Frenchman’s Creek

johnny deppEver since the success – and general pervasiveness – of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I’ve found it hard to imagine a pirate without the vision of a heavily guylinered Johnny Depp floating across my mind. But the pirate in Daphne du Maurier’s romantic classic, Frenchman’s Creek, is not very Deppish at all. He is refined and artistic, thoughtful and efficient, a gentleman warrior whose crimes are mostly bloodless. He is not a drunken maniac, teetering on the edge of madness. And yet still Johnny Depp’s face persisted. Oh, popular culture, what an unexpected stranglehold you exert!

frenchman's creekDu Maurier’s novel, first published in 1941, stands up very well indeed to present day reading, partly because it’s already set in a Restoration past, partly because the heroine is as spirited and lively as any modern reader could wish. Dona St Columb is a spoiled party girl, bored with marriage to an aristocratic oaf, and desperate for some release for her excessive energies. She’s caused scandal in London already, frequenting taverns with her husband and his cronies, wearing men’s breeches to ride her horse bareback, flirting with all the beaus who cross her path. Shortly before the story begins, she has taken her quest for fun too far, pretending to be a highwayman with the rather sinister Lord Rockingham and threatening the carriage of a rich elderly lady. Sickened by her own behaviour and determined to escape the unwholesome influences at Court (of which Rockingham is clearly the worst), she takes her two young children down to Cornwall, where her husband’s childhood estate, Navron, is situated.

Navron is evoked every bit as gorgeously as you might expect, and at first all Dona wants is peace and quiet. There’s only one servant in situ when she arrives, a strange little man called William, who is quite adroit at being both cheeky and deferential to her, a combination she rather admires. Though when she finds tobacco and a book of French poetry in her bedside drawer, she wonders if she should sack him for the impudence of sleeping in her chamber when she was not there. Not long after her arrival, she is visited by one of the local lords, a very ponderous and smug man called Godolphin, who warns her that the coast is being terrorised by a French pirate and his band. Ships and jewels have been taken, local women have been ‘distressed’, and Godolphin is all for summoning Harry, Dona’s husband, to protect her.

In actual fact, it’s Dona that the locals will need protecting from, for of course, you will have guessed by now whose tobacco was by her bed, and whose servant William is. Dona stumbles on the pirates at anchor in a hidden creek on her own land, and before you can say ‘not a bit like Johnny Depp’, she has fallen passionately in love with their Captain and taken to piracy with a ready will. It’s represented in the story as a sort of fulfilling-her-potential affair, a matter of growing up and finding her soulmate, though really all she’s done is swap a botched attempt at amateur crime for a more encouraging attempt as a professional. But hey, du Maurier tells her tale with terrific verve and panache and frankly I didn’t even care, it was such a fun piece of froth.

Although that’s unfair. It just so happened that while I was reading the book, I also read an essay by Adam Phillips entitled ‘On Getting Away With It’. If there’s one imperative in Frenchman’s Creek, it’s that Dona and the pirates should get away with their activities, though as a mother and a wife, Dona has limits to what she can give up lightly. Phillips points out that getting away with things is in no ways a ruination of the law, in fact, transgression needs the law in order to be validated. You can’t be getting away with something there’s no injunction against. What happens is that the character changes while the world stays the same, and what changes is that the character swaps being a Good Person, for being an Impressive Person.

This makes a lot more sense when applied to the laws in place for women in 1941, or indeed in the Restoration period. Restrictions on women’s behaviour were not about to lift any time soon, the only option they had was to try to find their adventures in a space outside the law and hope to get away with it. It’s funny how most fiction assures us that you can’t get away with things – that there will be a price to pay of some kind, a final reckoning or an absolute judgement. But Daphne du Maurier allowed her heroine to be impressive at the cost of being good. Perhaps also in 1941, in the middle of the war in Britain, women were actually getting away with more danger and excitement than they had ever been able to access before. Maybe Daphne saw how they could finally play at being boys, just as she had always longed to do herself.

Frenchman’s Creek is vintage du Maurier, a quick and engrossing read with a romance that is not in the least sentimental, portrayed in writing that has a touch of class. I thought I’d enjoy it, and was surprised by how much I did.

Friends, I continue to be a dreadful blogger but I have not abandoned you, as it may seem. There are all sorts of things going on chez Litlove that I am not able to tell you about at the moment but will as soon as I can. Nothing to worry about, we’re all fine, but big changes on the way. I’m just a bit distracted!

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29 thoughts on “Frenchman’s Creek

  1. I loved this book when I was a lad, as indeed I loved everything du Maurier ever wrote, though I think my favorite is “The House on the Strand,” which appealed to me for psychologcial as much as literary reasons. I am also a great fan of her famous grandfather’s marvelous cartoons, which I frequently consult for fashion details when writing…he’s even better than a couture catalog for details of dress and also details of furnished rooms.

    • I don’t believe I have read The House on the Strand. Ooh, good, I do like to have some recommendations in store. I hadn’t thought about cartoons as a source of research information but what a very excellent idea!

  2. Fascinating stuff! I hadn’t thought about how often people in fiction *don’t* get away with it – quite refreshing that our heroine does here! And I hope things are all fine chez vous!

    • We are all fine, no worries on that score! I confess I really love Adam Phillips essays – I always come away from them with a head full of new ideas and he relates so well to literature. I’m a fan!

  3. I’ve been slowly working through all of du Maurier’s novels over the last few years and only have four left to read, including this one. I’m trying to save it until last because I’m expecting to enjoy it and want to have something to look forward to!

    • What a lovely project! I did enjoy this very much indeed, and think it would be a fitting final book – will have to look out for your review, as I’d love to read that.

  4. But wait, really important question: Does this mean you did not like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies? At all, not even the first one? Cause I get that the franchise went off the rails and whatnot, but that first movie was so much fun.

    I hope the House of Litlove is dealing well with the changes, whatever they may be, and not getting too stressed out. I send good wishes!

    • You need not fear, I did think the first movie was shedloads of fun and enjoyed it very much. In fact, just the picture of Depp with his crazy eyes makes me laugh. We are doing fine here – and really the only issue for me is frustration as I want to tell the news. I am not gifted at restraint!🙂

  5. Interesting you mentioned the ‘getting away with it’ element. I was thinking too of the year this book was published, 1941. I always have high respect and admiration for all the British women in the war effort. The Bletchley Park women in particular come to mind, Yup, that would be a good story setting if Daphne du Maurier had thought of contributing to the war effort with her writing. 😉

    • Wouldn’t that have been a great du Maurier setting! I do agree. Funnily enough, I was listening to Robert Harris’s Enigma about a week ago, too, and loving it. I could only get an abridged version on audible, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s the best Bletchley Park book still, I think!

  6. I went through a Daphne du Maurier phase in my younger years, and Frenchman’s Creek was one of my first. I’d forgotten almost everything about it, so it’s lovely to revisit it here. Hope all goes well with your changes at home…I’m very intrigued!

    • I did exactly the same thing – I loved her to pieces when I was 16-20, and then have only reread a couple since. Rebecca, of course, Jamaica Inn and now this (though I hadn’t read it before). She can be a surprisingly good author, better than I expected in this novel, and better still in her short stories, I think. Can’t wait to tell everyone our news but obliged to zip up a bit longer, sigh!

  7. I reread this last year (I think) along with a couple of other du Mauriers and was surprised at what a good writer she was.

    Such a good point about getting away with it. The only people who do successfully get away with it in fiction I can think of are really really wicked people, like Ripley, whom you mainly want to be caught. The more likeable people who transgress usually pay the price. It’s as if the author always wants to thwart you…

    • Helen, I completely agree, she IS surprisingly good. It’s really hard to think of successful villains, apart from the likes of Ripley, and oh yes, so often the good person gets the burden of responsibility in a really rough-justice way. Isn’t it intriguing, though… what do our stories want to tell us about transgression – damned if you do and damned if you don’t?

    • Yes, I’m hoping I get to talk about it soon, too! If you didn’t like My Cousin Rachel, which is a very Maurierish book in all sorts of ways, then I’m not sure about this. I don’t know her books well enough to be able to figure out which ones are different and in what ways. But maybe it would be better to try her short stories another time? The quality of her writing often comes out better in those, I think.

  8. Heh, oh how movie portrayals get in the way of our books sometimes! I suppose though if you had a particular pirate stuck in you mind Jack Sparrow is not terribly horrible. This one sounds like a great adventure story. And what an interesting perspective on the getting away with it aspect!

    • Don’t they just?! Though I agree – Jack Sparrow makes me laugh a lot, a bit too much for him to be an appropriate role model for this book. But hey, we forgive him.🙂

  9. It is unfair, but the mere mention of Johnny Depp within the first sentence of a post is sure to make me want to read the book, even if it’s ‘not a bit like Johnny Depp’! Ah, those romantic French men… that’s why I married one (but not a pirate, mind you)

  10. I tried reading this as a teenager and didn’t get it at all. I don’t think I finished it and don’t remember any of these events in the book, so I am glad I have now had my education filled in! I preferred Cinderella stories such as Jane Eyre and Jamaica Inn. I think maybe I was unconsciously too shocked by Dona to accept the story.

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