Ali’s Daphne du Maurier reading week is well underway and I’m enjoying reading all the contributions. I have chosen to read the first of Daphne’s novels, The Loving Spirit, one that I’ve been promising myself for a long time. And alongside it I’ve read three other books:
Reading Daphne by Ella Westland
Jane Slade of Polruan by Helen Doe
Myself When Young by DDM
Each of the three feed into the novel and together the quartet have provided a rich and rewarding experience. This post is about the novel itself and the writing of it. I hope to write at least one more post taken from the quartet before the end of the week.
The Loving Spirit is Daphne du Maurier’s first novel, published in 1931 when she was not yet 25 years old. It is a family saga: spanning four generations from mother to son to son to daughter, beginning on the wedding day of Janet Coombe in 1830 and ending a century later, a few years after the wedding of Janet’s great-granddaughter.
The inspiration for the plot came from the figurehead Daphne discovered on a decaying ship, lying abandoned a short distance from the holiday home purchased in 1926 by Daphne’s parents. Daphne fell in love with the house, refurbished and renamed Ferryside by the family, but above all else she fell in love with its location. While the rest of the family used Ferryside for high days and holidays, Daphne spent as much time as she could there. She adored the sea, the countryside, the freedom. She learned to row, to sail and to fish and she explored widely. It was the beginning of her love affair with Cornwall and the ideal place in which she could write without interruption.
The figurehead that captured Daphne’s imagination came from the ship The Jane Slade and was modelled on Jane Slade herself, the astute and talented matriarch of a family of local boat-builders who built and launched the schooner, The Jane Slade in 1870. Early in her time at Ferryside, Daphne came to know Harry Adams, a Cornishman who taught her many of the skills she acquired in her new environment and for whom she had great regard. Harry Adams was able to tell her the origins of The Jane Slade and the enigmatic figurehead: he was married to Dora, granddaughter of Jane, who was born just a few months before Jane died in 1885.
Her imagination fired by Harry’s tales and by the box of Slade correspondence he was able to show her, Daphne began writing on October 3rd 1929. She claims to have written part one of the book in a fortnight; part two was completed by November 3rd. The second half of the book took a little longer and proved more difficult to write, but the book was finished by the end of March 1930. Daphne’s recollections on the writing of this book are one of my favourite parts of Myself When Young. She reveals her doubts and crises of confidence; she talks about her uncertainty with her characters, particularly with Jennifer the great-granddaughter, whose personality and trajectory develop quite differently to how Daphne had expected. “This must surely mean I had no control over my characters,” Daphne writes, looking back. (Myself When Young. P 178) That would suggest that in her subsequent books, she felt that she had more control over her characters. Interesting; I know many writers talk about their characters evolving in ways they had not anticipated and see this as a positive. It would seem that Daphne saw it as a sign of weakness.
The four sections of The Loving Spirit focus on a character from each of the generations of the fictional family. Jane Slade became Janet Coombe and her son did indeed become master of the ship that bore her name. But beyond that, the great majority of the story, and all of the remaining characters do not mirror the story of the Slades but stem from Daphne’s imagination. The Coombe’s were a family of boat-builders who lived in Plyn, Daphne’s fictional equivalent of Polruan¹ (blended with aspects of Fowey² – small coastal towns which face each other across the mouth of the River Fowey in S-E Cornwall). Janet is wild and rebellious and wished more than anything she had been born a boy and could go to sea. The story opens on her wedding day to Thomas, her dependable and hard-working cousin. She loves Thomas and does her best to be a good wife to him and a good mother to their children but she never loses her restless yearning for the sea.
Part two, tells of her son, Joseph, who as the first master of The Janet Coombe fulfils Janet’s dreams. Joseph’s son, Christopher, fears the sea and in part three, despite wanting to meet his father’s expectations and follow in his footsteps, Christopher finds life at sea too challenging. Exiled for some years in London, he marries and has two sons of his own and later, when he is able to return to Plyn to live, a daughter, Jennifer. Christopher dies unexpectedly. His sons already grown, his London-born widow gathers her young daughter and returns to her mother’s home where Jennifer is raised. But Jennifer’s love of Plyn never leaves her. In part four she grows up, flees London as soon as she can, returns to Plyn and reacquaints herself with her father’s family, including John, her cousin. The book ends as it began, with young cousins, very much in love. There is a further cyclical twist which bookends the novel: Janet looks forward as she stands with Thomas on her wedding day, and muses on the generations that will come after them. Jennifer, on her wedding anniversary to John, reflects with him on the generations that came before. Du Maurier’s ‘loving spirit’ is the thread which continually weaves through the lives of the family.
Daphne had the title for the book from the beginning: an extract from Emily Brontë’s poem is on the title page. She describes how she settled down to begin the book:
“… went across, the first morning, October 3rd, to the desk in my old bedroom, wrapped a rug around my knees, spread out sheets of paper, and filling my fountain pen, wrote in capital letters: ‘THE LOVING SPIRIT’. Beneath it the lines from Emily Brontë’s poem:
Alas – the countless links are strong
That bind us to our clay,
The loving spirit lingers long
And would not pass away
(Myself When Young p.169)
What a wonderful image of young Daphne, enthused and eager, picking up her pen. A fountain pen, no less! The original manuscript was approximately 200,000 words, all handwritten in ink. This from the diary she was writing in 1929 from which she quotes in Myself When Young:
“Such a step as this, as I took up my pen. It went fairly well and smoothly, though the writing of it is an entirely fresh style for me. There were no dire pauses and lapses of thoughts, but a book of this sort mustn’t rattle ahead. Weather right for starting too. A terrible wild day, with a howling sou’westerly wind and slashing rain. It doesn’t matter a pin to me because it’s all in tune with my writing. In fact it’s a good thing, because I wasn’t tempted to be out all the while.”
(Myself When Young P.169)
She offers a further sentence from the diary which I found telling:
“I don’t think it’s scrappy or carelessly done, at least I hope not. Anyway, I felt it all, which was of supreme importance.”
(Daphne’s emphasis on the word ‘felt’, Myself When Young p.170)
I can imagine her ardour, her intense desire to communicate in a way that enabled her audience to feel the story as she did. Whether she succeeded is for each reader to judge for themselves but the classic du Maurier is evident in this first book. It’s not as accomplished as her later books; but the skills are there, along with some of the themes she will return to in future works.
Following in the footsteps of the Brontës, Daphne weaves strands of otherworldliness into the first half of the book. The Brontë influence is strong in this scene, which takes place on Christmas Eve:
“She wrapped her shawl about her shoulders and leant from the window. A faint film of snow still lay upon the ground.
The moon was high in the sky, and there was no sound but the moan of the still water lapping the rocks beyond the harbour. Suddenly she knew that she must go to the cliffs, and follow the call of her heart.
She hid the key of the door in her bodice and left the house. It seemed to her that there were wings to her body that bore her swiftly away from home and the sleeping children, away up the steep, narrow street of Plyn, to the white-frosted hills and the silent sky.
She leant against the Castle ruins with the sea at her feet and the light of the moon at her face. Then she closed her eyes, and the jumbled thoughts fled from her mind, her tired body seemed to slip away from her, and she was possessed with the clarity of the moon itself. When she opened her eyes for a moment there was a mist about her, and when it dissolved she saw kneeling beside the cliff with his head bowed in his hands, the figure of a man”
(The Loving Spirit p. 32)
As with the Brontës’ work, the landscape plays a central role. Cornwall is offered in all its dramatic beauty and capricious moods. Already, in this the first of her novels, Daphne begins playing with timeslip and exploring dark, intense relationships between men and women. In Janet she creates a female character who mirrors some of what Daphne felt herself growing up: a strong and vivid inner life; the desire for freedom and lack of constraints; the need to be outside and be physically active; a love of the sea; a sense of being an outsider; a wish to have been born a man.
The Loving Spirit is a book of two halves. Daphne acknowledged that she found the second half more difficult. It focuses on the everyday; it tells a straightforward story; there is less of the supernatural. I preferred the second half. Parts one and two are melodramatic and at times over-written and I did not like Joseph, Janet’s son, at all, whilst I felt sympathy for Christopher and Jennifer, the protagonists of the second half.
That said, I certainly enjoyed the book. Mostly, it doesn’t have the intense page turning quality of her other books – the tension in Rebecca, for example – and although the Cornish vernacular that Daphne attributes to her characters is not difficult to read, it perhaps detracts from the seamless flow of the sentences which is something I’ve always admired in her writing. There are several dramatic events on the seas but it’s a scene in a burning house which had my blood racing because here I saw what was to come with her writing. It’s not an echo of Manderley’s fate, but Daphne’s ability and intensity is clearly evident and it seemed to me that she had suddenly taken a grip and found her confidence.
Daphne came from a very privileged family with many literary contacts and she seemed to have no problem in finding a publisher for this book. It’s tempting to think that’s to do with who she knew rather than the quality of the book itself. But in this first novel I think Daphne was already showing the qualities that were to truly shine a few books later and I’d like to think that her publisher recognised her talents. She received an advance of £67 for the book, ‘..the largest cheque I had ever received’ and some strong reviews in the press:
‘The narrative flows smoothly and easily, while in the figures of Janet, Joseph, Christopher and Jennifer the wild, eerie spirit that urges them all beyond prudence and obedience is represented in episodes and descriptions of considerable power.’
(The Times Literary Supplement)
The Loving Spirit is definitely worth reading but is perhaps not the place to start. I am glad to have read du Maurier’s more famous and more accomplished books first. Having seen where she would go, I found easier to appreciate where she began.
(Read as part of Daphne du Maurier Week and also for The Classics Club)
¹ Polruan pronounced Pol-ROO-an (emphasis on the middle syllable)
² Fowey pronounced to rhyme with joy