Frenchman’s Creek is a historical novel set during the reign of Charles II that tells the story of a wealthy woman named Dona who moves to an isolated house in Cornwall with her children to get away from her schlubby husband and the judgmental looks of London society. Finally away from prying eyes and spousal demands, she feels like a weight has been lifted off her shoulders; she revels in the solitude and the freedom it provides her. Dona spends her days blissfully exploring her surroundings until she finds a pirate ship hidden in a remote creek near her house. She ends up falling in love with the captain of the crew – brooding, sexy stubble, will draw you like one of his French girls, you know the type – and has to make a decision: does she do what society wants her to do and stay at home with her children or does she leave everything behind for a life of
sex love and adventure?
Oh yeah. It’s that kind of book. …Or is it?
In order to understand Frenchman’s Creek properly, we have to discuss Daphne du Maurier and what she was going through when she wrote it. She was married to an brigadier in the British army, who was away from his family for long stretches at a time, and whenever he did come home, he was (understandably) stressed and distracted. It was up to Du Maurier to look after a children, but the role of housewife and loving mother was not one that came easy to her. At one point she was staying at a friend’s house with both her children and the nanny sick in bed and found herself in a much more domestic position than she had ever wanted for herself. And lo, Frenchman’s Creek was born.
Du Maurier had struggled with traditional feminity all her life. She often came across as frosty and detached from her family, engaged in secret relationships with other women, and above all, wished she had been born a boy. Her (deeply homophobic) father had always wished for a son, and when she was young, du Maurier would cut off her own hair and dress up as a boy. She even gave her alter ego a name, Eric Avon. Since her father was an actor this behaviour was encouraged, but for Du Maurier it was more than a childhood fantasy; Eric was a representation of a repressed side of herself. It was he who had fallen in love with her school’s headmistress, not her: “[But then] the boy realised he had to grow up and not be a boy any longer, so he turned into a girl, and not an unattractive girl at that, and the boy was locked in a box and put away for ever.” In public, du Maurier would play the part of a loving mother, but when she was alone at her beloved Menabilly, the house that inspired Rebecca‘s Manderley, she would “sometimes let the phantom who was neither girl nor boy but disembodied spirit dance in the evening when there was no one to see.”
Knowing this, it is not surprising that women finding freedom in isolation is a recurring theme in du Maurier’s work – there are a lot of nature walks and protagonists lying in the grass, breathing in the silence. In Frenchman’s Creek, Dona tries to run away from a scandal and the husband she has never loved, but while locking herself away in a remote mansion, she ends up finding the very adventure and escape she has always been looking for. Instead of trying to tame her, the pirate captain understands Dona’s wild nature and likes this side of her. They are instantly attracted to each other because they share a restlessness and love of danger:
‘Why are you a pirate?’ [Dona] said at last, breaking the silence.
‘Why do you ride horses that are too spirited?’ he answered.
‘Because of the danger, because of the speed, because I might fall,’ she said.
‘That is why I am a pirate,’ he said.
The scene where Dona puts on a shipmate’s clothes so she can disguise as one of the pirates is especially poignant, knowing what we know now about Du Maurier. Dona offers to cut off her long hair without a second thought and feels at home in the raggedy trousers right away. The scandal she tries to escape involves a prank gone wrong in which she – you guessed it – dressed up in her husband’s breeches. Dona has always felt trapped in polite society and the moment she steps onto the pirate ship, it is like something deep inside of her has finally been woken up:
It was funny, like a dream, like something she had always known would happen, as though this was a scene in a play, in which she must act a part, and the curtain had now been lifted, and someone had whispered: ‘Here – this is where you go on.’
However, because this is still a du Maurier book, Dona does not get to have it all by the end of the book. She has to choose between running away with her new lover or staying with her beloved children, and whichever decision she makes, some part of her will always lose. Even though this book is an escapist fantasy, du Maurier will not give her heroine an easy way out.
Frenchman’s Creek is a fun, slightly silly read that kept me entertained the whole time, but it is far from du Maurier’s best work. It is not as subtle or intricate as some of her other novels, and by putting all of her own frustrations into the main character, Dona sometimes becomes too harsh and difficult to relate to. My feelings on this book are similar to what I wrote in my review of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned: knowing the story behind the novel really adds to the reading experience and despite its flaws as a work of fiction, seeing the author’s personal bitterness shine through on every page gives it a tiny little place in my heart.