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.