Friday, May 14, 2021

Frenchman's Creek - Daphne Du Maurier

My relationship with Daphne Du Maurier has not been a happy one. She really seems like a writer I should love, but time and again I've failed to get more than a few pages in. Starting with short stories when I was 13, moving through a few film versions of Rebecca making me think I should read the book, and repeated recommendations ever since. The blurbs always sound good, I've diligently bought a collection of her titles over the years - but still, it's mostly a no from me.

I did have a little bit of success with Jamaica Inn (6 years ago, time flies) and must have bought 'Frenchman's Creek' at around the same time as the covers are a matching pair. 'Frenchman's Creek' is easily the Du Maurier I've been told most often I'll love - and again, it's still mostly a no from me. The push to read it came from Alison's Daphne Du Maurier week.

I didn't hate the book, and this time at least I found it easy enough to stick with, reading it in 2 days instead of abandoning it after the first cup of tea, and I have at least identified what doesn't really work for me about this particular book. The first thing is that I really didn't warm to Dona.

I can sympathise with her to an extent - the boredom she feels with the life that she leads, the desire to escape and find some peace, the attraction she feels for her pirate, but not with the capriciousness, selfishness, carelessness, and casual cruelty she displays. She's such an irresponsible woman that I end up feeling sorry for the dull husband who adores her, who I'm almost certain I'm meant to despise. She did after all decide to marry him, and yes, the sex might be terrible, but a half hearted reference to Harry getting (verbally?) abusive doesn't ring true when it comes. He spends the rest of the book doing what he's told and accommodating every wish she expresses in a way that makes anything more than a desire to snap back at her taunts seem unlikely. 

Dona's assertion that she's a good mother doesn't even convince her Frenchman, who's quite ready to point out that she seems happy to abandon them for an escapade with him that could see her hung. She follows this up by musing that if she is caught Harry would probably shoot himself leaving her children (6 and 2) orphaned. However bad a marriage is, however stifling motherhood, this seems like a very high price to contemplate for adventure.

The second thing that bothers me is that this book feels absolutely rooted in 1941. Apart from frequent references to Dona's ringlets and a couple of mentions of puritans there's nothing much to tie the scene to the restoration period, but it's arguable that Dona and her Frenchman's actions make more sense in a world where you might get blitzed tomorrow.

Where Du Maurier does excel is in her descriptions of Cornwall, especially it's wildlife, and also in the way she uses smell to evoke mood. London life is full of the smell of humanity covered by perfume, the smell of her husband's dogs (suffering form eczema), of fire and candle smoke, cooking and rotting. Navron by contrast smells of sea and moor, woods full of bluebells, clean air - and I loved that because I react strongly to smell in just the same way as described here.

I'm a torn over the relationship between Dona and her Frenchman though. On the one hand it seems unlikely to me that people would behave like this, on the other I feel it's depressingly possible that they might. The conversations about how men and women feel and behave don't chime with me today, but might have a generation or so ago. 

I doubt I'll ever love Du Maurier, but I haven't quite given up hope on her, and finding something I'm in tune with. I do apologise to anyone reading this who numbers 'Frenchman's Creek' amongst their favourite books. I hope I haven't been unforgivably offensive about it and I'd be more than happy to see a list of all the reasons why I've got this wrong, because I do feel I must be missing something when so many people who's opinions I respect and generally agree with, love her. 


  1. It is a long time since I read this one, and I haven't been anxious to re-read it. It's almost certainly the one I like least. Though the descriptions of Cornwall are always so good. I think my reactions to it now might be similar to yours. I think she wrote lots of better books than thus one anyway.

    1. I'm not done with her yet, and the push to actually read something was helpful. I might try The Parasites again next, or possibly even Rebecca. I suppose it's both a sign of the times and my age that any FOMO I feel is related to older books.