”a storyteller of cunning and genius” – Sally Beauman
The central character in Frenchman’s Creek is Lady Dona St Columb who lives with her husband Harry and their two small children Henrietta and James, at the court of Charles II. Dona is beautiful, headstrong and most importantly– bored. She is desperate to escape her London life, leaving her husband behind she retreats with her children, and their governess, to the hidden creeks and secret woods of the family estate at Navron, in Cornwall. The house is beautiful and the grounds have a tranquillity that is soothing and restful. Dona spends many hours sitting in the sunshine and wandering the grounds. At the edge of the estate there is a woodland and being springtime the ‘woods are carpeted with bluebells’. Soon after she arrives at Navron, Dona is warned by a local landowner, Lord Godolphin, that a French pirate is in the area and that everyone living along the coast is in danger of being robbed or worse.
Though renowned for her passionate engagement with life, privately she yearns for freedom, integrity and love as well as peace. This is one of the reasons she left her London life. However, the peace Dona craves eludes her from the moment she stumbled across the mooring place of a white-sailed ship that plunders the Cornish coast. Guess who it is? the French pirate! And as she becomes embroiled in a plot to steal another ship from under the nose of the English authorities, she realises that her heart is under siege from the French philosopher-pirate Jean Aubrey. It is only a question of time before Jean Aubrey captures the heart of the lovely Dona.
Button Book Reviews states that Frenchman’s Creek is one of those books that wraps itself around you slowly and by the time you are halfway in you wonder if you’ll survive your sense of loss once you reach the end. I happen to agree. While you’re reading, you slowly discover the characters, learn why Dona seems like a loose cannon and soon enough you empathise with her. You fall in love with the drama, the setting, the conversations, the sense of adventure and let’s face it, you fall in love with Jean Aubrey despite the fact that he is a pirate and in some sense a criminal- scoundrel.
Jean Aubrey is not what you would expect at first. When Dona discovers Aubrey’s hiding place by chance and is brought to him, we see him at his desk drawing. He utterly ignores her and continues to draw. This is when Dona inspects him and describes him thus:
” 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 could 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?”
Another character, who I soon came to love and admire is Dona’s butler, William. We first meet William when Dona arrives at Navron with her children. He is the only one in the house, having fired all the staff. He is patient and manages to convey a great deal of impertinence while still seeming obedient and non- committal. You instantly suspect that William knows more than he claims and that he has his reasons for firing all of the house staff. His conversations with Dona made me laugh and smile with his cheekiness and impertinence. [SPOILER] We soon find out that he knows our lovely philosopher-pirate Jean Aubrey and during the book he helps both Dona and Jean Aubrey meet and cover for his mistress when need be. He is loyal to both Dona and Jean Aubrey and you cannot help but love him and worry for him throughout the book in the event of his involvement with the French pirate to be discovered.
One small mention about Harry St Columb. Harry, Dona’s buffoon of a husband, is another character that stays with you whether you realise or not. As already said, he is a buffoon but you cannot help but feel sorry for him. He will never be able to provide Dona with the adventurous and intellectual companionship that she needs, but you can tell that he really cares for her and he is trying to make their marriage work. His affection for Dona can be seen here:
‘”I want to see you well,” he [Harry] 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.’
Other than the characters, you are captivated by the first page of Frenchman’s Creek. The opening of the novel is an evocative historical palimpsest, layering the homely present of Navron House and the nearby waters over the lingering traces of the past, filling the dreams of a contemporary yachtsman: “as the tide surges gently about his ship and the moon shines on the quiet river, soft murmurs come to him, and the past becomes the present”:
”All the whispers and echoes from a past that is gone seem into the sleeper’s brain, and he is with them, and part of them; part of the sea, the ship, the walls of Navron House, part of a carriage that rumbles and lurches in the rough roads of Cornwall, part even of that lost forgotten London, artificial, painted, where link-boys carried flares, and tipsy gallants laughed at the corner of a cobbled mud-splashed street. He sees Harry in his satin coat, his spaniels at his heels, blundering into Dona’s bedroom, as she places the rubies in her ears. He sees William with his button mouth, his small inscrutable face. And last he sees La Mouette at anchor in a narrow twisting stream, he sees the trees at the water’s edge, he hears the heron and the curlew cry, and lying on his back asleep he breathes and lives the lovely folly of that lost midsummer which first made the creek a refuge, and a symbol of escape.”
Full of adventure, excitement and romance. Frenchman’s Creek is a great read for all ages. I have to say though, I will never forgive Daphne Du Maurier for how she ended the story. I did not see that coming at all and I was so annoyed. Now that I have thought about it in detail and went through all the scenarios in my head, I can see why she ended it as she did. More realistic I guess as one of the book’s themes is the idea of choice and what choices you have to make in life. I still felt annoyed at the time, and I think one small part of me still feels annoyed. Deep down in my heart, I wanted the unrealistic ending. Despite this little thing, it was a great read. Great characters, great story, beautifully written. A good old fashion romance.
— K.J. Koukas