The King’s General
by Daphne du Maurier
I picked this book to read while on holiday in Fowey. Du Maurier wrote this historical novel while living at Menabilly, and loosely based it on the house’s occupants during the English Civil War. In her author’s note she calls it a “blend of fact and fiction” – as far as I can tell, the names of people and outcomes of battles are correct, their personalities and feelings about each other are presumably invented.
It’s a slightly uneven novel, weaving a questionable romance into what is otherwise a fascinating mix of characters and events. The narrator is Honor, who structures her story around the Grenviles, a pair of siblings who came into her life when she was a young child. Richard Grenvile is dashing but pretty much a bastard. For the first part of the book he doesn’t even come across as the roguish antihero he later becomes, he’s just nasty and it’s a little hard to see how Honor could, as she does, fall in love with him. Then again, she’s very young and nice girls falling for bad boys is a classic trope for a reason, right?
Richard’s sister Gartred Grenvile is similarly beautiful and treats people like dirt. She is an interesting baddie, always acting out of self-interest rather than any inherent evil. This puts her at times in an uneven truce with Honor, while at others they are clear enemies.
“I notice the tides more than I did once. They seem to make a pattern to the day. When the water drains from the marshes, and little by little the yellow sands appear, rippling and hard and firm, it seems to my foolish fancy, as I lie here, that I too go seaward with the tide, and all my old hidden dreams that I thought buried for all time are bare and naked to the day, just as the shells and the stones are on the sands.”
The two major themes of the novel are the civil war and disability. One of the major characters is disabled early on and this colours their entire life, changing what could have been a predictable story into something a little different, something more original.
But as well as a historical war novel, it’s also a mystery. There are plenty of classic gothic tropes: a big draughty mansion with a handful of occupants rattling around it, a mysterious locked room, a hated frail son pitted against his strapping manly cousin. I do love a bit of gothic mystery.
“I have seen too the white sea-mists of early summer turn the hill to fantasy, so that it becomes, in a single second, a ghost land of enchantment, with no sound coming but the wash of breakers on the hidden beach…Dusk comes slowly to the Gribben hill, the woods turn black, and suddenly, with stealthy pad, a fox creeps from the trees in the thistle park, and stands watching me, his ears pricked…There is comfort in monotony.”
The writing itself is a little uneven, jumping between melodrama and the genuine psychological insight that populates Du Maurier’s best work. Honor is, a bit like the heroine of Rebecca, a sometimes frustrating narrator. She’s stubborn and often dismisses herself as useless or worthless, primarily because she’s a woman.
Despite its faults, I did enjoy this book. Du Maurier was a popular writer for a reason and this was a huge bestseller when it first came out. It wouldn’t be the first of her books I’d recommend but if you already like Du Maurier, give it a try.
First published 1946 by Victor Gollancz.
Source: I bought this secondhand quite a while ago. I’m not sure, but it might be from Beware of the Leopard in Bristol.