Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

Honestly, can Daphne du Maurier (she/her) do no wrong in her writing? While Biscuit and I do our best to always read books I own, we jumped over to Frenchman’s Creek, a novel set in the 1600s. Lady Dona St. Columb of London has a rather permissive husband who just loves her, but doesn’t understand her. He doesn’t even understand when she says she wants to feel like a bird she saw that was released from its cage and became happy. He’s dense, is what I’m saying.

Out of step with the times, Dona’s husband regularly takes her to a pub typically frequented by men and ladies of the night. What a great thrill her husband gets out of the gossip that circulates as a result. Dona teases too hard, she’s quite mean, gets bored easily, and is impertinent to men in particular. And one night, she puts on her husband’s best friend’s pants — and how did she get access to those pants, we’re wondering — and holds up the carriage of an elderly lady. Instead of feeling the thrill she was looking for, Dona is ashamed. She gathers up her children and their nursemaid and flees to her husband’s country home in Cornwall — and tells her husband he can’t come.

In Cornwall, Dona enjoys laying about, eating unwashed grapes, and not wearing shoes. She encourages the children to play in the mud, which blows their little citified minds, and sticks flowers in her uncombed hair. It is in this condition that she meets her distant neighbor (for her house is very secluded along a river) named Lord Godolphin. More stereotypical of his time, it is implied Lord Godolphin is put off by what he’s heard of Dona’s behavior in London, and what he sees before him. But, it is still his duty, he feels, to warn her that there is a French pirate terrorizing Cornwall, stealing and having his way with women, who somehow knows the river system better than the locals.

Well, pirates! Much like me, Dona is excited. Of course, I’m picturing Muppet Treasure Island and Cutthroat Island with the irreplaceable Gina Davis, both movies I love, so I have no clue what Dona’s thinking. We learn that the French pirate was a rich man from Brittany who grew tired of the jokes and card games and theater, of pretending to have a meaningful life, and now he’s a pirate who stays away from women (that’s where babies come from) and gives most of his plunder to poor people. Dona wants in on the experience and they fall in love, which you see coming a mile away.

That’s not a criticism. I love a good love story, one in which people who are excellent companions have something standing between them. Given that the U.S. Supreme Court is attempting to dismantle reproductive rights, it was so on the nose that the thing standing between Dona and the pirate is lack of birth control. Author du Maurier doesn’t make the story simple, though. Dona’s husband is nice, but stupid. With modern therapy they could be great spouses. She also loves her children when I had assumed the author would make them awful creatures so Dona, and by turn we, feel trapped by the children.This isn’t simply guessing; Dona tells the pirate she is a good mother.

We also get a healthy dose of the #MeToo movement, in a way. Remember those pants from the husband’s best friend? Dona tries to be friends with the man, too, because her husband cherishes him so, but the friend takes it too far, kissing her after she’s had a few drinks. After that she steers clear of him, but he’s always there. I got some real strong frat dude vibes, those clues that indicate how privileged he is, and how he thinks if he wants it he can have it, and “it” can be women. I was waiting the whole book to see what would come of this insidious person, which kept me rather alert.

But she doesn’t spend the whole book with the kids; they’re with their nursemaid. Instead, we get an action-packed novel full of crawling up cliffs, disguises, trickery, big escapes, unexpected surprises at the front door, and the damn weather, which will never cooperate with the pirate ship. The plotting and descriptions are particularly cinematic (I was getting Cutthroat Island and The Princess Bride vibes in places), so why isn’t there a modern movie adaptation?

I read Frenchman’s Creek with Biscuit and gave her a heads up that du Maurier novels can end without answers (consider My Cousin Rachel). And while there are things about which you could guess in the end, we’re not left wanting. I was so afraid I was going to hate how the story concluded, but I should have known du Maurier would deliver. An excellent novel sure to have you feeling swashbuckley.

CW: none

28 comments

  1. Even though this is a historical novel, something I don’t usually like, I just keep feeling drawn by this, not helped by a million people reviewing it this month for Heaven-Ali’s DDM month!

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    • I also am not a fan of historical fiction for the most part. Occasionally it is done well, but not often enough for me to actively seek it out. Now, the issue may be that I just don’t know enough history to actually be immersed in the story. Or, it could be that I’m constantly putting my rhetoric hat on and wondering how much the author romanticized the time period. The glut of WWII fiction in recent years ruined historical fiction for me to some degree.

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      • I never know if I know a lot of history or really I know it from reading when I was younger! But I don’t like having a modern voice in it and there’s always All The Research or it’s been skimped on and it shows. I haven’t minded some of the WW2 stuff but there comes a point when you’re like, “OK, they’re going to go to the Cafe de Paris now and get bombed …”.

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        • The only historical fiction I tend to store in my brain is anything that you might read about in the Bible. For instance, reading Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston has seriously improved my ability to respond to religious and Middle Eastern categories on Jeopardy.

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  2. Glad you enjoyed this! I liked it when I read it years ago – in fact, at the time, I seem to have thought I liked it more than Rebecca, though I didn’t think it was as well-written. I’m not so sure I would say that now – I wasn’t especially interested in the romance, but I thought the pirate was an interesting character almost as the opposite of the life she’d run away from.

    I also didn’t feel like this was historical fiction – from the writing style, it seemed almost like more of a folk tale that had been handed down in the local area from parent to child, generation to generation. I think that’s why it might suit people who are not very into historical fiction in general – there’s no attempt to make it feel period-accurate or anything like that.

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    • I do think it Frenchman’s Creek can be more engaging than Rebecca at times, but I think the reason is Rebecca gives you loads more to think about. Both books start with truly dense opening chapters, which is something that can be a turn off for some readers. I mean, no one wants to immediately struggle with a book. The part I found most interesting was the witty banter. No matter what she says, he has something to give back, and it all reads so naturally to me, as if that is the kind of person you want to know so your life is more engaging and interesting.

      You’re right about it not really feeling like historical fiction. The most prominent “ah, yes, this is older” moments are when wigs — or the pirate’s lack thereof — are mentioned. I remember when you and I read House on the Strand I also had a hard time with picturing the time period.

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    • Thanks, Laila! The first chapter is a bit dense because it’s written way in the future and hints at what the past (when Dona and the pirate lived) would have looked like compared to “now.” Just get through that and then it’s pretty easy reading.

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  3. I quite like historical fiction, but in a very limited way. Swashbuckling is one of the ways I’m not, really. I’m more interested in gritty social history, social justice type stories. So, I did like your reference to women and birth control.

    I do like (good) WW2 historical fiction. Hmm, it’s because those stories convey so much of the best and worst of humanity. They can really confront your own values.

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    • I know the Golden Age of Piracy was early in the 1700s, and this book is set in the 1600s. I wonder if du Maurier did that to separate her Frenchman from the true stories of piracy. If anything, he’s a more sensitive type who understands the constraints of society and how it’s unfair for the wealthy to live well while the poor do not (he’s a bit of a Robin Hood type). He’s also quite the feminist. One quote I highlighted was about how women are the far superior creature because they can create life, whereas all man can do is plan and execute plans.

      I know WWII fiction is popular, but I’ve found the very few WWI fiction books I’ve read are more interesting to me. I’m not sure why…

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      • I like WWI novels too, but have read fewer of them. I think it’s the added layer of the Holocaust and the things people did and didn’t do that really captures my attention though. The whole-scale demonising of a group of people, the whole Aryan concept that demonised all sorts of other too. It’s just so telling of humanity and it feeds into today and what we do and don’t do. That’s why WW2 draws me.

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        • Ohhh, and see, all the WWII fiction I’ve read is either pretty graphic torture/behavior toward Jewish people in, or on their way to, concentration camps, or it’s about American soldiers sleeping around in Europe while their “best gal” waits at home.

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          • The former features quite a bit in my reading, though not solely, but the latter not really at all, except a bit on American soldiers on R&R in England and Europe. But I wouldn’t have thought of that without your mentioning it.

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  4. “He’s dense, is what I’m saying.” – favorite line of your review.
    This does seem like fun. The more you read and review du Maurier, the more I’m motivated to try her writing out. 🙂
    If I was a woman in those times, I definitely would have run off with a pirate.

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  5. DAAAMMMMMNNNN this sounds like a good read. I may have to put aside my towering book of present day reads to jump into this one, I love the sound of a pirate and saucy wife! Everyone’s love of Rebecca made me read it, and i’m so glad I did!

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