Thursday, January 9, 2020

Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek

My interest in Daphne du Maurier’s books was initially aroused by the fact that they provide the source material for three of my favourite films - Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). I was reasonably impressed by du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, but not so impressed by the short stories that inspired the other two films.

Daphne du Maurier has been described as a writer of gothic romances (and Rebecca most certainly fits into that category) and after reading Xavier’s spirited defence of this genre at his At the Villa Rose blog I felt I should give du Maurier another try. The book I selected is one of her most famous, Frenchman’s Creek, published in 1941.

It turns out that Frenchman’s Creek is not really a gothic romance after all. It’s certainly a romance but it’s probably best described as a swashbuckling romance novel. The story of an English noblewoman’s passionate affair with a dashing French pirate is one that is clearly likely to tick all the romance novel boxes.

The heroine is Dona, Lady St Colomb, and she has grown weary of the high life in London. She retreats, alone, to her husband’s neglected estate in Cornwall. She soon discovers that there is a creek running through the property and that creek is being used as an anchorage by a notorious French pirate who has been raiding the properties of the rich landowners of the region. Dona is a woman who suffers a great deal from boredom and the presence of a pirate ship almost in her own back yard at least promises to make life slightly less tedious. Then she hears that there are rumours that the pirates have not only been committing robberies, they have been ravishing the local women as well. Now Dona is really interested. In fact she’s more than a little excited.

This French buccaneer is not your typical pirate. He is well-bred and well-educated, a man of culture, and even a bit of a philosopher. He is a gentleman, well apart from the ravishing women thing (and Dona is inclined to see that as a feature rather than a bug). In fact he’s the kind of pirate pretty much guaranteed to set feminine hearts aflutter. He certainly gets Dona’s blood racing. I’m not sure if it gets her bosoms heaving but it certainly seems possible.

Of course Dona persuades her handsome pirate to take her to sea with him on his next voyage. And she will get drawn into a world of adventure and forbidden love.

The plot may sound absurd and overheated. It is overheated, but perhaps not entirely absurd when you consider the background to the novel. This is the England of Charles II, an age in which sexual licentiousness was more or less taken for granted among the hangers-on at Court. It is established that Dona and her husband are very much a part of a very dissipated social set. It is also established right from the start that Dona already has a scandalous reputation and, not to put too fine a point on it, she is generally regarded as being little better than a whore. She doesn’t have to worry about endangering her reputation. Her reputation is well and truly in tatters already. Taking a notorious pirate to her bed is just the sort of escapade that might appeal to such a woman, and would certainly amuse her friends.

The focus of the story is very much on the romance angle. Of course criticising a romance novel for being romantic is a bit like criticising a thriller for being thrilling. There’s an extraordinary amount of sexual innuendo, much of it clever and amusing.

Daphne du Maurier was immensely popular in her day although not highly regarded by critics. Her critical reputation has grown since and is, perhaps, a little overblown. Frenchman’s Creek is a bodice-ripper. It’s well-written and with some literary pretensions but even if it’s a slightly literary bodice-ripper it’s still a bodice-ripper. I honestly don’t have a problem with that. Being a good writer of genre fiction well is just as challenging as being a good writer of so-called literary fiction, the main difference being that genre writes write books the people want to read while writers of literary fiction write books that people feel they should want to read.

This is the sort of book that critics would have been inclined to dismiss not just because it’s clearly genre fiction but because it’s aimed squarely at a female readership. Which is unjust. There are genres that men like and there are genres that women like. Critics tended to despise them all, but they especially despised the books women like. These days critics are more likely to take the opposite tack. It’s all equally unreasonable. Genre fiction requires its practitioners to understand their target audience and give them what they want. I don’t have a problem with that. Daphne du Maurier understood her audience and gave them what they wanted, with style and skill.

Assuming that the purpose of this book is to generate an atmosphere of romantic and sexual excitement in its female readers I’d say it succeeds admirably. The author builds up the sexual tension with considerable skill. We have to wait a long time for Dona and her pirate to have sex so that when they do (there are of course no graphic descriptions of sex but du Maurier makes it absolutely crystal clear that Dona isn’t naked with her pirate because it’s getting stuffy in her cabin) it has the desired impact.

The pirate is a totally unbelievable hero. He’s perfect in every way, the ideal combination of masculinity and sensitivity, the ultimate female wish fulfilment fantasy. But hey, it’s a romance novel. We have to believe that Dona is so hot for this guy that she’ll risk everything.

Dona on the other hand is an interesting heroine. She’s not quite as immoral as her reputation suggests but she’s still pretty damn immoral. She finds some rationalisations for her behaviour but clearly she’s quite happy to abandon every responsibility in order to gain romantic fulfilment and it’s also clear that for Dona romantic fulfilment means sexual fulfilment. Her pirate fills her with the kind of lust she could never feel for her husband.

So is this a book that male readers will enjoy? Probably not. There’s not quite enough action, although there is some. And while du Maurier isn’t at her best in the action scenes they’re OK and she is very very good at suspense. On the whole though, even with the adventure element, this is still basically a bodice ripper. As a heterosexual male I’m probably not the best person to judge it on those terms but even I’d have to admit that it is wildly romantic. And it is clever and witty. You’ll have to decide for yourself on this one.

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