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.”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.
“And is it really possible to become someone else?”
“I have found it so.”
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!