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Daphne du Maurier

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Review of The Loving Spirit - Ann Willmore

Daphne du Maurier’s first novel was The Loving Spirit. She wrote it in 1929, at Ferryside, the du Maurier family’s holiday home at Bodinnick in Cornwall. She was twenty-two years old and had already written a number of short stories, some of which had been published in a magazine called the Bystander

She was inspired to write the book after discovering the wreck of a schooner called the Jane Slade in Pont Creek and then reading the letters and boatyard records of the Slade family, who were shipbuilders in the nearby village of Polruan. She visited the Slade family graves at the local church of Lanteglos and talked to Harry Adams, who was a member of the Slade family. Gradually she built up a picture of the family and their life and history, until the story of The Loving Spirit began to form in her mind. The Slade family became the Coombe family, with Janet Coombe as the central character. Polruan became Plyn and Lanteglos church became Lanoc church.

The Loving Spirit is a family saga spanning four generations of the Coombe family, ship builders and mariners, who live in and around the Cornish village of Plyn. The key characters are Janet Coombe, her son Joseph, his son Christopher and Christopher’s daughter Jennifer.

The story begins shortly before Janet is due to marry her cousin Thomas, a ship builder in Plyn. She is torn by her future, on the one hand there is a wildness in her, a love of the sea and a desire for freedom, and on the other hand there is an understanding that the secure role of wife and mother is what is expected of her. Despite her doubts she marries Thomas, in Lanoc church, and they settle down to married life and have six children. She is a good mother and loves all her children, but the third child, Joseph, is her favourite. He also has a wild streak and they share a love of the sea.

Two of Thomas and Janet’s sons, Samuel and Herbert, follow Thomas into the ship building business. Their youngest son, Phillip, becomes a successful businessman in Plyn, but is jealous of the love that Janet has for Joseph. To Janet’s great joy Joseph becomes a sailor and leads the life that she would have chosen, if she had been a man. He eventually qualifies as a Master Mariner and is able to captain a ship. Meanwhile, Thomas, Samuel and Herbert are building a ship that is to be named after Janet and which has a figurehead carved in her image. There is much excitement because Joseph is to be the first master of the new ship. Janet’s health has been failing for some time but she goes down to the quay, with everyone else, for the launch of the ship. Sadly as the Janet Coombe is launched Janet dies and it seems as though her spirit leaves her and enters the ship.

With Janet dead the story then follows Joseph’s life. He marries a woman called Susan Collins and they have four children. Joseph is mainly away at sea and the burden of bearing his children and the hard work of bringing them up and running the home during his long absences is too much for Susan and she dies when she is in her early forties. When Joseph marries again he chooses a much younger woman than himself, called Annie Tabb. It is Joseph’s dearest wish that his oldest son, Christopher, will follow him into a career at sea and one day be master of the Janet Coombe. However, Christopher is afraid of the sea and when he admits this to his father Joseph hands the ship over to his nephew, Dick, instead and wants nothing more to do with Christopher.

Christopher moves away to London where he gets a job and meets Bertha Parkins. He marries her and they have two sons. Meanwhile Joseph, whose wildness is a key element of his character throughout the story, has a breakdown and is admitted to Sudmin Asylum. Later he is discharged but tragedy strikes the family when he is drowned. Christopher and his family move back to Cornwall and he starts work in the family shipyard. Christopher and Bertha’s third child, Jennifer, is born in Plyn.

Phillip, Janet’s youngest son and the villain of the story, has become a powerful and wealthy member of the community in Plyn. He tries to bankrupt Christopher and bring about the downfall of the shipyard. Christopher’s decision to murder him is thwarted when a distress call warns that the Janet Coombe is in danger. Christopher and many other men try to save the ship and her crew, but she is wrecked on the rocks and Christopher is drowned. Before he dies he hears Janet’s voice. Shortly after Christopher’s death, with the shipyard in financial ruin, Bertha takes her family back to London.

The story now turns to Christopher’s daughter, Jennifer. She is only six when her father dies and her upbringing in London is very different to life in Plyn. Jennifer is brought up in a boarding house among mainly adult company. The First World War breaks out and London is full of people in uniform. Her brothers join the army and her older brother, Harold, is killed in action. Jennifer’s days of childhood innocence are over and she becomes restless. When Bertha remarries, Jennifer decides to return to Plyn.

Once back in Cornwall she discovers the wreck of the Janet Coombe and the family graves in Lanoc churchyard she is tremendously drawn to her family from the past and feels that she really belongs in Plyn. She becomes friends with her cousin, John Stevens, who has taken over the old Coombe shipyard and built it up into a successful business.

Jennifer goes to work for her Great Uncle Phillip and moves into his house as his companion. He is still a wealthy and villainous man, but now he is old and quite mad. When he looks at Jennifer he sees someone who embodies in her person the souls of Janet, Joseph and Christopher and he hates her. He knows that when he dies Jennifer will inherit his house and fortune, so to prevent this he decides to destroy everything. He transfers all his fortune into bonds, shares and Bank of England notes. He makes a pile of them in a room in his house and having trapped Jennifer in the room, he sets fire to it. His plan does not work. John rescues Jennifer, but Phillip dies in the fire.

Later Jennifer and John marry and they live over the shipyard, where the figurehead of the Janet Coombe is mounted on the shipyard wall and watches over them.

The Loving Spirit was an ambitious first novel and attained a moderate success when it was published in 1931. The story starts strongly but looses itself a little in the middle, fortunately finding itself again so that it has a positive and satisfactory ending.

The chapters of the book that are set in Cornwall are wild and passionate and could be compared with the writing of the Bronte’s. You could even draw comparison between Janet and Joseph and Cathy and Heathcliffe. However, the chapters that are set in London take on a totally different writing style and are almost a separate story within the main book. Critics have likened the writing of these chapters to H G Wells in “Kipps”, the style being much more relaxed and witty. It has been suggested that this may be due to the fact that Daphne du Maurier had been brought up in London and so wrote with greater confidence.

A number of traits in Daphne du Mauriers personality begin to emerge in this book and become more obvious in her later writing. As a child and throughout life she fought with the opposing needs to fit in to the lifestyle that she was born into and the desire to pursue life with the freedom of a man. She longed to be independent and free to live her life her own way and to write. The way she describes her feelings when she discovered Cornwall help to explain this:
“Here was the freedom I desired, long sought for, not yet known. Freedom to write, to walk, to wander. Freedom to climb hills, to pull a boat, to be alone”.
This side of her personality is clearly reflected in the persona of Janet Coombe.

Daphne du Maurier’s autobiographical book, The Rebecca Notebooks, written in 1980, includes a chapter entitled “This I Believe” in which she explains her personal and religious convictions. She has a strong belief in the ability to communicate though generations and it is this belief that she writes into The Loving Spirit, the spirit of Janet Coombe that touches the members of her family in future generations – The Loving Spirit.

The Loving Spirit by Daphne du Maurier (Heinemann 1931, Doubleday 1931).

Further reading:
The Rebecca Notebooks by Daphne du Maurier (Doubleday 1980, Gollancz 1981)
Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster (Chatto & Windus 1993) (Published in the US as Daphne du Maurier - The Secret World of the Renowned Storyteller (Doubleday 1993)).
From Facts to Fiction – the men and women of Polruan who inspired Daphne du Maurier’s first novel by Helen Doe (Printed by Parchment, Banbury, Oxon. 1997)
Daphne du Maurier by Richard Kelly (Twayne 1987).
Daphne du Maurier Writing, Identity and the Gothic Imagination by Avril Horner and Susan Zlosnik (Macmillan 1998).

© A. Willmore 2002.

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