‘Frenchman’s Creek’ by Daphne Du Maurier or get me out of here I’m sick of domesticity…

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Freedom and escape are not all they promise?

Following on with the notion of making quiet books ‘noisy’, I thought I would turn my attention to my favourite Du Maurier work, who is in some ways a ‘quiet writer’, in that she was seen as a popular writer (which kind of detracts from her talent). Popular is often synonymous with generic, lightweight writing- as if voraciously writing a mass of work somehow diminishes your writing ability. It is a shame we cannot disassociate these concepts, in the public domain, as sometimes there is a reason a piece of writing is popular. Books have merit in their pages no matter if the writer is a heavyweight, writes quickly and frequently or is relatively unheard of. In any case, I think the idea behind ‘quiet books’ is that for whatever reason they are not currently topical, or perhaps did not receive wider acclaim or readership when published or are just not current titles. Promoting such books is about ensuring such books are read/heard and enriching the recommendations we all have at our disposal. It is about sharing books we have loved from our past reading repertoires. For this reason and because it is Daphne Du Maurier’s birthday, I thought it would be fitting to turn to the slightly overshadowed ‘Frenchman’s Creek’, because ‘Rebecca’ gets all the press  and accolade (I do love this title too).

While it is several years since I read this novel, it is fitting that I read it whilst pregnant- at a time when domesticity felt oppressive. While many women embrace pregnancy, I found it challenging. Mobility was restricted, blood pressure was up. Bed rest was necessary, yet impossible with the demands of school run and a young child to take care of. Everything felt difficult and restrictive. My solace came, as it often does, in the written form. Reading was my escape. Imagine the synchronicity of discovering the world of Dona St Columb- who although not pregnant seemed to mirror my dismay and dare I say it offer a cathartic escape from the drudgery of my daily life. Through Dona my fantasies could be realised vicariously! Who wouldn’t rather be escaping with a handsome and dangerous pirate, than cooking bland dinners and sticking to a religious regimen. There is not much room for spontaneity when you are laid up after a 10 minute walk, in agony.

While the daily monotony, waiting for the pregnancy to end and life to get easier again was stifling -‘Frenchman’s Creek’ offered an altogether more alluring and exciting domain. The landscape was rich and inviting- the elements combining to conjure some magical haven (much like the healing waters of  ‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’) where the senses are envigorated and problems washed away. I wished I had a Cornish retreat to escape my own drudgery from, like Dona, who escapes her boring husband by holidaying at the family pile Navron, far from the Restoration Court she must endure in her daily life. Oh to shake those shackles off, like Dona. Yet while we felt restricted for different reasons (she for having to put a societal mask on and not be able to show her true feelings, or relax and be her own person, not what was expected of her due to her societal standing- me for health reasons) the release I felt at immersing in her own stand against her pressures was immensely healing for me. It allowed me to release some of my fear and to gain some perspective.

Jean Aubrey, dashing pirate that he is, becomes a symbol of abandon, a ‘life of continual escape’. In some ways his danger heightens the excitement felt at the potential for escape (although I am not so sure about the kidnapping part). The overwhelming desire for adventure somehow outweighs many glaring inadequacies, in the part of her ‘saviour’. Calling his behaviour colourful, would be polite to say the least. Yet the malaise released via Du Maurier’s writing is easily forgotten as we enjoy Dona’s freedom when she ventures out to sea. Restrictions are lifted and mirrored in its vast expanse, and that of the pirate lover. Their solitude equals abandon- the shedding of responsibility without reprisal or judgement. The space to be yourself and be free of duty. I suspect this need speaks to every one of us at some time, or for some reason or another. Why do any of us read, after all, but to escape to other lives and see other worlds? I suspect it also explains why so many of us are drawn towards the idea of a swashbuckling pirate (the original bad-boys).

Yet no escape is forever, and it is this reality that ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ eventually embraces. We do have responsibilities as adults. Difficult times do end (as did my pregnancy). The clear message, to me anyway, was that you have to find ways to honour your own spirit and wishes within the structures you have encased yourself in, in the life you have built. Duty should not mean you lose yourself. Find a balance, as Dona does by choosing to end her adventure as clearly as the coming day showed them that it ‘had a whiteness and cold clarity about it they had never known before’ , but not to return to the restriction of Court as before. So remember your adventures. Envelope them in rich mental pictures, that soak up their surroundings and engage all the senses like Du Maurier’s prose does. Cherish them as each story ends and find a way of your own to honour them safely, in the life you have chosen. Like Dona, your frustration may be misdirected and easily eased if you tackle the right issues.