Daphne du Maurier-Frenchman’s Creek


Themes Explored: romance, fantasy, lust, escape, rebellion, womanhood, piracy, love, hate, tolerance, husband-wife dynamics, children, fishing, loyalty

Summary: Jaded by the numbing politeness of Restoration London, Lady Dona St. Columb revolts against high society. She rides into the countryside, guided only by her restlessness and her longing to escape.

When chance leads her to meet a French pirate, hidden within Cornwall’s shadowy forests, Dona discovers that her passions and thirst for adventure have never been more aroused. Together, they embark upon a quest rife with danger and glory, one that bestows upon Dona the ultimate choice: sacrifice her lover to certain death or risk her own life to save him. (Adapted from Goodreads)

Review: Frenchman’s Creek is the only “romance” novel Daphne du Maurier wrote. However, it remains a difficult novel to categorize as the narrative arc deals with a swashbuckling adventure and the writing style is dreamy and languid. Du Maurier wrote the main characters in a highly romanticized manner. If taken at face value, the novel appears as a precursor to the modern historical romance trend; however, the literary writing style, lack of sexually explicit scenes and the ambiguous ending sets it apart from that genre. One thing I admire about du Maurier’s writing is her ability to build suspense and mood; no one does it quite like her. You can feel the mist and see the shadows as your read her evocative descriptions. In my opinion, modern Gothic writers spend too much time creating wildly outlandish plot devices when a simple story with well-crafted sentences forms a more compelling narrative; as illustrated in this book. The overall tone of the novel is swashbuckling with a side of romance.

Dona, Lady St. Colomb, is the toast of London society. Wither her thirtieth birthday rapidly approaching; Dona experiences the first twinges of a mid-life crisis. All her friends and high society acquaintances know her as a prankster and a lover of life; however, after some soul searching, Dona examined her life and was not pleased. She ran off to her husband’s country estate, Navron House, far away from London, to escape society. As it happens, a French pirate happened to be lurking in the nearby countryside and the two begin an illicit love affair. Over the course of the summer, Dona tries to embrace happiness and figure out what is missing in her life. The dashing pirate gleefully enables Dona’s soul-searching and embarks on a long seduction of her.

 Unlike Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek opens at a slower and less gripping pace. While the narrative is engrossing, the writing style takes a little while to understand. Du Maurier wrote this novel at a different time, which shows in her choice of words and literary style. If you are not used to reading early 1940s literature, it can take a few chapters to feel connected with the narrative. This is definitely a slow read that gently unfolds the drama with each successive chapter.  What I particularly enjoy about the story is the witty banter between Dona, her servant William, and the pirate. People do not talk the same way today and I think it is our loss. The subtle insults, compliments, and double entendres are a joy to read.

Normally I would dislike a heroine who deceives her husband and her children in order to go on an adventure with a fugitive. However, in the hands of du Maurier Dona becomes a sympathetic character who feels suffocated by society’s expectations. Dona’s husband comes across as a man without a backbone who views his wife as something akin to a gilded idol, a pretty thing to admire. While Lord St. Colomb indulges his wife’s wilder tendencies, he never engages with her on a deep intellectual level. Du Maurier portrays him as a dull man with no wit and no original thoughts. On the other hand, the pirate treats Dona as an equal and views her womanhood as something to conquer and possess, not just admire from afar. Dona permits the pirate to seduce her, but never quite allows herself to surrender to his charm. Since she is a married woman, Dona wrestles with deciding between her illicit lover and her legal husband. In the end, her love for her children proves stronger than her admiration for the men in her life.  

As a huge fan of pirates, I wanted a little more piracy thrown into the narrative. Given, however, that this story focused more on romance than piracy, I digress. While Du Maurier was an extremely talented writer, I do not think Frenchman’s Creek is her strongest story. Adultery is a hard subject to deal with, even when drenched in a thick coating of romantic overtones. The narrative feels like an idealized memory being viewed through thick rose-colored glasses and a side helping of nostalgia. As this is written in a Gothic styling, none of the characters really achieve inner happiness or fulfillment. Though I think modern romance authors should take note of how du Maurier chose to depict the romance in this novel. While the characters are not necessarily likable, the descriptions will make you long for your own adventure with a dashing French pirate.

Frenchman’s Creek, Time Warner Books, 2003 (republished), ISBN: 9781844080410