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Books: Bull’s-Eye for Bovarys

4 minute read

FRENCHMAN’S CREEK—Daphne du Maurier—Doubleday, Doran ($2.50).

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, one of the three best-selling novels of 1939, was an exceedingly well-told problem story of the troubles of being a second wife; it was tailor-made for the land of high divorce rates. Frenchman’s Creek, just as well-told, is even nearer that bull’s-eye where best-sellers are scored: the heart of the U.S. housewife.

Glamor is added to Frenchman’s Creek by rigging everyone in costume (vaguely Restoration) and setting him high in the social scale. But the story of Lady Dona St. Columb is the same story that hundreds of women’s-magazine serials have told & told again: the temptation and fall—strictly temporary—of a respectable woman. Says Lady Dona,over-assessing herself in the time-honored fashion of housewives :

“She had played too long a part un worthy of her. She had consented to be the Dona her world had demanded—a superficial, lovely creature, who walked, and talked, and laughed, accepting praise and admiration with a shrug of the shoulder as natural homage to her beauty, careless, insolent, deliberately indifferent, and all the while another Dona, a strange, phantom Dona, peered at her from a dark mirror and was ashamed.”

This other Dona (whom thousands of Miss du Maurier’s readers know as “the real me,”) knew that “life need not be bitter, nor worthless, nor bounded by a narrow casement, but could be limitless, infinite—that it meant suffering, and love, and danger, and sweetness, and more than this even, much more.” How much more, Miss du Maurier wisely neglects to say; but she does bring on, as Dona’s lover, the one sort of man who could conceivably supply it: a Frenchman (They Understand Love). He is a philosophical pirate, as tired of the world, as intent on what the pair anachronistically calls “escape,” as Dona herself.

Dona meets him while she is rusticating, away from it all, on her husband’s Cornish estate. She is assisted in her intrigue by one of those button-mouthed little men-servants whose lines, always the wittiest in the play, terminate in a dry “my lady.” With the pirate, Dona forgets her inept domesticity in a mischievous piratical foray against her dunderhead neighbors, and in the 17th-Century equivalent of a long weekend at Atlantic City.

In the long run she is saved by the most classic of gongs: the frightened crying, in the night, of one of her children. But not before Miss du Maurier has squeezed the escapade dry in scene after well-constructed scene.

She has what most of her colleagues in this sort of fictioneering lack: a really considerable talent for romantic narrative, an ability to make plush-and-rhinestones look like the real thing.

Frying more or less in public, since the New York Times divulged it two months ago, is a quarrel between Miss du Maurier’s publishers and the Brazilian novelist, Carolina Nabuco,* who points out what seem to her, and to irate Brazilian literary circles, many remarkable similarities between her own novel, A Sucesora, and the more recent Rebecca. In London Miss du Maurier denies ever having heard either of A Sucesora or its author, prior to the accusation. Her publishers point out that “the sad-second-wife setup” (framework of both novels) is as old as the Book of Ruth. The story of Frenchman’s Creek seems an even more universal legend. If one forgets Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Miss du Maurier can vindicate her unoriginality by quoting Pope: What oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d.

*Daughter of Joaquim Nabuco, who, with his great friend Elihu Root, created the scaffolding of Pan-Americanism.

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