If you’ve been following my blog for a while you’ll know that Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors, so when I saw that Simon of Savidge Reads and Polly of Novel Insights were hosting a Discovering Daphne event throughout October I knew I’d have to read at least one du Maurier book this month. There are still plenty of her books that I haven’t read yet, but I decided I wanted to go back to the start of her career and read her first novel from 1931, The Loving Spirit.
The Loving Spirit is a family saga spanning four generations of the Coombe family. It begins in 1830 with the story of Janet Coombe, a passionate young woman who is forced to abandon her dreams of going to sea when she marries and settles down to start a family with her husband, a boat builder. We then move forward through the decades, ending one hundred years later in the 1930s. Along the way we meet Janet’s son, Joseph, her grandson, Christopher, and finally her great-granddaughter, Jennifer. The book is divided into four parts, one devoted to each of the main characters, but I won’t go into any plot details here as each story has its own set of dramas and surprises which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself.
Although this is a family story and doesn’t have the gothic feel of some of du Maurier’s other books, there are hints of the supernatural in the way the stories of the four Coombes are connected, particularly Janet’s and Joseph’s. The link between the four sections of the novel is the ‘loving spirit’ of Janet Coombe which seems to be watching over each successive generation. And this is probably a good place to mention the Emily Brontë poem, Self-Interrogation, which inspired the title of this novel:
“Alas! The countless links are strong
That bind us to our clay;
The loving spirit lingers long,
And would not pass away!”
Du Maurier had a real talent for giving her novels atmosphere and a strong sense of place, and this book is no exception. The Coombe family live in Plyn, a fictional shipbuilding town on the coast of Cornwall, and you can expect some beautiful, vivid descriptions of the Cornish coastline, the sea and Plyn itself. I’m really not a fan of books about boats and sailing, but luckily the actual seafaring action and terminology is kept to a minimum here. Instead, the focus is on the passion Janet, Joseph and other members of the Coombe family feel for the sea – and the ways in which sailing and the shipping industry become an intrinsic part of their lives.
There are some interesting supporting characters too, including one of my favourites, Jennifer’s grandmother. Du Maurier’s wonderful sense of humour comes through here in some of the dialogue in which the grandmother, who is starting to lose her hearing, constantly misinterprets what Jennifer is saying. For this reason, and also because Jennifer was the character who felt the most real to me, this final section of the novel was probably my favourite.
The Loving Spirit is not one of the better du Maurier novels I’ve read, but as a debut novel published when she was only twenty-four years old I did still find it quite impressive. It’s interesting to be able to compare it with her later novels and see how her writing developed throughout her career.