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Review of The King's General - Ann Willmore

Just outside Fowey lies Menabilly, the Cornish home of the Rashleigh family. Hidden from prying eyes it rests in a valley surrounded by extensive lands reaching down to the sea. Daphne du Maurier discovered Menabilly as a young woman, when she first lived at Ferryside. The house was empty and neglected, the owner, Dr John Rashleigh, choosing to live elsewhere, but it held a magic for Daphne which drew her back to it time and again. During the next seventeen years Daphne visited the house and walked in the grounds, firstly as a trespasser, but later with the owner’s permission until eventually in 1943 Dr Rashleigh agreed to lease the house to her for twenty years. Daphne du Maurier moved into Menabilly in time for Christmas 1943 and never left Cornwall again except for unavoidable excursions or holidays. She called Menabilly her ‘House of Secrets’ and loved it, possibly more than anything else. This is reflected in much of her writing, indeed it had already been the setting for Manderley in “Rebecca”.

The first novel that Daphne wrote while living at Menabilly was “The King’s General” which was set during the time of the English Civil War (1642-1646). Daphne did a great deal of research before writing this book and was assisted by Oenone Rashleigh and the Cornishman and historian A L Rowse. The background of the civil war and how it affected Devon, Cornwall, and particularly Menabilly is all based on fact. The characters she used did live in the area at that time and were involved in the civil war, but the story that she wove was purely of her imagination. It was largely prompted by the discovery that in the 1820’s, William Rashleigh, the then owner of Menabilly had been having some building work done when the skeleton of a young man was found walled up inside a buttress. He was found sat on a stool in a tiny room and the remnants around him strongly suggest he was a Cavalier.

“The King’s General” is one of only three of Daphne du Maurier’s novels that has a female narrator. It is the story of Honor Harris, a beautiful young woman who is the victim of a tragic accident which leaves her with a twisted and paralysed body and Richard Grenvile, who is for a time the Kings General in the West of England – a proud, harsh man who shows tenderness only to Honor and his illegitimate son Jo. The other important character is Gartred, Richard’s sister, a woman of great beauty but a poisonous disposition. Like Rachel in Daphne du Maurier’s later novel “My Cousin Rachel”, you are left wondering if Gartred is truly evil or if situations just happen by chance when she is close at hand.

So it is a middle aged Honor Harris, living with her brother Robin, in a house in Tywardreath, who tells the story. She begins the tale when she is ten years old and her oldest brother Kit brings his new bride, Gartred, back to the family home of Lanrest. Honor loves her brother dearly, but she never takes to Gartred, with her high and might ways and her habit of looking at other men, including Robin. The marriage is an unhappy one and is not destined to last, but Kit dies of smallpox after only three years and Gartred moves away.

Honor meets Gartred’s brother Richard Grenvile for the first time when she is eighteen and they sit together at her first banquet. She becomes unwell after too much wine and roast swan and Richard looks after her. He pays her a visit a few weeks later and they subsequently continue to meet in secret and fall in love. Unfortunately Honor’s family plan a marriage between her and a young man called Edward Champernowne. Honor is horrified and runs off to Richard’s house in the middle of the night. Richard is a man who is used to getting his own way and he crushes any ideas of Honor marrying anyone but himself. Honor’s family are not very comfortable with the plan because Richard is ten years older than her, he has a reputation for being a harsh and ruthless man and because of the failure of his sisters marriage to Honor’s brother. However plans go ahead for the wedding to take place at the Grenvile family home at Stowe.

The day before the wedding Honor goes riding with Richard and Gartred. As they gallop across the moors Richard warns Honor of an approaching chasm. Honor does not know where it is and calls to Gartred to find out. Gartred ignores her and Honor’s horse falls, injuring Honor who is crippled for life. Following the accident Honor refuses to marry Richard or even see him again.

Fifteen years pass during which time Honor learns to live in the wheelchair that her brother Robin makes for her and despite her disability she is mentally strong and self reliant. She educates herself and becomes well read in Greek and Latin and develops a much greater than average knowledge of the politics of the day. Meanwhile Richard has an illegitimate son called Jo, whom he adores. Jo is the result of a liaison between Richard and a dairymaid conceived during the time Richard was also seeing Honor. He also has a son called Dick from a failed marriage to a rich widow but Richard finds Dick weak and irksome. Mary, Honor’s sister marries Jonathan Rashleigh and goes to live at Menabiily, the Rashleigh family home.

In 1642 the civil war breaks out between the Cavaliers who are loyal to the King and the Roundheads who are loyal to Parliament. Suddenly peaceful areas like Cornwall find themselves in difficult situations when families that have always got on with one another are suddenly on opposite sides. A battle not far from the Harris family home at Lanrest worries Honor’s brothers who decide she will be safer if she goes to stay with her sister Mary at Menabilly. Honor leaves Lanrest for the first time since her accident fifteen years before and sets of for Menabilly with her nurse Matty. There are lots of other family members staying at Menabilly and Honor is made very welcome with a room in the Gatehouse for herself and Matty.

Honor is naturally inquisitive and when she hears noises in the empty room next to hers she wants to find out what is going on. She hears tales that the room had previously been used by Jonathan Rashleigh’s older brother John, who had suffered from some sort of illness or madness. However, John had died young so the noises could not be connected to him. Honor’s god-daughter Joan is staying at Menabilly and she takes Honor out into the grounds in her wheelchair, where Honor looks at the windows of her room and the one next to it from the outside in an attempt to get an idea of the layout of that part of the house. There is a summerhouse in the grounds and they borrow the key without asking and go in for a look round. While Joan is outside Honor’s wheelchair hits something on the floor and she discovers a large ring that pulls up a trapdoor in the floor. Honor lifts the door and catches a glimpse of stairs going down before she shuts the trapdoor again.

Meanwhile Richard Grenvile is posted to Plymouth, where he is to command the King’s forces in the west. His sons Jo and Dick are with him. Jo is old enough to fight, but Dick is only fourteen and still has a tutor while he travels. Richard comes to Menabilly and meets Honor again. He still loves her and asks her to marry him, but she refuses because she does not want him tied to a cripple. He is an excellent commander, but very harsh and not particularly popular with other officers but he visits Honor as often as his work permits. He is gentle and tender with her and they become very close.

Honor is still fascinated by the empty room. She realises that the summerhouse key is very similar to her own room key and discovers that it will open the door of the empty room next to hers. Unfortunately when she wheels herself into the empty room someone else is also entering the room, but from a hidden door behind a curtain. Honor discovers that it is her brother in law Jonathan Rashleigh and because she has seen him he is obliged to let her in on his secret. Jonathan is hiding silver plate which is being collected from all over Cornwall to help the Royalist cause. He brings the plate in through the summerhouse and from there goes through the trap door and along a tunnel until he comes to a hidden room where he deposits the plate before climbing up into the empty room through the secret door behind the curtain. Jonathan swears Honor to secrecy.

Richard is eager to draw the Parliamentarians across the Tamar and into Cornwall because he believes that this will lead the enemy to certain defeat. He arranges for Dick and his tutor, Herbert Ashley, to stay at Menabilly with Honor. Richard and Jo bring Dick to Menabilly but as they near the house Dick falls from his horse and arrives at Menabilly cut and bleeding and in a state of great distress. Richard is furious and very irritated with the boy. However, later when Dick talks to Honor, it becomes obvious that he is afraid of blood following an incident that had occurred when he was a tiny child. Apparently Richard had hit Dick’s mother in the face, injuring her and causing her blood to fall onto Dick’s hands. Dick certainly seems a weakly lad with little stamina, but he quickly attaches himself to Honor and gains in confidence.

After a while the fighting draws nearer with the Parliamentary forces under the Earl of Essex and Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock moving dangerously close to Menabilly. It becomes necessary to move Dick to safety because if the Parliamentarians find the son of Richard Grenvile at Menabilly it will be disastrous for everyone in the household. The plan is that Jo Grenvile and Jonathan Rashleigh’s son John will take Dick and Herbert Ashley down to the beach at Polkerris where a fishing boat will take them to St Mawes. As the Parliamentarian army approaches people from the surrounding area start arriving at Menabilly, thinking they will be safest there. Strangely one person to arrive is Gartred.

The plan to get Dick away fails when he runs off. He is eventually found by John Rashleigh but time is running out and they return to Menabilly just ahead of the Parliamentarian army. Honor quickly directs them to the passage under the summerhouse floor and they hid there as Lord Robartes and his troops take over the house and lands of Menabilly. Jonathan Rashleigh is away from home but Lord Robartes demands that Mary provide him with a list of all the residents of Menabilly and his men begin a savage search of the property and land. At the earliest opportunity Honor rescues Dick and John from their hiding place and while John resumes his place in the household, Dick hides either in Honor’s room or in the little hidden room. The residents of the house become prisoners in their own home and all are treated very harshly except Gartred, who gains the favour of Lord Robartes. Nobody has any idea that Dick is hidden within the house.

One evening Gartred comes to Honor’s room and questions her about the silver plate. Honor pretends to know nothing about it, but realises that Gartred is aiming to find out where it is for Lord Robartes. Gartred is neither on the side of the King or Parliament, she is only out for her own gain. Menabilly is under siege for many weeks until Richard and his army and the King with his army regain control in Cornwall and move back towards Menabilly. Lord Robartes asks Mary and John for the plate, but they deny all knowledge of it so Lord Robartes sets his men to ransack the house. As the Royalists regain control in Cornwall, the Earl of Essex and Lord Robartes escape by sailing from Fowey to Plymouth and Gartred leaves Menabilly.

During the time of Parliamentarian control Lanrest has been destroyed and Menabilly has been so badly damaged that Honor sets off to live with her brother Jo. On her way she passes many corpses of the Parliamentarian troops, hanging from the trees or abandoned on the roads. This is Richard's doing, he does not believe in taking prisoners. Jo lives at Radford, the Harris family’s Devon home. As a young man he had married Elizabeth Champernowne, Edward’s sister, but she had died in childbirth. Edward Champernowne is now a colonel in the King’s army. Dick and his tutor return to Richard who is based at Buckland and Jonathan Rashleigh returns to Menabilly to begin work restoring his home. Before long Richard visits Honor at Radford, sweeping in with an arrogance that infuriates the Harris family. He has been made Kings General in the west a role that he undoubtedly deserves because of his excellent ability to command, but which is unpopular among his colleagues, who dislike his harsh, bloodthirsty ways.

The Royalists hold the west beyond Plymouth but instead of continuing the fight the King decides to leave Richard and his troops to starve out the Parliamentarians in Plymouth. Richard sends Dick and his tutor to safety in France and then formulates a plan to win back Plymouth. When all is ready he decides to take Honor to see his men as they prepare for battle. Among the men is Edward Champernowne of whom Richard passes scathing comments about his ability. In fact Richard is right because when they go into battle Edward lets Richard down, causing 300 of the Royalist troops to be killed and the battle to be lost. Outraged Richard shoots Edward.

This turn of events has two disastrous consequences; firstly the concerns about the way Richard treats people becomes an issue of much greater magnitude and secondly Honor is put in such a difficult position that she is obliged to move out of her brother’s house, now that Richard is responsible for the death of her late sister in law’s brother. She goes to Mothercombe to stay with her sister Cecilia.

The fighting continues and after a short while a letter arrives from Richard. He has been shot in the leg by a canon ball causing a dreadful wound to the thigh and he wants Honor to go to him at Exeter. Honor and Matty set of immediately and after six days of travelling they arrive to find Richard weak and in much pain. They nurse him for several weeks until he is able to walk again. Meanwhile the Prince of Wales has taken over the role of commander in the West Country. He is only fifteen years old so decisions are made by the Prince’s Council.

The Parliamentarians are once more moving towards the west and Richard is commanded to go to Launceston to rally more troops for the Royalist cause. The Prince’s Council interfere constantly and Richard disagrees with much of what they say and do. He advises Honor to seek refuge at Menabilly once more and so eighteen months after leaving there she returns. Things are very different this time with only about half a dozen rooms restored for living in. Richard stays at Menabilly briefly before further bad news calls him away. Honor fears for Richard’s safety, not only because of the enemy but also because he has become so unpopular within his own party. She decides to go to him once more and despite protests from the Rashleighs she sets of again, this time to Werrington.

Sure enough things are going badly for Richard. He has told the Prince’s Council that the only way to save the west is to appoint a supreme commander. They do this but instead of appointing Richard as he expects, they appoint a man called Lord Hopton and command Richard to serve under him. Richard refuses and is summoned by the Council to attend the Castle court at Launceston. Richard goes, telling Honor that he will return within an hour or two, but he is arrested on a charge of disloyalty to the Prince and to the King and imprisoned in Launceston Castle. Honor goes to the prison, only to discover that he has been moved under escort to St Michael’s Mount.

Honor’s brother Robin comes to take her back to Menabilly but she asks him to take her to Truro so that she can speak to the Prince’s Council. However the Council have moved to Pendennis Castle. Honor persuades Richard’s nephew Jack to get her an interview with the Prince of Wales and while the Prince agrees that Richard is the only person that can save the west there is nothing that he can do. Honor asks the Prince to make provision so that if he and his Council need to escape to the Scillies, Richard may escape to France. Inevitably the fighting continues and the Parliamentarian’s advance. The war in the west is lost but the Price of Wales and Richard both escape.

Honor returns to Menabilly and a level of peace descends on this defeated county as the people of Cornwall settle into a quite and much poorer life. From time to time Honor hears from Richard as he travels in France and Italy with Dick.

One day about a year later Matty returns from Fowey bringing word of rumours that men are gradually returning from France and that the Royalist cause is secretly rearming. At about the same time Jonathan Rashleigh is taken ill in London and Mary sets off to look after him. John also sets of to Mothercombe where his wife Joan is staying. This leaves Honor alone at Menabilly with Matty and the servants. Again Matty goes to Fowey, leaving Honor down at the summerhouse looking out to sea. While Matty is away a young man steals up on Honor. To her absolute amazement Dick stands before her. He is grown now, a young man of eighteen. Dick talks with Honor and it is clear that he still fears and loathes his father and is only there because his father expects it. Dick’s view is that a rebellion will only cause more blood to be spilt. Dick’s arrival is followed by Richard’s nephew, Bunny Grenvile, Jonathan Rashleigh’s son in law, Peter Courtney and a man called Ambrose Manaton. Honor’s own brother Robin arrives with Gartred, they are now a couple much to Honor’s consternation. Finally Richard himself arrives.

The men in this group are all loyal to the King and they are at Menabilly to put the Royalist rising into action. Initially Honor is puzzled by the presence of Ambrose Manaton, but it is not long before she realises that he is interested in Gartred and the familiar looks of old are passing between Gartred and Ambrose. Honor realises that Ambrose is to provide the money needed for the rising and that Richard has invited Gartred as a means of luring Ambrose in, despite the fact that she is supposed to be marrying Robin.

Plans proceed with like minded men from across the west joining forces and meeting in secret and news arrives from France that the Prince of Wales is due to set sail back to England. Honor becomes increasingly concerned about the situation that is developing between Gartred, Ambrose and Robin and finally she speaks to Richard about it. Richard sends Peter and Robin off across Cornwall with messages of changes to the plans, but Robin believing this to be no more than a ploy to get him out of the house, steals back to Menabilly in the dead of night. Honor’s sleep is disturbed by his return and she wheels herself into the corridor just in time to see Robin, with his sword raised, heading for Gartred’s room where she is entertaining Ambrose. Honor begs Robin to stop but he has murder in his heart and he rushes into Gartred’s room. As Honor shouts for Richard she hears a tremendous high pitched scream come from Gartred’s room. Richard arrives on the scene and breaks up the fight. Dick appears and is greatly distressed by all the blood. Nobody is dead, but Gartred is scarred for life with a gash across her face from her eyebrow to her chin.

Richard insists that personal differences are put to one side while the important matter of the Royalist cause gets underway. So the next morning everyone gathers together to await Peters return although Dick joins the group later than everyone else. Finally Peter returns bringing with him the terrible news that they have been betrayed to the Parliamentarians, who are on their way to Menabilly. Richard sends Peter down to Pridmouth to get a boat to take him out to sea. He has to meet the ships sailing from France and warn them to turn around and head back to France with the Prince of Wales. Meanwhile Richard sends everyone else away so only Dick, Honor, Gartred and Richard are gathered together when he suddenly makes the statement that until that day no Grenvile has ever betrayed his King or his country. Dick steps forward from the corner of the room, a look of despair on his face. Gartred takes hold of Honor’s wheelchair and pushes her out of the room, so no-one ever knows what is said between father and son, but it is obviously Dick who has betrayed Richard and the Royalist cause.

The enemy draws nearer and a feeling of unease falls on Menabilly, then Dick asks how things will be for the Rashleigh family if the Parliamentarians find Richard and Dick Grenvile at Menabilly, for surely it will look as though the Rashleigh’s were involved in the Royalist rising. A hasty plan is formed and as the troops reach the grounds of Menabilly, Dick takes Richard to his old hiding place in the buttress. Gartred watches them disappear and then walking across the room to look at her damaged face in the mirror, she tells Honor that she could have stopped her from falling down the chasm all those years ago. It has taken a long time to call it quits and now the two women must wait together for the troops to arrive.

The Parliamentarians arrive and search the house, but find nothing. Gartred is taken away, because she is a Grenvile. Shortly afterwards Jonathan Rashleigh returns from London in his ship, the Francis. He is just in time because there is one more plan to make. The enemy troops are everywhere, but Matty manages to make her way down to the summerhouse and opens the trapdoor. A fisherman goes down at Pridmouth beach apparently pulling up lobster pots, but really he is ready to take Richard and Dick out to the Francis as it sails for Holland and Honor goes back to her old room so that she can say farewell to Richard and Dick and give them details of the escape plan. The biggest problem is that since the tunnel was last used it has collapsed a lot and now it is very dangerous to get through. Before she says goodbye Honor tells Richard that she believes that Dick betrayed the Royalists, not because he hates his father, but because he saw the blood on Gartred’s face. She asks Richard to forgive Dick and he tells her that he already has, but that Dick now needs to forgive himself. They say farewell and Richard closes the stone in the buttress wall.

The troops search Menabilly once more, believing that Richard may be in hiding there and Honor and Matty are removed to the Rashleigh house on the town quay at Fowey, where Jonathan Rashleigh is waiting for them. Troops guard this house too, but Honor and Jonathan are able to talk and Jonathan tells her that her brother Robin is now at Plymouth and when the rising is over and peace restored once more he would like Honor and Robin to live in a house that he owns in Tywardreath. He also tells her that the Frances has sailed. He has received a message from the fisherman saying that only Richard went aboard at Pridmouth. The least of the Grenvile’s had chosen his own method of escape.

Remember the skeleton of the cavalier who was discovered in the buttress all those years later by William Rashleigh…………….

The Kings General is a compelling novel. It was essentially a piece of escapism which suited the post-war mood of the time and brought the house of Menabilly and the surrounding countryside of Daphne du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall into the lives of everyone who read the book. Even now one can visualise the troops gathering around Menabilly, the escape across the beach at Pridmouth and Honor and Jonathan Rashleigh talking together in the house on the town quay at Fowey. Daphne du Maurier was enormously skilled at taking a real situation or place and weaving fiction into it so that it became as believable as fact to the reader.

Honor Harris is one of Daphne du Maurier strongest heroines. Like Janet Coombe in her first novel, “The Loving Spirit”, Honor displays great strength and courage and an intellect far beyond what one would expect in a woman of that era. Daphne said that, like the narrator in “Rebecca”, she identified very closely with Honor and that when she was writing the novel she felt Honor become an extension of herself, like her persona in the past.

When Daphne du Maurier was writing “The King’s General” her own husband, Tommy Browning was a general fighting for his King and country, he was ten years older than Daphne, like Richard who was ten years older that Honor. Tommy was very much the archetypal military hero and a strict disciplinarian, though not given to slaying men in the way that Richard Grenvile did! Daphne dedicated this novel to her husband with the words “To my husband, also a general, but I trust a more discreet one”.

The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier (Gollancz 1946, Doubleday 1946)

Further reading:
Daphne du Maurier - Enchanted Cornwall her Pictorial Memoir edited by Piers Dudgeon (Michael Joseph Ltd 1986)
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))
Daphne –A Portrait of Daphne du Maurier by Judith Cook (Bantam Press 1991)
Daphne du Maurier by Richard Kelly (Twayne 1987)

© A. Willmore 2003.

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