I firmly expected this to be a similar dark, violent romance to Jamaica Inn, which I listened to last year. And at the outset, it seemed it was setting up very much that way. Captivating beauty, Dona St Columb, flees her empty, trivial life and unloved husband in London, escaping with her children to her husband’s estate, Navron, in Cornwall. Boredom, frustration, a sense of entrapment had driven her to roister around town with her husband and his friends, culminating in an episode when she dressed as a man to hold up a Countess. Her own behaviour sickened her, and she is partly in flight from that aspect of herself.
Once in Cornwall she soon meets the pirate and his crew, but in fact, there is far more to it than a straightforward lady-meets-pirate romance. I was intrigued. The setting is supposedly 17th century England, but the central characters are far more contemporary than that, and there is not even a pretense at making them otherwise. The more I think about it, the more this is a novel of mirroring, and of Dona’s self-discovery. At the heart of the story there are two Donas, the London Lady St Columb version captured in the sulky, demanding formal portrait of her; and Dona in Cornwall, drawn by the Frenchman as laughing and lighthearted. The story is in large part about Dona working out which is her real self.
The Frenchman is also two men, feared by the Cornish landowners as a desperate criminal, and yet in person an intelligent, cultured man who turned to piracy as his own escape from a dull life. There are also two potential lovers, the Frenchman being one, and Rockingham, who is her one of her husband’s friends and who comes to stand for all that Dona despises about London, as the other.
The structure of the book reinforces this sense of duality, loosely falling into two parts with the action of the second part mirroring that of the first. Dona first visits the Frenchman when she is captured by the crew and taken to the ship, La Mouette. He lets her go. Later, he will visit her house and capture the men there, but will then be taken prisoner himself. Dona will be involved in two adventures with the Frenchman, for both of which she is dressed as a boy. The first is one he plans, and in which she participates. The second is one that she plans and for which she is instrumental in its success. There is a parting at the end of each adventure, both at dawn.
Nature is a recurrent theme throughout the novel, and the physical beauties of Cornwall are set against the tawdriness of London. Dona in London had allowed Rockingham to kiss her once at a party; in Cornwall, she and the Frenchman become lovers, at first at sea and then in the wood. Birds too are a recurrent symbol, and at the beginning Dona likens herself to a linnet in a cage. Jean-Benoit Aubery is a seagull, like his ship (La Mouette) and the nightjar is a reminder to both of their nights together.
For the first half of the book, Dona is alone in Cornwall and her affair with the Frenchman develops. The second half kicks off immediately she returns home after her last night with him. They have pretended that Lady St Columb is ill in bed with a fever while Dona enjoys her freedom, which is repeatedly cast as a dream that the sick woman is having, but she returns home to her children only to find that her husband and Rockingham have arrived. In concert with the local landowners they plan to trap and hang the Frenchman.
Thus Dona is forced to become Lady St Columb again, dressing herself richly and putting on her jewels to entertain her husband and his guests at supper. But the Frenchman comes to the house with his crew, ties up the men and asks Dona to give him her answer in the morning as to whether she will join him or not. This is the point where she must really decide what she wants for her future, to select very clearly who she wants to be.
Her decision is somewhat precipitated by Rockingham’s escape from his bonds. Well aware that he is the rejected lover, his jealousy pushes him to murder. They fight, and Dona wounds him and manages to get away. She is cowering on the stairs when she hears one of her children crying in fear, which rouses her to anger enough to kill Rockingham. In doing so, she also symbolically defeats the London part of herself. In grief at the loss of his friend and the ordeal that Dona has endured, her husband even promises to give up London and settle in the country.
The Frenchman is captured and Dona devises and carries through the plan for his escape, but they both know that she will not go with him. Their previous discussions with regard to the separate freedoms available to men and women have established that women will always return to domesticity. In the end, the path that Dona finds for herself is a third way, breaking the deadlock of the duality set up at the beginning of the novel. Neither frivolous Lady St Columb or boyish Dona, she will meld both those identities into an integrated whole.
I listened to this on audio, which is why there are no quotes, but I fully intend to get hold of a print copy and read the book again. I foresee it becoming a favourite.