Tuesday, 26 June 2012

In Defence of Jean-Benoit (by Anne aka Our Vicar's Wife)

As promised yesterday, my Mum (aka Anne aka Our Vicar's Wife) has written a response to my review of Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier... over to you, Mum!  (Plenty of spoilers ahead...)


Of course, Simon has it all wrong!  This book is not about infidelity and selfishness, or greed and violence – it is about the human condition, the cages which surround us, a bid to escape into an unchained world and the difficult moral choices which drag the protagonists back into the world they hoped to escape (with acceptance of their lot).

Dona was born into the nobility in the Restoration world with its dissolute Royal Court, its nation newly released from the constraints of the Puritan Commonwealth and the privileged few with time and money on their hands.  As a gently born woman her prospects were good – but her choices were few.  She married Harry St Columb because he ‘was amusing’ and she ‘liked his eyes’.  She was 23 – an age when it was high time she settled down.  Married life had begun as a series of journeys, travelling from house to house, merry-making with Harry’s friends – a ‘fast set’.  Soon pregnant, Dona had been forced into acting a part – in ‘an atmosphere strained and artificial’ in which Harry treated her with ‘a hearty boisterousness, a forced jollity, a making of noise in an endeavour to cheer her up, and on top of it all great lavish caresses that helped her not at all.

Simon defends Harry – and it is true that he loved Dona – but his attentions to her are mirrored in his fawning dogs.  He is clumsy and crass and clearly not her intellectual equal – possibly a common enough figure in the English shires of the time, but his desire to be part of the ‘in crowd’ draws him to London, where his heavy drinking make him even more doltish and unacceptable as a husband.  It is there that Dona begins to look around her for distraction.

London at that time was filthy, loud, stinking and claustrophobic.  The Court encouraged licentiousness and their ‘set’ – or at least the men in it - entered into every new escapade without conscience or moderation.  As long as Harry had his pleasures he joined in with the rest, but he was not the equal of Rockingham – a dangerous man, who formed part of the group.  Dona, desperately locked into an unfulfilling marriage became increasingly reckless, encouraged by the predatory Rockingham and failing to see him as the dangerous man he was.  The court revelled in extreme behaviour, but Dona excelled and shocked even the most cynical amongst them – in being wild and outrageous, she knew herself to be alive.  But, eventually she took part in one escapade too many and the sight of the Countess, whom she and Rockingham had held up in her coach (in the guise of highwaymen) begging for her life with the words “For God’s sake spare me, I am very old, and very tired” brought Dona to her senses : ‘Dona, swept in an instant by a wave of shame and degradation, had handed back the purse, and turned her horse’s head, and ridden back to town, hot with self-loathing, blinded by tears of abasement, while Rockingham pursued her with shouts and cries of “What the devil now, and what has happened?” and Harry, who had been told the adventure would be nothing but a ride to Hampton Court by moonlight, walked home to bed, not too certain of his direction, to be confronted by his wife on the doorstep dressed up in his best friend’s breeches.’

This is the turning point for Dona, who can think of nothing but escape.  She seizes her children, hastily packs her trunks and leaves for the country estate (and Simon, Harry had more than one estate – Navron, far away in Cornwall, was a neglected and forgotten part of his childhood – he didn’t rate it highly, so Dona’s arrival there was a gift to it!)  Yes, the children hate the upheaval, the frantic journey on atrocious roads, and Prue is put-upon; but in fact the life to which Dona takes them is idyllic for the children, who quickly lose their town ways and delight in the soft country air and the simple pleasures of childhood – putting on weight and gaining in strength, health and happiness.

Dona revels in the new life.  She shuns local society and lives simply – but she is aware her escape is only for a time.  Then Fate takes charge with her ‘inevitable’ meeting with the French pirate.  Led into world beyond her experience and imagining, Dona is fascinated by the enigmatic Frenchman, who challenges all her preconceptions about men.  His mysterious origins fascinate her - in his own way, he too has sought to escape from a world he can no longer tolerate.  He says:
“Once there was a man called Jean-Benoit Aubery, who had estates in Brittany, money, friends, responsibilities…. (he) became weary of Jean-Benoit Aubery, so he turned into a pirate, and built La Mouette.”

“And is it really possible to become someone else?”

“I have found it so.”  
But of course this is far too simple.  This is perhaps the Frenchman’s Achilles heel – he convinces Dona that escape is possible and that he has found it – but perhaps, by sharing it with her, he will lose it himself, forever.  Perhaps he too will remember it only as a dream.

The discussion goes on to describe the difference between contentment and happiness:
“Contentment is a state of mind and body when the two work in harmony, and there is no friction….Happiness is elusive – coming perhaps once in a lifetime – approaching ecstasy.”
For a few brief weeks, in the height of summer, romance blossoms between the like-minded runaways.  Their mutual attraction is animal – physical, mental, emotional and pure (or impure) romance – but it is a ‘midsummer night’s dream’ and from the dream they are forced to waken.

The pirating interlude is full of drama and danger, revealing both Dona’s and Jean-Benoit’s reckless zest for life and risk-taking.  With it comes the full expression of their love – but even as they seem to vanquish the perceived foe, their real and deadly enemies are closing in upon them.  Dona walks back into a trap.  Harry, egged on by the suspicious Rockingham, has arrived unannounced.  The last chapters of the book, with their highly charged atmosphere and dramatic denouement keep the reader turning the pages late into a sultry summer’s night.

Dona’s bid for freedom and escape cannot be like Jean-Benoit’s – she is a woman, and a mother – she can only escape for a season.  The inevitable ‘prison door’ clangs shut behind her – but the choice is one she makes for herself, eyes wide open, having tasted her one moment of true happiness.  I do not defend her actions – or those of any of the characters – but I recognise what it cost her to return to Harry and the humdrum life he offered, and I can admire the mind which invented her.

I could write of the descriptions of the countryside, the odious, pompous Godolphin and his pedestrian neighbours, the vile Rockingham, the delightful William – all is there – Daphne du Maurier excelled at painting portraits of places, people and moods.  But the main thread of the story is what appealed to me, reading it for the first time as an adolescent.   It was the perfect attempt at escape – and who, sitting their exams at the age of 16, has not thought of dropping everything and going in search of adventure?  And I would maintain that 16 is probably about the right age to read this – for the struggles which Dona and Jean-Benoit encounter are on a par with those of Romeo and Juliet – for all that they are mature adults, Dona and Jean-Benoit display a curious immaturity.  It is a ‘coming of age’ book, a rite of passage, nothing serious!

I refuse to enter into a dialogue with my son about my so called ‘pirate fixation’ (wherever did he get that from???) but I will write in support of the Frenchman – he was beautifully drawn by du Maurier as a hero with a heart, a mind and immense talent – and if he had killed, it was only in the heat of battle and in self-defence.  He, and perhaps William too, took the trouble to get to know Dona – and I sense that no-one else in her life had ever done that before.  Small wonder she loved them!

I claim this book as perfect escapist reading for anyone who needs to go on a journey away from their own particular humdrum existence – just for a little while – and paddle in the shallows of the Helford river, hopeful of catching the cry of the oyster catcher and the laughter of a long-lost summer’s afternoon.

After all, we willingly return to our true lives – glad to be part of the real and less than perfect world – in our place, loved and needed – and content.  For where there is a Dona and a French pirate, there is also a home and a hearth and toasted muffins for tea!

And I almost hesitate to say it – but here goes – it’s a girl’s book, Simon, a girl’s book!

32 comments:

  1. What a wonderful review, you make me want to read it again.
    And I love your parting shot ... hear, hear!

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    1. Read it, do! But protect that part of you which read it years ago and do not allow the eye of experience to dull your fervour!

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  2. And I second the" hear, hear!" Wonderfully defended. The "perfect escapist reading" is indeed what makes this one such a good book.

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    1. Thank you Susan. I'll meet you down by the quay then - borrow a pair of breeches and tie back your hair with a scarf!

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  3. Hurrah! What a great review! Alas, I didn't start reading du Maurier until I was in my early twenties (beginning with Rebecca) and I didn't get to 'Frenchman's Creek' until much, much later. I do wish I had read it in my teens. But now, like Mary, I do want to read it again...

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    1. It's never too late Sue - go for it!

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  4. Agree with every word - fantastic review!

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    1. One more for the 'crew' then - you know the dress code - however, I recommend you check that the shoes are the right size!

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  5. This is an absolutely brilliant review -- I agree with all that you say -- thanks so much. I said yesterday I had tried re-reading it and not got on with it (my first go, like yours, was aged about 16). Now you have made me want to re-read it again, properly. Simon, let your mum do some more guest blogs please.

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    1. Try again - but you do need to be in the right frame of mind.

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  6. Great review indeed (said he who hadn't even heard of the book). As an adult I've always believed (wanted to believe) that "girl's books" and "boy's books" were a fiction; however your case has been enthusiastically supported by the previous commentators so perhaps I should reconsider.

    Greetings from Cambridge MA

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    1. Peter - we agree! I certainly don't like the idea of girls' books and boys' books.

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    2. Dear Dark Puss
      I confess I awaited your response with some trepidation! Sherpa-the-cat told me to beware the words of the cat-without-white-paws - and one should always heed feline advice. However, in this case it was unfounded. Thank you for your kindness. I join you in querying boy / girl fiction (or non-fiction) but I have to say that any pirate story aimed at a male audience would be likely to demonstrate somewhat different qualities to those found in Frenchman's Creek! More blood perhaps, and doubtless some of the horrors feared by Godolphin and his like;-)

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    3. I hope I have restored in Sherpa some faith in this most dark of felines!

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    4. Sherpa bows her head and exits through catflap in search of a mouse-offering. (I write this on her behalf - being only 2 she has mastered the lap, but not yet mastered the intricacies of the laptop.

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  7. I'm afraid to say that there are such things as 'boys's books' and 'girls' books', when it comes to popular fiction, there's no getting away from it. I'd be bored stiff reading Andy McNabb and Clive Cussler, for example, and there's a lot of Lad-Lit besides those two that's a complete turn-off for me. Of course, there are many writers who appeal equally to men and to women. If I was recommending a Daphne du Maurier to a male acquaintance who wouldn't normally read her, I'd suggest they began with 'My Cousin Rachel' which is written from a male persepective.

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    1. Perhaps I'd concede 'masculine' and 'feminine' aspects to books, depending on how one understands those terms, but I assure you that I am a man and I would be equally bored stiff by Andy McNabb et al!

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    2. I'd be bored stiff by reading Andy McNabb and Clive Cussler too I suspect (though I haven't so that's pure prejudice on my part). I'm also bored by some books written by women, but I don't see quite what that proves other than some books appear to be marketed to some particular segment of the population. I try very hard to have no particular view about who might be precieved to be the audience for a particular book and I have no problem at all in wrters (of either sex) writing from a "male" or "female" perspective, if indeed I know what that is - I know what it appears by "convention" to be!

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    3. 'The House on the Strand' is a good one too - lots of LSD-inspired weirdness mixed with a fascinating period of history. We stayed near Par Sands for a few days earlier this year and it was amazing how du Maurier took the ordinary and made it extraordinary.

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    4. I'm afraid I agree with Sue -- there are girl's books and boy's books. Of course there are also some girls who like boy's books and some boys who like girl's books etc etc, but I think the pirate/Heathcliff issue nails it pretty conclusively. Sorry, Simon!

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  8. Three cheers for the staunch defender of Jean Aubéry! I loved this review and second a call for more guest blogs from the Vicar's Wife! (I loved the mother-son fencing as well).

    May I point out also that Restoration England was a rather bloodthirsty era, where there was little value for human life (after all, a thief was often sentenced to death and children were taken to public executions as to a Punch and Judy show). As such, though Aubéry has been accused of the foullest deeds, and has undoubtedly killed more than once, he seems far more humane than the ruthless, power-hungry Rockingham...

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    1. Yes, I should have made that point more strongly. I was trying to demonstrate that Dona was a victim of herself and her time and not merely a petulant princess. London was all the things I said it was PLUS violent and dangerous. Life was cheap, but I sense JB did not consider it so, whereas Rockingham was utterly evil and held all life cheap except his own! He wanted to possess Dona, and seeing her give herself to another, he would rather kill her than share her.

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  9. I love the mother-son fencing too! You should make this a regular feature perhaps? I can't remember reading Frenchman's Creek, (although I may have as a teen), but I'm definitely up for a pirate romance.

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    1. 'mother-son fencing' - aha! See us now, flourishing our rapier wit, dancing back and forth across the deck of La Mouette - and in grave danger of tripping over a rope and toppling into the river!

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  10. Marvellous review.I too am seized by the urge to read it all over again!! More guest reviews from this quarter please Simon :)

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    1. Go on - you know you can't resist a French Pirate who wears his own hair!!

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  11. Oh why has no-one mentioned The King's General? This is set in the Civil War and so the context is even more bloodthirsty than Frenchman's Creek. The plot is colourful and in places grisly. But Honor is a heroine to sympathise with while Richard is difficult and cruel and...the sort of man a sane grown-up woman would avoid but a 16 year-old can be thrilled by. And their relationship is credible and enjoyable. In this case, unlike Frenchman's Creek, you see hero and heroine age, when their dream has ended. This is another book to read, or at least read for the first time, at 16 or 17. Then I think you probably remain very fond of it and slip back into it easily - I adored it as a teenager and borrowed it several times from the library. But my grown-up book group tried it years later, and mostly disliked it.

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    1. I think 'The King's General' got a mention or two yesterday and yes, I agree - it was the next book I read in my teens. I re-read it earlier this year and found I understood the historical background much better - bringing to it a far wider knowledge of the period. If one only read these two + 'My Cousin Rachel', 'Rebecca' and 'The House on the Strand', one would read the wide range of du Maurier's oevre and be happy to plunge into her many short stories. 'The Loving Spirit', her first novel, read in this context, makes far more sense, and one can spot the beginnings of so many of her ideas there.
      BTW OV has just told me that 'The King's General' was on the radio last week - and should be available to listen to on BBC i-player.

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  12. Brilliant, Anne, absolutely brilliant! And I echo the plea for more book reviews from you and I like the idea of 'mother-son fencing'.

    I first read Frenchman's Creek, Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and The King's General as a youngish teenager and was captivated by them all. Reading your post has encouraged me to re-read them, bearing in mind what you say about frame of mind and trying not to kill off the magic I found in them then.

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    1. Protect the 'magic' (and your younger self) but also enjoy the richer tones you detect as you bring a wider understanding of life, place and history to your reading!

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  13. Thank you to all of you who popped over to see my blog http://apthomas.wordpress.com
    Looking at the stats I note that 7 views came from France - perhaps the French were keen to ensure that we treated Jean-Benoit fairly!
    I hope we did.

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    1. Speaking for my people, I can vouch for you!

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