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“‘Do you remember my father’s aviary in Hampshire?’ she said, ‘and how the birds there were well fed, and could fly about their cage?  And one day I set a linnet free, and it flew straight out of my hands towards the sun?’
“‘What of it?’ he said, clasping his hands behind his back.
“‘Because I feel like that.  Like the linnet before it flew…'”

  • from Frenchman’s Creek, by Daphne Du Maurier

Daphne Du Maurier is required reading in many high schools, but somehow I missed out.  This is the first of her works I’ve ever read, and while I’m not entirely sure I liked the plot or characters, the writing was interesting and perceptive.  Frenchman’s Creek is a romance, but it’s a melancholy and literary sort of romance, where the relationship is a symptom of the heroine’s inward journey.

Dona St. Columb is young, wealthy, and beautiful, but she is also married, with two children.  The book’s opening finds her fretful.  She is dissatisfied with her simple, adoring husband, and caged by the artificiality of her status and social life.  She announces to her husband that she intends to take the children and go stay at his country estate, Navron, for a while.  Navron has lain unused for a long time, and when she arrives things seem a little odd.  The butler is a stranger, and appears to be mocking her behind his eyes.  The servants have all been dismissed without her or her husband being informed.  In the drawer of the little table by her bed, there is a jar of fine tobacco and a book of French poetry with unknown initials in it.  She begins to hear rumors of a pirate who slips across the English channel, robs the local estates and warehouses, runs everything back to France, and hurts no one.  And near the house runs a little creek, not marked on maps, just the right size for a ship to hide in.

This is not a happy book, and in many ways it is a coming of age tale for a woman who seems to be doing things in the wrong order, or perhaps a mid-life crisis that comes early.  Dona has been spoiled all her life, so it can be difficult to sympathize with her intense craving for “freedom”—and yet the society she lives in is so restrictive for women that perhaps it makes sense after all.  I’m as fond of escapism as anyone, but even I could see that she was creating a whole new set of things to escape from.  I found myself judging her for her self-indulgence and made-up assumptions about what is real and what is artificial.  At the same time, I wanted her to run away with the pirate who is her first real love, abandon her family, and spend her days sailing the seas and coking over a fire.  But as the Frenchman points out to her, the bonds of love are another kind of chain, and in an era without birth control, she would quickly lose her freedom again.  So she wrestles with a dream that cannot coalesce, laid next to a reality that seems more and more dreamlike.  The two worlds grow closer together until they threaten to fracture one another, or crush her between them, and she must make a decision.

I’m curious to see what the rest of Du Maurier’s books are like.  I’m not entirely sure whether I liked this one or not, but I enjoyed the writing, and the problems of the heroine were believable even where they were irritating.