I bought this book first hand, from Waterstones, with my Christmas book tokens, after a long conversation on Twitter after reading the nonsense that is A Discovery of Witches, about true love and it’s representation in fiction. I was recommended reading this by @sianushka, who has such a similar taste in fiction to me for it to be scary, and I loved every single second of the five hours it took me to read it.
Firstly, I am reclaiming this as a feminist love story, so this post is going to upset a lot of people who don’t like the whole ‘feminist’ thing, but hey ho.
On the one hand, this is a simple but heart racing tale of swashbuckling pirates in Restoration England, adventure on the Cornish Coast, and romance abounding. On the other it is a cry for freedom, a treatise on captivity and an exploration of privilege and the role of women within a heteronormative society.
Dona St Columb, rich, beautiful and bored, runs from her simple husband Harry to their ancestral home on the Cornish coast, taking with her her two small children and their trusty nurse. There she finds an almost abandoned house cared for by the solitary William, who it turns out (SPOILERS) is actually the servant of the notorious French pirate who has been sacking the locals along the coast with his motley Breton crew.
Dona meets the Frenchman, Jean-Benoit, and becomes fascinated by him and the pirate way of life, so different from her apparently stilted and repetitive London society one. She signs on to his ship and together they plunder the local gentry’s treasure. Dona and the Frenchman fall in love, or rather admit of their love for each other, and have a torrid affair that ends quickly when Dona’s husband, accompanied by the detestable rogue Lord Rockingham, who fancies himself Dona’s amour.
Harry and the local gentry led by Lord Godolphin (best name in fiction, you Go Dolphin Go!) decide to capture the pirates and set a trap, but the Frenchman surprises them all at dinner and steals their jewellery and swords. During the commotion afterwards, Dona kills Rockingham after he tries to strangle her. Dona faints, and when she awakes discovers her love has been captured and is in Godolphin’s castle, to be hanged the following Saturday.
Dona together with the trusty William hatch a plan for the Frenchman’s escape by pretending to be the doctor delivering Lady Godolphin’s baby, and they all three flee to the coast. Dona realises she must abandon all hope of happiness with the Frenchmen for the sake of her children, and he returns alone to his ship, leaving her to pick up the pieces of her old life.
The writing in this book is incredible. I grew up on a coast line and Du Maurier’s description of the cliffs, the cries of the gulls, the smells, the wind, everything is spot on and so evocative of the sea. The sense of place, but also the sense of time in the novel is so well done; like the best historical fiction she doesn’t overload you with information obviously gleaned from hours of research and thusly incredibly boring, but creates a believable set up of characters and situations living in a particular place that just happens to be five hundred years ago.
What makes this book stand out more than anything though is the love story. This isn’t some stupid patriarch clasping his woman to his chest to make him feel superior; this is a person and another person wanting each other through mutual respect, lust, and passion. The Frenchman doesn’t belittle Dona, he doesn’t tell her what to do, he doesn’t tell her she’s been brave, when he helps her he’s not showing off or patronising her he’s actually helping her. He doesn’t even lift her off the ship. All this makes him frankly hotter than Librarian Ryan Gosling.
It’s so rare to find an adult love story I can understand and sympathise with. Having never really properly been in love myself though this book made me a little sad. Du Maurier describes Dona’s feelings as being one of completeness, like a missing part of her has been restored upon meeting the Frenchman, and I just don’t feel like that. I’m whole, I’m a complete thing, I don’t feel like my ‘other half’ isn’t here, I’m happiest on my own and always have been. Although this makes me a little sad in a whimsical sort of way, it’s also reassuring to know that I’m not spending my life not being “myself” because I don’t need a partner.
I loved how the affair between them comes about, the build up to their first ‘date’, honestly that’s twenty pages of the most understated erotic writing I think I’ve ever read. I love how Dona is in turmoil because part of her wants to throw herself on him whilst the other part is embarrassed about her feelings and is shy. I also love how they are grown ups. I was really looking forward to an adult love story with A Discover of Witches, and in Frenchman’s Creek I found one-she is 29, he presumably a similar age and they are Proper Adults with Proper Adult Feelings.
Now, the feminist thing.
This book is about captivity. Dona describes herself to Harry as a bird in a cage, and in London she is, albeit a large and gilded one. Comparatively Dona is incredibly privileged, a fact she never discovers in the novel, and in the first chapter I hated her. She abuses her servants and her horses and upsets her children.
Dona’s need for a life outside of the norms of her society shows how ‘othering’ people creates nothing but bad things. Giving people ‘roles’ and not letting them be fluid things means Dona is frustrated and possibly depressed. Gender roles are rigid, Dona thinks often of her wish to ‘be a boy’, though whether this is literal or a reference to her unhappiness with the constrictions placed on her own gender is not properly examined within the text-though she does not recognise that patriarchy is just as constrictive to men as is it to women this again is privilege at play.
Dona’s eventual giving up of the love of her life is due to her love for her children, a love she cannot help and acknowledges only when she imagines them dead. It is also restrictive to her youngest child, James, as she rarely thinks about his elder sister. This could be again emblematic of societies’ preference for male children, so much ingrained that Dona invests in it herself-maybe showing why she wishes to be ‘a boy’-because boys are better? The Frenchman and Dona discuss the limitations of women due to unplanned pregnancy several times-it is one of the main reasons the Frenchman gives for not having a wife because he would never be able to be ‘free’. The comparative freedoms of the Frenchman and Dona, he always on the run from the law and she never being able to do what she wants (even though she is…just not in the way she wants. She’s a rich titled woman with a million more options than most) are marked and frequently examined in the text. If Dona had access to reliable contraception or safe and stigma free abortion her life would be so incredibly different. She is also unable to divorce Harry. These things though are never even thought about, which is a brilliant device in placing the book in the time-why would a Restoration woman of high birth even consider contraception until she needed it? Amber St Clare is a village girl who procures a miscarriage because that is part of her life, but never would be for Dona St Columb.
This book made me think an awful lot, that is an impressive feat for an historical romance/adventure, and I highly recommend reading it, if only for the beauty of the writing. As unlike Rebecca as it’s possible to be, I’ll definitely be investigated Du Maurier’s other work now!