirate! He does follow a long line of 'bad boy' heroes, who are always much more appealing than the good guys.It's pure escapism, I know, but I love the book, and I love Jean-Benoit, and I'm glad your mother is going to defend him.

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    1. Oh, CHRISTINE! You'll enjoy my Mum's post tomorrow...

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  6. I'm afraid I have to add my name to the long list of Jean-Benoît's admirers. Frenchman's Creek is probably my favourite du Maurier, along with The King's General (and the hero there makes a pirate look gentle!). Have you seen the Mobile Masterpiece adaptation, with Tara Fitzgerald and Anthony Delon? Very different from the book but SO sexy! And Harry and William are wonderfully interpreted...

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    1. I've not seen that - I'm intrigued! Pirates always seem to bring out the worst excesses of costume departments.

      I haven't read The King's General, but if we're supposed to admire someone cruel, then I might give it a miss for now...

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    2. No fear of encountering any costume horrors - it's not done à la "Pirates of the Caribbean"!

      Hmm, yes, given your hatred of Heathcliff, I don't think you'd have much sympathy for Richard Grenville. He is a bit bitter and twisted. As for Mr Heathcliff, I agree he's horribly cruel and sadistic, but oh! the appeal of a love so strong it transcends death itself!!

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  7. Sorry Simon, I loved JB too when I was 14. Also loved the hero of King's General at around the same age. Haven't reread them since, though. Must watch the TV version

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    1. I think you're allowed to when you're 14 :)

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  8. Simon, I am sitting here laughing ... could I recommend Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus? I think it might help.

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  9. I am sitting on the sofa, sipping tea and scrolling through the comments... and LOVING them! Must sit on my hands until tomorrow though.....

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    1. Hope you're enjoying people agreeing with you much more than they did with me!

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  10. I've never dared to reread Frenchman's Creek. I absolutely loved it when I was a young teenager too. I'm really looking forward to your mother's post. I agree with her and Mary and all the others. I loved the King's General too. Dare I reread them? I would hate to have my illusions shattered by thinking them 'silly historical romances'.

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    1. I don't think there's anything wrong with a silly book now and then, but if you're hoping it stands up as a sensible novel, then you'd better give it a miss!

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  11. I loved Frenchman's Creek. I did fell a little "edgy" at the ending - I generally don't like books that manipulate me into going against my conscience, but I forgave duMaurier since it was such a well done story. That said...and now I'm chuckling...I don't know if this is a "universal" or if it is an Americanism, but the men over here say, "date the blondes, marry the brunettes." Similarly, I think we females "date the bad boys and marry the steady guys."

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    1. I've just been reading the sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, called But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes - that saying has crossed the pond! I think, since my Mum eschewed pirates and married a vicar, your other saying rings true ;)

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  12. Simon, I know this is a blog about Frenchman's Creek and Daphne du Maurier, but I'm going to put in a partial defence of Heathcliff, who is partly a victim--abandoned as a child on the streets of Liverpool, and later marginalised and abused in various other ways after old Mr Earnshaw dies. He doesn't always behave well, I admit, far from it, but he acts out of deep, emotional pain. I also think that while many of us who love WH, empathise with Heathcliff and enjoy imagining what it would be like to be Cathy, loved by such an elemental, semi-Byronic man, know perfectly well it just wouldn't do in real life, just as we wouldn't have an affair with a pirate! That's one of the purposes of fiction, I think, and certainly 'romantic' fiction (not sure that WH is a romance, although it's definitely Gothic) i.e it gives us the opportunity to safely play with dangerous thoughts and illicit actions!

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    1. I'm pretty much with you here about Heathcliff - and Cathy is not easy to deal with either which can excuse a little of his behaviour. WH isn't really meant to be real life but perhaps an extreme exagqeration of where love can take you if it's too obsessive. A lot of women might dream of that kind of drama, but very few would want it in real life and you're right, it gives a chance for a litte fantasy!

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    2. Me too -- agree about Heathcliff I mean. I think Simon has a bit to learn about all this :)

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    3. Oh, but you can't, people! I can see maybe how the pirate would appeal, in fantasy, but in no realm could Heathcliff be anything other than hideously evil. I think this is the biggest mystery of reading to me - above how people enjoy Katie Price's autobiographies, above the appeal of Dan Brown - that anybody could read Wuthering Heights and think it is a book about love, rather than about hatred and revenge.

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    4. Well, there's a song that goes "There's a thin line between love and hate" and that's true. When you're in love you don't have your senses about you - love is a kind of obsession and if it goes wrong it can slip into hate. An awful lot of literature is based on this! ;)

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    5. OK, now I definitely have to re-read WH! Thank you, Sue, for putting in a good word for Heathcliff (a tough job, I must admit). Don't abused children often turn into child abusers themselves? Heathcliff's character was shaped by the constant humiliation he suffered as a child, and by the fact that even the woman he loved, and who said she returned his love, felt contempt for him. How does one give affection and kindness when one has never experienced it oneself??
      That said, he obviously had a natural propensity for cruelty, for his ward Hareton, though never having been treated kindly either, turns out much better...

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  13. Simon, I enjoyed your review and the lively comments it prompted. I could accept the "women can't resist a bad guy" thing if, as Sue suggests, it was confined to the world of reading and the imagination, but ... Well, let's not go there!

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  14. Reading the comments here is great fun! I've never read Frenchman's Creek, but I do remember liking The King's General - shall have to re-read it to find out how I'd feel about it now. No defence of Heathcliff from me, though - you've got him absolutely right.

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    1. I'm so glad one or two people agree with me over Heathcliff :)

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  15. The only Du Maurier I've read is The House on the Strand (although I know the plot of Rebecca - I'm sure everyone must!) Anyway, HOTS was one of my teenage reads and I remember being enjoyably spooked and intrigued by it, and finding it very thought-provoking. Maybe this is another title for a re-read?

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    1. That's one that I really want to read next - thanks for the reminder! (I doubt it could cause as much outcry as this post, though!)

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  16. I have love, love, loved reading your review and the comments! I read Frenchman's Creek after Rebecca and Jamaica Inn so was expecting something quite different! I agree the it is fun and silly and I allowed myself to be swept along by the romance. It's definitely not one of my favourites though. Lots of people have said that they read it when they were teenagers and perhaps I would have preferred it if I had. I read Jamaica Inn when I was about 14 and have to say that a proper example of a 'bad boy' would be Jem in my eyes!

    I also have to say that William was the best character in Frenchman's Creek! He was brilliant! I look forward to reading your mum's post!

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    1. The comments are hysterical, aren't they? I'm enjoying it a lot.

      And agreed - William is the best man in the book :)

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  17. Tagging on again, I'm wondering what Simon thinks of Maxim de Winter? There's another of Du Maurier's ambiguous romantic heroes who could be criticised on grounds of conventional morality!

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    1. I'm not a fan, Sue, as you probably guessed! Give me Edward Weston any day.

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  18. I've got to say that I'm with the majority here in that the lines you quoted in defence of Harry wouldn't turn me on at all (let's swap sex here for a moment since it's all fantasy). Sounds like he'd have made a good puppy dog!

    Some cats like "bad" girls too!

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    1. Is it only me and a couple of others who appreciate kindness in a person? I am surprised!

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    2. Appreciating kindness is one thing -- I'm sure we all do that -- but finding humble devotion attractive is quite another.

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  19. Last year I had the pleasure of going on holiday with a guy who was reading this novel in French. He was kind enough to read out some choice Romantic Bits. I don't know whether it was the language barrier that meant I failed to be swept away, but I've never laughed so hard in my entire life.

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  20. Ah, I read this when I was a teenager and really wasn't looking for reality or rationality in my romances! I wonder how many of the pirate obsessions Daphne is responsible for?

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