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The King's General

Daphne Du Maurier


  Daphne du Maurier

  Foreword by Justine Picardie

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  Table of Contents



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  The first time I read The King's General was on a melancholy autumn day, not long after I'd started at a new school, in a town where I knew no one, at the age of fourteen. Daphne du Maurier's landscape--seventeenth-century Cornwall, last refuge of brave Cavaliers--was entirely distant to mine; hundreds of years and miles away, further by far than the home I'd left behind. But as I sought refuge in the school library, escaping the rain and all the people I didn't know, and who didn't want to know me, the book seemed more real to me than the unfamiliar place I had found myself; offered more solace than anything else at the time.

  Returning to The King's General, decades later, reminds me of how well it expresses the sadness of the dislocated and dispossessed. That might sound melodramatic--and the book is melodramatic, at times; just as I was as a teenager, about the dismal misery of my new life--but The King's General, so often overlooked by literary critics, is more than a melodrama, more subtle and unsettling. Widely regarded as a straightforward historical romance--which it can be, if that's simply what you want it to be--the novel also does something unusual, creating a story that feels timeless, for all its period detail. The description of the Cornish setting--always vivid in du Maurier's writing; far more than a backdrop, as crucial as any of the main characters--seems as atmospheric and as true now as when The King's General was first published in 1946. Anyone who loves Cornwall, as I do (both as a real and imaginary landscape) will be comforted by the idea that the hills and the moorland, the beaches and the cliff tops, remain, in essence, those that du Maurier's heroine, Honor Harris, gazed upon as her story opens in 1653; and I like to think that future readers of the novel will feel the same way.

  That opening is also an ending--or close to an ending, it seems; though du Maurier is unsurpassed at keeping secrets, at the same time as hinting at revelations to come. At fourteen, I found it impossible not to look at the ending, so intriguing was the first chapter: but unlike any other writer that I can think of, du Maurier still managed not to give the game away; at least not to me, the cheating reader; not then, for it is only when you read the whole book that the final page makes sense.

  So it would be entirely wrong of me to break the suspense now, in this introduction; though I think it safe to say that the first few pages, with their description of a summer's end, and the encroaching chill of autumn, are a perfect indication of what is about to unfold. "The first clouds of evening are gathering beyond the Dodman," observes the novel's sole narrator, Honor Harris, an ailing woman writing by candlelight. "And the surge of the sea, once far-off and faint, comes louder now, creeping towards the sands. The tide has turned. Gone are the white stones and the cowrie shells. The sands are covered. My dreams are buried. And as darkness falls the flood tide sweeps over the marshes and the land is covered."

  Faraway, across the sea, Honor imagines her former lover, Sir Richard Grenvile--the King's General no longer--banished from the land he loved. "My heart aches for you in this last disgrace," writes Honor. "I picture you sitting lonely and bitter at your window, gazing out across the dull flat lands of Holland..." As an opening, it is as brooding as the first pages of Rebecca; and the darkness of that more famous novel, published eight years previously, casts a shadow over The King's General, too. There are other similarities, as well: for like the hero of Rebecca, Sir Richard Grenvile is a ruthless, powerful man; more powerful, apparently, than the woman who loves him.

  Daphne du Maurier dedicated The King's General to her husband, Sir Frederick Browning, a Grenadier Guards officer, otherwise known as Tommy: "To my husband, also a general, but, I trust, a more discreet one." Margaret Forster's marvelous biography of Daphne du Maurier reveals that Tommy (who had been knighted in the 1946 New Year's Honours List) guessed that his wife's dedication would make people assume that Richard Grenvile, "first a soldier, second a lover," a man "violent from his youth... cruel... hard," was based on him. Tommy (a likeable chap, by all accounts, though prone to depression) was amused; at the same time as expressing the hope, in a letter to his wife, that her latest novel might "have a nice ending for a change, because you know what I think of your sad endings."

  But there was to be no happy ending for Honor and her general; an indication, perhaps, that Daphne (who wrote the book while Tommy was still stationed abroad) was fearful of what might happen to their marriage when he finally returned to Menabilly, their house in Cornwall. And Menabilly was to play a crucial part in The King's General: it is where much of the action takes place, and Daphne immersed herself in its history when she was researching the novel. The house had fascinated Daphne ever since she first discovered it, soon after her parents bought a holiday house in Fowey in 1927, and its original owners, the Rashleighs, were also to appear in The King's General. She was particularly intrigued by the tale of a skeleton found in Menabilly in the nineteenth century, apparently discovered by builders, in a bricked-up room. As she explains in her postscript to the novel, the workmen "came upon a stair, leading to a small room, or cell, at the base of the buttress. Here they found the skeleton of a young man, seated on a stool, a trencher at his feet, and the skeleton was dressed in the clothes of a Cavalier, as worn during the period of the Civil War." The rest--in Daphne's version, anyway--is not history, but romance; though the story as she told it seemed entirely convincing to me, as a teenager (far more so than those dreary history textbooks about the struggles between Royalists and Parliament that I should have been reading instead).

  Given the success of other du Maurier stories that were turned into films--Rebecca, The Birds, Don't Look Now--I'd always half expected to see The King's General as a swashbuckling Hollywood movie. But despite the sale of the rights for what was then the enormous sum of PS65,000--part of which was spent on a new boat for Tommy after the war--the film was never made. (After years of setbacks and delays, Elizabeth Taylor was suggested to play the heroine in 1958: Daphne was horrified by the prospect; nor did she like the script.) I still think it would make a good film--it has the right blend of epic and intimate qualities--but there is pleasure, too, to be had in feeling the book to be one's own private discovery. When I first read it I knew no one else who had, so its revelations and secrets remained mine alone. This, of course, is part of the conceit of the novel, from the beginning: Honor Harris, she tells us in the first chapter, knows "this autumn will be the last" for her, and her memoir "will go with me to the grave... rotting there with me, unread." Honor's purpose, in writing down her secrets, is, she says, "to rid myself of a burden"; and though Daphne du Maurier chooses not to reveal why, or how, the story escapes from the grave, the reader is left with the sense that we have been given not a burden, but a gift.

  It's a remarkable achievement--and all the more so, I realize now, as I reread The King's General in my own middle age. As a fourteen-year-old, I adored the novel's early chapters that describe Honor Harris as a spirited teenager, before tragedy had torn her life apart; now, while I still love that part of The King's General, I also appreciate du Maurier's account of growing older. Towards the end of the book, when Sir Richard Grenvile h
as remarked in a letter to Honor that doubtless she finds her days monotonous, alone in Cornwall, she observes:

  I have seen the shadows creep, on an autumn afternoon, from the deep Pridmouth valley to the summit of the hill, and there stay a moment, waiting on the sun... Dark moods too of bleak November, when the rain sweeps in a curtain from the southwest. But, quietest of all, the evenings of late summer, when the sun has set, and the moon has not yet risen, but the dew is heavy in the long grass.

  You could not ask for a better, swifter description both of the passing of the seasons, and the turning of the years. Daphne was in her late thirties when she wrote the novel--"a dull, gray-haired, nearly-forty wife," she wrote in a letter soon after Tommy arrived home from the war--and while by no means close to death herself, it cannot be coincidence that she chose to write about Honor Harris, who died at the age of thirty-eight. (Like the other principal characters in the novel, there was a real Honor Harris, who was buried in a church near Menabilly, in the parish of Tywardreath, on 17th November 1653.) Daphne herself lived on until the age of nearly eighty-two: a long, extraordinary life, in which she became one of the most wildly popular authors of her time. Yet nowhere in her writing, it seems to me, than in The King's General will you find better expression of that bittersweet blend of foreboding and hopefulness, of passionate love and anguished loss, that marks what it means to grow up. "Come now, take heart," says Honor's brother Jonathan, on the final page of the book, when we know she is nearing her end, fading into the twilight that has shaded her story from the start. "One day the King will come into his own again; one day your Richard will return."

  "One day," replies Honor, repeating lines that have echoed throughout the novel, "when the snow melts, when the thaw breaks, when the spring comes."

  Justine Picardie



  September, 1653. The last of summer. The first chill winds of autumn. The sun no longer strikes my eastern window as I wake, but, turning laggard, does not top the hill before eight o'clock. A white mist hides the bay sometimes until noon, and hangs about the marshes too, leaving, when it lifts, a breath of cold air behind it. Because of this, the tall grass in the meadow never dries, but long past midday shimmers and glistens in the sun, the great drops of moisture hanging motionless upon the stems. 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.

  It is a strange, joyous feeling, this streak back to the past. Nothing is regretted, and I am happy and proud. The mist and cloud have gone, and the sun, high now and full of warmth, holds revel with my ebb tide. How blue and hard is the sea as it curls westward from the bay, and the Blackhead, darkly purple, leans to the deep water like a sloping shoulder. Once again--and this I know is fancy--it seems to me that the tide ebbs always in the middle of the day, when hope is highest and my mood is still. Then, half-consciously, I become aware of a shadow, of a sudden droop of the spirit. The first clouds of evening are gathering beyond the Dodman. They cast long fingers on the sea. And the surge of the sea, once far-off and faint, comes louder now, creeping towards the sands. The tide has turned. Gone are the white stones and the cowrie shells. The sands are covered. My dreams are buried. And as darkness falls the flood tide sweeps over the marshes and the land is covered. Then Matty will come in to light the candles, and to stir the fire, making a bustle with her presence, and if I am short with her, or do not answer, she looks at me with a shake of her head, and reminds me that the fall of the year was always my bad time. My autumn melancholy. Even in the distant days, when I was young, the menace of it became an institution, and Matty, like a fierce clucking hen, would chase away the casual visitor. "Miss Honor can see nobody today." My family soon learned to understand, and left me in peace. Though peace is an ill word to describe the moods of black despair that used to grip me. Ah, well... they're over now. Those moods at least. Rebellion of the spirit against the chafing flesh, and the moments of real pain when I could not rest. Those were the battles of youth. And I am a rebel no longer. The middle years have me in thrall, and there is much to be said for them. Resignation brings its own reward. The trouble is that I cannot read now as I used to do. At twenty-five, at thirty, books were my great consolation. Like a true scholar, I worked away at my Latin and Greek, so that learning was part of my existence. Now it seems profitless. A cynic when I was young, I am in danger of becoming a worse one now I am old. So Robin says. Poor Robin. God knows I must often make a poor companion. The years have not spared him either. He has aged much this year. Possibly his anxiety over me. I know they discuss the future, he and Matty, when they think I sleep. I can hear their voices droning in the parlor. But when he is with me he feigns his little air of cheerfulness, and my heart bleeds for him. My brother. Looking at him as he sits beside me, coldly critical as I always am towards the people I love, I note the pouches beneath his eyes, and the way his hands tremble when he lights his pipe. Can it be that he was ever light of heart and passionate of mind? Did he really ride into battle with a hawk on his wrist, and was it only ten years ago that he led his men to Braddock Down, side by side with Bevil Grenvile, flaunting that scarlet standard with the three gold rests in the eyes of the enemy? Was this the man I saw once, in the moonlight, fighting his rival for a faithless woman?

  Looking at him now, it seems a mockery. My poor Robin, with his graying locks shaggy on his shoulders. Yes, the agony of the war has left its mark on both of us. The war--and the Grenviles. Maybe Robin is bound to Gartred still, even as I am to Richard. We never speak of these things. Ours is the dull drab life of day by day. Looking back, there can be very few among our friends who have not suffered. So many gone, so many penniless. I do not forget that Robin and I both live on charity. If Jonathan Rashleigh had not given us this house we should have had no home, with Lanrest gone, and Radford occupied. Jonathan looks very old and tired. It was that last grim year of imprisonment in St. Mawes that broke him, that and John's death. Mary looks much the same. It would take more than a civil war to break her quiet composure and her faith in God. Alice is still with them, and her children, but the feckless Peter never visits her. I think of the time when we were all assembled in the long gallery, and Alice and Peter sang, and John and Joan held hands before the fire--they were all so young, such children. Even Gartred with her calculated malevolence could not have charged the atmosphere that evening. Then Richard, my Richard, broke the spell deliberately with one of his devastating cruel remarks, smiling as he did so, and the gaiety went, and the careless joy vanished from the evening. I hated him for doing it, yet understood the mood that prompted him.

  Oh, God confound and damn these Grenviles, I thought afterwards, for harming everything they touch, for twisting happiness into pain with a mere inflexion of the voice. Why were they made thus, he and Gartred, so that cruelty for its own sake was almost a vice to be indulged in, affording a sensuous delight? What evil genius presided at their cradle? Bevil had been so different. The flower of the flock, with his grave courtesy, his thoughtfulness, his rigid code of morality, his tenderness to his own and to other people's children. And his boys take after him. There is no vice in Jack or Bunny that I have ever seen. But Gartred. Those serpent's eyes beneath the red-gold hair, that hard, voluptuous mouth. How incredible it seemed to me, even in the early days when she was married to my brother Kit, that anyone could be deceived by her. Her power to charm was overwhelming. My father and my mother were jelly in her hands, and as for poor Kit, he was lost from the beginning, like Robin later. But I was never won, not for a moment. Well, her beauty is marred now, and I suppose forever. She will carry that scar to the grave. A thin scarlet line from eye to mouth where the blade slashed her. Rumor ha
s it that she can still find lovers, and her latest conquest is one of the Careys, who has come to live near her at Bideford. I can well believe it. No neighbor would be safe from her if he had a charm of manner, and the Careys were always presentable. I can even find it in my heart to forgive her, now that everything is over. The idea of her dallying with George Carey--she must be at least twenty years the elder--brings a flash of color into a gray world. And what a world! Long faces and worsted garments, bad harvests and sinking trade, everywhere men poorer than they were before, and the people miserable. The happy aftermath of war. Spies of the Lord Protector (God, what an ironic designation!) in every town and village, and if a breath of protest against the State is heard the murmurer is borne straightway to jail. The Presbyterians hold the reins in their grasping hands, and the only men to benefit are upstarts like Frank Buller and Robert Bennett and our old enemy, John Robartes, all of them out for what they can get and damn the common man. Manners are rough, courtesy a forgotten quality. We are each one of us suspicious of our neighbor. Oh, brave new world! The docile English may endure it for a while, but not we Cornish. They cannot take our independence from us, and in a year or so, when we have licked our wounds, we'll have another rising, and there'll be more blood spilled and more hearts broken. But we shall still lack our leader. Ah, Richard--my Richard--what evil spirit in you urged you to quarrel with all men, so that even the King is your enemy now. My heart aches for you in this last disgrace. I picture you sitting lonely and bitter at your window, gazing out across the dull flat lands of Holland, and putting the final words to the defense that you are writing, and of which Bunny brought me a rough draft when he came to see me last.

  "Oh, put not your trust in Princes, nor in any child of man, for there is no help in them." Bitter, hopeless words, that will do no good, and only breed further mischief. "Sir Richard Grenvile for his presuming loyalty, must be by a public declaration defamed as a Banditto and his very loyalty understood a crime. However, seeing it must be so, let God be prayed to bless the King with faithful councilors, and that none may be prevalent to be any way hurtful to him or to any of his relations. As for Sir Richard Grenvile, let him go with the reward of an old soldier of the King's. There is no present use for him. When there shall be the Council will think on it, if not too late. Vale."