Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

frenchmans-creek Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca has been one of my favourite books since I first read it as a teenager, but it’s only relatively recently that I started to explore the rest of her work. Since 2010, I have now read several of her short story collections and one of her non-fiction books, as well as working through almost all of her novels, saving Frenchman’s Creek until near the end (as it sounded like one that I would particularly enjoy and I wanted to have something to look forward to).

Set in the 17th century, Frenchman’s Creek is the story of Dona St Columb who, at the beginning of the novel, is growing disillusioned with her marriage and bored with life in London. To alleviate her boredom, she has been joining her husband Harry and his friends in some increasingly wild escapades, but as the mother of two young children she has started to feel ashamed of her behaviour. Unable to bear it any longer, she decides that what she needs is to spend some time away from her husband and London society – and so she takes the children and heads for Navron, Harry’s estate in Cornwall.

On arriving at the house, Dona is surprised to find that only one servant is present; his name is William, a quiet but perceptive man with whom Dona forms an immediate bond. Despite signs that suggest someone has been sleeping in her bedroom while the house stood empty, she soon begins to feel relaxed and refreshed in the peaceful surroundings of Navron. Her new neighbours, however, seem to be less at ease and it’s not long before Dona hears tales of a French pirate who is said to be terrorising the coast of Cornwall. On a walk through the woods one day, she discovers a ship resting in a creek and suddenly everything makes sense.

The Frenchman (who, you will have guessed, is the owner of the ship), dispels all of Dona’s – and probably the reader’s – preconceived ideas of what a pirate should be. Polite, cultured and intelligent, he couldn’t be more different from Harry and his friends, and it’s no surprise that Dona falls in love with him. I couldn’t quite believe that a man like the Frenchman would have chosen to be a pirate (the reasons he gives for his way of life didn’t seem very convincing) but I thought he was an intriguing character and I enjoyed watching Dona’s relationship with him develop. And yet I didn’t become fully engaged with the story until halfway through, when Dona and the Frenchman embark on an adventure together and the consequences of this threaten to bring their happiness to an end. From this point on, I found the book unputdownable, right through to its poignant ending.

Du Maurier’s writing is beautifully atmospheric and evocative, more so than almost any other author I can think of. The description of Dona’s first walk along the banks of the creek, where it widens into a pool and she comes upon the pirate ship for the first time, is so vivid I could nearly see the scene laid out in front of me. The whole book has a dreamy, almost hypnotic feel. Although we are told once or twice that our hero’s name is Jean-Benoit Aubéry, he is referred to throughout the novel as simply the Frenchman – it’s little things like these which really add to the air of mystery and haziness.

Although I did enjoy this book very much, particularly the second half, it couldn’t quite equal my top four du Mauriers, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat and The House on the Strand. I’m planning a re-read of Rebecca soon and then I would like to read Castle Dor, the only du Maurier novel I still haven’t read.

The Sea-Hawk by Rafael Sabatini

The Sea Hawk I love Rafael Sabatini! I can always count on him when I’m in the mood for a good old-fashioned adventure story (which is often) and The Sea-Hawk has it all: treachery, betrayal, revenge, duels, kidnapping and piracy on the high seas. It’s a similar story in some ways to his later pirate novel, Captain Blood, but I think I enjoyed this one slightly more.

Published in 1915, The Sea-Hawk is set in the sixteenth century during the reign of Elizabeth I. Our hero is Sir Oliver Tressilian, a gentleman and former sailor from Cornwall who has worked hard to restore his family’s reputation which had been tarnished by the behaviour of his late father. Sir Oliver is betrothed to the beautiful Rosamund Godolphin who returns his love despite the fact that her brother Peter hates the Tressilians due to a family feud. When Peter is killed in a duel the blame falls on Oliver – and while the reader knows that Oliver is innocent, Rosamund does not. Things quickly go from bad to worse for Oliver and he finds himself sold into slavery and sent to the Barbary Coast at the oars of a Spanish galley.

At home in England Rosamund continues to believe Oliver to be the murderer of her brother, while the real culprit stays quiet and benefits from Oliver’s absence by claiming his estates, as well as the woman he loves. Several months later, in Algiers, we meet a Muslim corsair known as Sakr-el-Bahr, or ‘hawk of the sea’. Sakr-el-Bahr’s pirating skills have won the admiration of Asad-ed-Din, the Basha of Algiers, who claims to love him as a son – but this has made him a target of the Basha’s Sicilian wife, the scheming Fenzileh, and her jealous son Marzak. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to tell you that Sakr-el-Bahr is, of course, Sir Oliver, who is preparing to return to Cornwall to take his revenge…

Having read three of Sabatini’s other novels, I’ve come to know what to expect from him – and The Sea-Hawk definitely lived up to my expectations. I’m finding that his books all follow a similar pattern (at least, the ones I’ve read do) in which the hero suffers a betrayal or injustice of some kind, undergoes a transformation and plots his revenge/attempts to clear his name, while being completely misunderstood and misjudged by his love interest. Sir Oliver is a great character; he’s not always easy to like, but considering everything he is forced to endure, it would be difficult not to want things to work out for him in the end. Rosamund is a frustrating heroine, though, being so quick to think the worst of Oliver – but to be fair, she doesn’t share the reader’s knowledge that he is innocent.

The setting is great too. I particularly loved the chapters set in Algiers, in which Sabatini immerses us in the culture, religion and history of the Barbary coast, with some vivid descriptions of the labyrinths of narrow streets, souks and slave markets, and the courtyards, archways and orchards of the Basha’s palace. The focus on the Barbary corsairs rather than the pirates of the Caribbean gives the book a different feel and a different atmosphere from Captain Blood – and I was pleased to find that there was plenty of land-based action as well as ship-based (as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’m not usually a big fan of books set at sea).

As I’ve now read the four novels which are probably Sabatini’s most popular – Scaramouche, Captain Blood, The Sea-Hawk and Bellarion – I would appreciate any recommendations as to which of his books to read next.

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

Captain Blood

“Thief and pirate is what you heard Miss Bishop call me today – a thing of scorn, an outcast. And who made me that? Who made me thief and pirate?”

One of my favourite books of last year was Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini, a classic historical adventure novel set during the French Revolution. I loved it so much I immediately added two more of Sabatini’s books to my Classics Club list – Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk – though not without some reservations as these are both books about pirates and with my general dislike of books set on ships I thought the seafaring elements might be too much for me. I was wrong. Captain Blood is another wonderful book and I enjoyed it almost as much as Scaramouche!

Peter Blood, an Irish physician and former soldier, is arrested during the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 when he is discovered tending the wounds of an enemy of King James II. Wrongly found guilty of treason, he is lucky enough to avoid hanging but instead he is sent into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados. Here Blood meets two people who will have a huge influence on his future: Colonel Bishop, the cruel, brutal plantation owner and his beautiful niece, Arabella, with whom Blood falls in love. When the island is attacked by Spanish raiders, he seizes his chance to escape by commandeering one of their ships and after transforming himself into the notorious Captain Blood, our hero becomes a pirate both feared and respected throughout the Caribbean.

Sailing up and down the shores of Barbados, Jamaica and Tortuga, Captain Blood becomes involved in a series of exciting adventures and daring escapades, while being pursued by both Colonel Bishop and a Spanish rival, Don Esteban, who has sworn revenge – but what sets Blood apart from the other pirates he meets is his sense of honour and his dream of one day clearing his name and settling down to a peaceful life with Arabella. To the reader, it’s obvious that Peter Blood has become a pirate because he feels he has no choice – his only other option is to remain in slavery – but Arabella doesn’t understand this and when she tells him she can never love a “thief and pirate”, he must find a way to redeem himself in her eyes.

It amazes me that Rafael Sabatini’s books are not more widely read. As well as his great writing style, clever plots and vividly described characters, his novels also have well-researched and believable historical settings. While I was reading this book, I never questioned that I was in the Caribbean of the 17th century, just as when I read Scaramouche I was fully immersed in revolutionary France. And my fears that I might struggle with the pirate theme proved to be completely unfounded!

Sabatini keeps the sailing terminology to a level that even I could cope with and I found that even without understanding every nautical reference it didn’t affect my understanding of the story (which is what I also discovered when I read Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian earlier this year). Although there were a lot of sea battles, they weren’t too difficult to follow and in fact, not only could I follow them but I actually enjoyed them too, which is something I never thought I would say! I suspect that the descriptions of these battles were not completely realistic and in real life Blood would never have been able to overcome such great odds every time, but with my total lack of naval knowledge I’m happy to pretend that he could.

But Captain Blood is more than just a swashbuckling adventure story and even if it had only been half as exciting, I would still have loved it solely for the great characterisation of Peter Blood, a true romantic hero (in the old-fashioned sense of the term). Like Andre-Louis Moreau from Scaramouche, Edmond Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo or Francis Crawford from the Lymond Chronicles, Blood is one of those characters who can sometimes seem to be almost superhuman. He has an intelligence and wit superior to everyone else’s, he’s charismatic and quick thinking, multilingual, as talented a swordsman as he is a surgeon, and when it comes to buccaneering, he’s a brilliant leader and tactician. However difficult the situation he and his men might find themselves in, he never fails to come up with an imaginative and ingenious way to get out of it. But despite his perfection or perhaps because of it, things don’t always go smoothly for Captain Blood and like the other characters I’ve mentioned, he experiences a series of injustices and misfortunes that makes him a character we can sympathise with and believe in.

Captain Blood was published in 1922 and is available online as a free ebook, though the edition I read was the Vintage Classics paperback pictured here. I recommend giving it a try even if pirate stories don’t sound appealing to you, as it’s worth reading this one just to meet Peter Blood!