From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
Revisiting a classic novel years after first reading it can yield surprises. Add a hazy recollection of major plot points and you are approaching a fresh canvas rather than a reproduction of a familiar portrait. I was intrigued to revisit Frenchman’s Creek because having last read it in high school, I retained only a faint memory of dissatisfaction with its ending, but found I was unable to recall the specifics of the story. Would rereading the novel confirm my youthful opinion or uncover a different experience of Daphne du Maurier’s adventure?
Originally published in 1941, Frenchman’s Creek features the coast of Cornwall as the setting for a romantic novel featuring an English aristocrat and a French pirate. The heroine, Lady Dona St. Columb, is the toast of Restoration London. She is beautiful, reckless, and enjoys flouting social conventions, but underneath the froth and frivolity, Dona admits to herself that she is bored with and ashamed of her hollow flirtations and outrageous pranks. At the opening of the novel, she leaves London for Navron, her husband’s estate in Cornwall.
So the first day passed, and the next, and the one after, Dona exulting in her new-found freedom. Now she could live without a plan, without a decision, taking the days as they came, rising at noon if she had the mind or at six in the morning, it did not matter, eating when hunger came upon her, sleeping when she wished, in the day or at midnight. Her mood was one of lovely laziness. (31)
But amid the peaceful ease of country life, there are also hints of mystery at Navron: Dona finds a jar of tobacco and a volume of French poetry in a drawer in her room. Soon after Lord Godolphin, a neighbor, warns Dona of French pirates that have been robbing locals, she sees a ship stealing in towards land at sunset from a vantage point on the headland. After midnight, Dona observes a clandestine meeting of her servant, William, with an unknown man at the edge of the woods that border the estate.
Her curiosity piqued by the stranger’s visit, Dona sends William off on an errand, and steals through the woods where she saw him disappear the night before. She discovers a small creek, alive with butterflies, bees, birds—and a ship under repair! Overhearing the crew members speaking French, she realizes this is the pirate ship that has been raiding the Cornwall coast. Dona briefly considers reporting the pirates to the authorities, but she decides instead to keep the discovery a secret. Unfortunately, before she can slip away, she is captured and brought before the captain of La Mouette.
“My men are told to bind anyone who ventures to the creek,” he said. “As a rule we have no trouble. You have been more bold than the inhabitants, and alas, have suffered from that boldness. You are not hurt are you, or bruised?”
“No,” she said shortly.
“What are you complaining about then?”
“I am not used to being treated in such a manner,” she said, angry again, for he was making her look like a fool.
“No, of course not,” he said quietly, “but it will do you no harm.” (53)
During their verbal sparring, he repeatedly defuses Dona’s anger with gently teasing humor. They continue talking, and then share a meal aboard his ship. When the pirate captain challenges her to join his ship’s company, she accepts his dare, boldly signing her name to the register and allowing him to introduce her to the crew. He tells his men that henceforth she is free to come and go; she is one of them. Dona, in turn, invites him to Navron the following evening, telling him:
“Pirates do not call upon ladies in the afternoon. They come stealthily, by night, knocking upon a window—and the lady of the manor, fearful for her safety, gives him supper, by candlelight.” (61)
The lady and the pirate spend their days together and soon fall in love. This part of the story is wonderfully idyllic: afternoons spent sketching and fishing in the creek, evenings spent before a campfire and under the stars. The Frenchman is educated, charming, and playful, while Dona’s husband is boorish, dull, and in London. The bond between the lovers grows daily, even when they are apart.
She would be playing with the children at Navron, or wandering about the garden, filling the vases with flowers, and he away down in his ship in the creek, and because she had knowledge of him there her mind and her body became filled with life and warmth, a bewildering sensation she had never known before. (96)
Dressed as a cabin boy, Dona joins a daring nighttime raid on a merchant ship. But soon Dona’s enchanted world is threatened: her husband arrives from London, determined to work together with other locals to capture the pirate captain who has robbed and humiliated them. Dona must make a choice: return to her old life or risk a new one with her lover.
It’s easy to see why many du Maurier novels have been adapted for the screen: Frenchman’s Creek is a classic tale of romance and suspense. It has all the elements necessary for a compelling, page-turning, and ultimately satisfying read. The narrative descriptions are expertly balanced with dialog and action. The theme of escape woven through the story resonated strongly with me. Who hasn’t dreamed of escape from time to time? But du Maurier takes this idea further than mere wish fulfillment. What is the price paid for escape? Is it worth it?
The emotional punch of the story surprised me. Daphne du Maurier is not afraid to unpack uncomfortable emotions. Some readers may not admire a heroine who contemplates abandoning her husband or her young children. Dona can be selfish and arrogant at times. But her struggle to balance family responsibilities with longings for meaningful connection creates an emotional depth that separates Frenchman’s Creek from more traditionally HEA romances. Frenchman’s Creek offers an escape of the highest order, with an exciting narrative and complex characters that live on in the imagination long after the story ends.
5 out of 5 [Restoration] Stars
Frenchman’s Creek, by Daphne du Maurier
Little, Brown and Company, reprint of 1941 original edition (December 17, 2013)
eBook (290) pages
Cover image courtesy of Little, Brown, and Company © 2013; text Tracy Hickman © 2020, Austenprose.com