The Loving Spirit
by Daphne du Maurier
I read this book as part of Discovering Daphne, an event/readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. Unfortunately, a combination of bad planning and ill health means I’m a week late finishing this book but it does feel appropriate to have read the bulk of it at the seaside!
This was du Maurier’s debut, a love letter to Cornwall as much as a novel, but also an ambitious family saga. It covers four generations of the Coombe family, from 1830 to 1930. Each section concentrates on one family member, each of whom has inherited a wild streak, the “loving spirit” of the title. It starts with Janet, who wishes she had been born a boy so that she could go to sea and is never quite content with her devoted loving husband, for all that she does love him. Then there’s her middle son Joseph, the love of her life, the boy who really does run away to sea and have great adventures and lead women on while never loving any of them the way he loves his mother. Then there’s Joe’s oldest son Christopher who disappoints his father by not wanting to become a sailor, but with that old family restlessness ends up trying to make his fortune in London. And finally there’s Christopher’s youngest, Jennifer, a strong and independent woman determined to break away from her controlling mother and grandmother and return to the family’s roots in Cornwall.
It’s a beautifully written, warm, engaging book, but it does have its flaws. For the first two generations du Maurier has her characters speak in strong Cornish dialect, which added a certain country charm and “ye oldeness” I suppose but also smacked of condescension. Maybe that’s just me. The relationship between Janet and Joseph troubled me. I know that a mother and son can have a stronger bond than a husband and wife and there’s nothing wrong with that, but something about the obsessive quality du Maurier describes made this particular relationship a bit wrong. There were a lot of times when I felt that everything moved too fast, that there was too much sketching out what has happened while time passed and not enough current story. And I didn’t like how down on London du Maurier was, with absolutely nothing good to say about the capital, though at least she was kinder to Bristol when it got a brief mention.
But for all that I still greatly enjoyed the book. Each of the central characters was engaging and sympathetic and I did like the way the language of courtship developed from incredibly polite and formal to teasing sarcastic banter. The descriptions of the sea and Cornwall are so detailed and evocative that the town of Plyn was almost a character itself. In fact, while none of the love stories or deaths roused much emotion in me, the final homecoming to Plyn did bring a tear to my eye.
There’s a lot of what I would guess were du Maurier’s pet “issues” in this book. She clearly thinks country is better than city, especially for children. She doesn’t hold stock with prim and proper, preferring openness and honesty. She believes in children knowing the facts of life rather than it all being a frightening mystery. She believes in the strength of women, in them holding jobs and speaking their minds and having options beyond “wife and mother” if they want them. And she believes in good, honest, simple lives – hard work, loving family, friendly neighbours – rather than building fortunes or being fashionable. Which is all fine, though you might argue she presses the point home a little strong. Of the many many characters in this book the odd one who broke the general trend would have perhaps evened things out.
First published in 1931 by William Heinemann.