Monday, November 25, 2013

review of frenchman's creek by daphne du maurier

a few months of staring blankly into space means that finishing this book was a major accomplishment for me. it would have normally be a quick read but for this cursed lack of focus.. it is a simple little romance, and i do like enigmatic, artistic pirates very much, so i found some fun in frenchman's creek. i wasn't crazy about it, though, beyond the eponymous pirate.

the heroine, lady dona st. columb starts off very precious, driving the thirsty and exhausted horses of her carriage on despite the admonitions of the servant she commands. there is nobody chasing her, except perhaps an image of herself wearing boy's breeches. she had lately done so, alleviating the boredom she feels by scaring an old lady while sneaking around in the middle of the night with her husband's cousin and best friend, rockingham. as a result of the shame she feels about this incident, she has commanded that her husband, sir harry, stay behind in london while she exiles herself to his country seat, navron in cornwall, with just the children for company.

lady dona, or lady lady, if you will (dona is used as the honorific "lady" in latin countries) has come to realize that she doesn't much like the woman she's become (she will repeatedly tell everyone within hearing that she is "near thirty" in the novel) and that she worries that the dignity her title affords is all she feels she has retained. she does not love her husband (she married him because she liked his eyes but apparently that is no longer enough) and she tries to love her children (she has two) but there's really only evidence of some affection or perhaps more properly, a compulsive maternal connection to her son, james. her daughter henrietta is only casually mentioned and most often she doesn't distinguish between them, only mentioning how much she enjoys picking flowers with the children. of course, that's when she's not leaving them in care of their nurse, and sneaking off the estate for a few days to go fishing in the creek with our titular frenchman, the pirate. the pirate does has a name but in dialogue he is always the frenchman, so i'm not going to bother telling you what his name. sometimes he draws pictures of dona when he is not sketching birds or teaching her about fishing or the natural world. and of course he used to have a title and be fancy but he gave up all that for adventures on the high seas (and the high creeks, of course). so hurray for the pirate.

the thing that bugged me most about the novel was du maurier's handling of the period, the historical part of the romance. it never feels planted in the seventeenth century even though the bulk of the action takes place then. though she had already shown so much command in the previously-published rebecca and had already written the bodice-ripper jamaica inn, from the beginning, du maurier seems unsure of the time period. in fact, the first chapter has a contemporary unnamed yachtsman sail past the part of cornwall where dona's story unfolded two centuries before. she even provides a full precis of the action of the novel here, called forth by the land of cornwall as he floats by: it is as if the birds, the creek and the country is haunted by this lady and her lover. perhaps she meant this "foreshadowing" as an effect to heighten the power of her romance, that the love herein described still echoes through the ages. i didn't find it did so.

and then there's lady dona herself. du maurier wants you to knows she is an inevitably devastatingly beautiful, fiery and strong-willed woman who is used to getting her way, born in the wrong era. the problem in terms of the novel is that everybody else, ostensibly supposed to be part of the norm in society, accepts her behaviour and conveniently accedes to it at every point and frankly, i didn't buy it.. really? lord godolphin would allow her to do *that*? du maurier doesn't make the remotest effort to have dona's movements or actions impeded by her time or position.

as other reviewers have noted, lady dona seems to be du maurier's tragic mary sue, a woman who can bend anyone to her will, whose portrait can make a man lose her heart but whose face is conveniently forgettable when it counts. she cannot have everything she wants because she is constrained by her sex. i do actually feel that if du maurier didn't think Society would judge her for it, she would've given this novel the ending that some romantics yearn for. had she not had children herself, i don't imagine the novel would have unfolded the way it did at all.

so generally i found it hard to buy, but the worst parts of the novel for me were two scenes where dona and her frenchman were together, at their first late-night supper, and later on when fishing. dona is at her most annoying here as she petulantly mewls about the limitations of being a woman, about how much less a woman is than a man. thankfully the pirate argues with her in defense of the sex she disparages but it seemed to me her limitations were of class not sex: she could not fish or cook was because she was wealthy, because she was a lady lady. stop saying women aren't creative, stupid dona.

anyway. i liked the servant william and her dynamic with him, though i grew tired of dona's describing him as a man with a "button mouth". what does that even mean? (i keep imagining sylvester stallone's mouth.) also, i know i already mentioned it, but i thought i should end on a high note: the frenchman pirate is really attractive. come tell me about birds and share your cheese with me, monsieur. still, i couldn't help but think of how much more i had enjoyed sabatini's captain blood. now there's a pirate romance!

probably closer to 2.5 stars but given that i am happy to have finished something, i'm shining up three.

Creative Commons License
This work by Maureen de Sousa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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