Daphne du Maurier
Dona St Culomb is almost 30 years old and bored. Bored with her shallow, frippery life, her unsatisfactory marriage, her circle of acquaintances and admirers.
In post-Restauration England there's little to do for a noble lady but drink, gamble and think out wilder and wilder means to amuse herself. When one such prank leaves her too deeply ashamed to face society, Dona St Culomb packs her bags and her children and escapes to her husband's estate in Cornwall - as far away from shallow, fashionable London as it is possible to get.
There, at Navron House by the Helford River, she hopes to find the peace and freedom that has so far eluded her. But fate has other plans and instead of peace and freedom Dona finds danger and adventure and a love so elusive that she could almost believe she had dreamt it.
Frenchman's Creek is one of the most atmospheric novels I've ever come across. I tend to turn to this book when I feel that the world is against me and I need reassurance. And invariably, I do find it along with a wish to pack my bags - as Dona St Culomb did - and escape to that refuge that is Cornwall.
To my mind, this book has a rhythm and flavour all its owm, one that is very different from other Daphne du Maurier novels that I've read. The book's gentle, evocative language invites us to follow Dona as she finds refuge in the peace and tranquillity of Navron, as she meets and falls under the spell of Jean-Benoit de Aubery, a ruthless French pirate who, according to her staid and stilted neighbours, terrorises the countryside.
We meet the same neighbours visiting Dona in her retreat, begging her to send for her husband to help end the pirate threat. And we see them made the laughing-stock of the county when Dona joins her pirate for one of his daring raids.
The raid on Lord Godolphin's ship, newly arrived from the Indies and laden with goods, is one of the high points of the story. Daphne du Maurier takes us with Dona over the rocks and through the streaming rain, to arrive breathlessly at the small creek where a boat awaits her, to race wind and weather to reach the escaping ship.
Finding then that she has lost her wager with Aubery after all and conceding that piracy is not a woman's job, she returns home to find her husband present and the local gentry hot on the trail of the pirate.
Now Dona needs to draw on all her courage to save the life of the man she loves and her own reputation and - even though I've read the story many times - I still feel with her (and for her) as she comes to a difficult decision.
I can never decide if this story has a happy ending or not. It depends on my mood and can change between one reading of the book to the next. And, maybe, that's the best compliment I can pay Daphne du Maurier's story ... that it has a life of its own.