“The ship drifted on the horizon like a symbol of escape”
“I wonder…when it was that the world first went amiss, and men forgot how to live and to love and be happy.”
I loved this book so much! It’s exactly what I needed right now. Daphne Du Maurier is so skilled in creating a perfect atmosphere, exciting plots, and dynamic relationships between her characters. This novel is escapism at its best.
Frenchman’s Creek follows Dona, a beautiful 30-year-old woman who is part of London’s upper class. Dona married Harry years ago and had two children with him. She never liked propriety, or the aristocracy, and would try to visit saloons and infiltrate other parts of society but it never felt enough, and it never felt right. The passion and love between Harry and Dona had faded many years ago (and never really existed in the first place) and Harry stopped trying, being completely inattentive to his wife. He was so preoccupied with his projects and hobbies that he might as well have been single. Feeling trapped, Dona decided to leave Harry for the summer and spent her days in absolute freedom at their summer home/cottage Navron House, right by the coast. We get a sense that Dona wants to escape. She wants absolute freedom and adventure. Upon arriving she thinks to herself as she stands by the coast:
“this was freedom, to stand here for one minute with her face to the sun and the wind, this was living, to smile and to be alone.”
Upon arriving, Dona finds all of her household staff missing with the exception of a rugged man named William. Rumours around town are that in recent months a pirate and his crew have been robbing the rich families around Navron House. Dona finds all this quite odd, until she comes face to face with the pirate ship hiding right by her house in a creek by the forest. Dona develops a friendship with the captain of the ship, who is a Frenchman (hence the title) by the name of Jean-Benoit Aubéry. The pirate is dark, handsome, French, and an incredible artist. He loves the sea, basking in freedom, and has a fondness for birds, naming his own ship La Mouette (the seagull). The novel picks up from there and there are so many escapades, and Three Musketeers-like fights, and adventures, filled with excitement and passion. The whole time Dona must reconcile her position in society with her longing for escape, and her role as mother and part of the aristocracy with her pirate adventures. There are two prevailing themes brought up over and over in this novel. The first is contemplating what it means to be happy and free, and the second is the realization that excitement and absolute ecstatic happiness can only be experienced temporarily. Good, nay, great things cannot last for too long or they lose their charm.
William says to Dona:
“a man is faced at once with a choice. He must either stay at home and be bored, or go away and be miserable. He is lost in either case. No, to be really free, a man must sail alone.”
Later Jean-Benoit and Dona discuss life as a pirate and she asks him if this life has brought him happiness, to which he responds that it has brought him contentment. When asked to explain the difference he says:
“contentment is a state of mind and body when the two work in harmony, and there is no friction. The mind is at peace, and the body also. The two are sufficient to themselves. Happiness is elusive—coming perhaps once in a life-time—and approaching ecstasy.”
The novel’s dominant feeling of uneasiness is best captured in this conversation between Jean-Benoit and Dona as she knows she must return from her first one-day escapade wishing their love-affair could last forever, and that her life could always be at sea. He says:
“you forget…that women are more primitive than men. For a time they will wander, yes, and play at love, and play at adventure. And then, like the birds, they must make their nest. Instinct is too strong for them. Birds build the home they crave, and settle down into it, warm and safe, and have their babies.’
‘but the babies grow up,’ she said, ‘and fly away, and the parent birds fly away too, and are free once more.’
He laughed at her, staring into the fire, watching the flames.
‘There is no answer, Dona,’ he said, ‘for I could sail away now in La Mouette and come back to you in twenty years’ time, and what should I find but a placid, comfortable woman…with her dreams long forgotten, and I myself a weather-beaten mariner, stiff in the joints, with a beareded face, and my taste for piracy gone with the spent years.’
‘and if I sailed with you now, and never returned?’
‘Who can tell? Regret perhaps, and disillusion, and a looking back over you shoulders…perhaps no regrets. But more building of nests, and more rearing of broods, and I having to sail alone again, and so a losing once more of adventure. So you see, my Dona, there is no escape for a woman, only for a night and for a day.’
To follow this story from Dona’s perspective and to know what she wants, what she is capable of, and to know that even those who ‘love’ her are not willing to join her in either adventure, or nesting, or misery is one of the ways in which this novel pulls at the reader’s heartstrings. The adventures she has are very Wendy-like: temporary. I would like to think that Frenchman’s Creek is almost like Peter Pan for adults. Both novels incorporate pirates, a woman trapped between a world of fun and one of responsibility, a woman longing for adventure, two younger children, and they are both filled with bird-references. (Totally cool fun fact, Daphne Du Maurier’s aunt was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies–the mother of the children who inspired Barrie’s Peter Pan). I don’t know if this book is too deep, or heavy in any way. It is light, and fun, with a bit of pain, but what makes this light narrative worth your time is that it’s very well-written. Daphne Du Maurier has such dexterity and uses language with such craft. The landscape alone will place the reader in an amazing state of mind. This is very much an escapist novel, and like Dona, the reader will temporarily go on an amazing journey. I highly recommend this book, it’s really fun, and has many funny bits (particularly when Dona pokes fun at the aristocrats in their faces without them realizing what she is doing).
Today I went for a walk in the rain and on a quest! I wanted to find the “Peter Pan Statue hiding in plain sight” at Avenue and St. Clair. I read an article about it in the Torontoist and decided to made a day of it. The truth is, I’ve passed by that intersection SO MANY TIMES but not once did I think that in the little cove that is Glen Park–which is also part of a residential building’s ‘backyard’ is a lovely statue of Pan. What I loved most about it were the details like the little mice carved in, the rabbits, the fairies talking to the squirrel, and Peter himself of course. At times I get so used to Pan as portrayed in Hollywood films, or even Disney, or Once Upon a Time versions. While I love all the interpretations, I seem to forget that Peter as depicted by Barrie is a child who is possibly 4 or 5, especially in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (and he doesn’t grow up so…). Seeing his statue reminded me what that would really look like. I took some photos for you to look at if you cannot make it there yourself.
The plaque beneath it reads: “To the spirit of Children at Play erected by the College Heights Association, September 1929.” (Making this statue 88 years old).
The Emerald Circus is an excellent collection of fairy tale ‘retellings’ written by Nebula Award-winning author Jane Yolen. Although I use the term “fairy tale retellings” since it is a labelled sub-genre, Yolen’s collection incorporates the retelling of more than just fairy tales. Children’s books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Peter Pan are also retold in this short story format from different perspectives, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Emily Dickinson’s lifestyle and inspiration. The third category of retellings in this collection is of medieval legends of Camelot and Robin Hood. “The Quiet Monk” is the story of the hidden grave which supposedly had Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies in it which falls under Arthurian Retellings along with “The Confession of Brother Blaise,” and “Evian Steel.” Some of the short stories in this collection have been previously published in anthologies, or individually. For instance, “Lost Girls” the feminist retelling of Peter Pan where women riot and protest for their rights in Neverland won the Nebula Award in 1999 and has been published in Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
The Emerald Circus is a great introduction to Jane Yolen as it incorporates works from various points in her writing career. This anthology includes all the stories that haunt us past childhood and stay with us in a collective imaginary space. Arthurian Legends, Children’s Literature, and 19th Century American gothic poets share a fantastical quality that remains a point of comparison when reading contemporary literature. At the end of the collection of retellings, Yolen takes a few pages to explain how the idea for each of these stories came about. I will focus on one of her stories to give you an idea of how Yolen’s stories come through. As a big fan of Peter Pan and Neverland retellings, “Lost Girls” was the story that stayed with me most.
“I wrote ‘Lost Girls’ because I couldn’t forget the uneasy scene in which Peter Pan is weeping because he can’t re-attach his shadow. When Wendy sews it on for him, he crows and cries out ‘Oh the cleverness of me!’ As if Wendy had done nothing and he had done it all.”
Yolen’s research led her to Alison Lurie’s study of Peter Pan in a 2012 essay where she compares Peter’s existence with what we currently know of child psychology. He is easily distracted, has little understanding of the future, and lives in a world where real life and make-believe are almost the same thing. Peter might be “gay and innocent and heartless” as the last words of Peter and Wendy suggests, but according to Yolen:
“he [Peter] is also deeply self-centered and without remorse…Peter might be eternally young in his looks, but his eyes betray his real age. He has seen so much, he would have an old and narcissistic soul.”
Yolen takes this analysis and applies it to her story “Lost Girls.” In it, the main character is a young girl named Darla who has been raised by today’s Western standards of feminism and equality. As Darla reads Peter and Wendy she finds it unfair that “Wendy only did the housework in Neverland and that Peter and the boys got to fight Captain Hook.” Darla arrives in Neverland that night and Peter immediately sees her as “a regular Wendy” —as all women are interchangeable to him, in fact he refers to all the women he comes in contact with as “The Wendys.” As celebrations continue with Peter and the Lost Boys, the girls would obediently stand behind the boys “like banquet waitresses.” When Darla cannot stand being called a ‘regular Wendy’ she asks the girls why Peter refuses to call them by their actual individual names, to which the girls respond:
“Because he can’t be bothered to remember…and we can’t be bothered reminding him…it’s all right…really. He has so much else to worry about.”
The injustices present in Neverland and children’s literature are highlighted by Yolen in this story as she pinpoints examples in narratives that follow us and we enjoy without questioning. Yes, Peter Pan is about adventure and fun but who gets to have most of it, and who ends up hurt in the end as she must put up with his moods, flaws, and inability to adapt to circumstances? Innocence and living in the moment as ‘fun’ children do results in selfish behavior and unbearable cruelty to others.
This story is just an example of the kind of excellent work that Yolen accomplishes by creating alternative possibilities in this collection of retellings. Such attention to detail is present in all the stories in The Emerald Circus and it is a collection I would recommend to everyone.
When it comes to analyzing Peter and Wendy, Peter is often interpreted as Wendy; the two characters being one and the same. Peter is seen as a symbolic or metaphorical way of dealing with issues regarding adulthood and growing up. Wendy herself is forced to by her father, and she approaches this dilemma by escaping mentally to a separate space where she can work out her issues. In the original play the actor playing Wendy’s father would also play Hook as a continuation of the ongoing confrontation. Although there can be much read through a Freudian lens, a practical explanation is that the two characters never meet and so it would be an efficient use of the actor, rather than hiring another one. However, I much prefer the former. Jen Campbell discusses this in more detail on her YouTube channel (certainly worth watching).
I am a huge Peter Pan fan, and as a result have watched almost every possible adaptation, and am working my way through reading retellings. Austin Chant’s Peter Darling is by far one of my favourite retellings. In his novel Chant shows how Peter and Wendy are one and the same. Peter Pan returns to Neverland as a grown man after he had chosen to grow up ten years prior, back in London, as Wendy. Chant captures the voices of the Lost Boys particularly well, (the dialogue is absolutely perfect) and most importantly he captures the spirit of Neverland. I have read some retellings that lost the essence of those characters while trying to achieve a different goal through plot, but Chant kept them all in tact as if Barrie is just continuing on. I loved how well-preserved they are through dialogue and interactions.
Chant writes the character as Peter as a trans individual who had been born Wendy. This new added dimension told through the metaphor that exists in Peter Pan is one of the best ways to create a means by which anyone can begin to listen, and understand the trans narrative. Chant adds a layer of depth to these characters that deals with identity, losing and finding oneself, and struggle for power and asserting oneself in places that were theirs to begin with (in Peter’s case: Neverland). Here are some examples of dialogue that stuck with me:
[Ernest:] I knew…I was different somehow…I had to get away from my family. They kept saying there was something wrong with me. In Neverland, nobody cares about that. You can be free.”
“I know what you mean,” Peter said without thinking (page 30)
“It hit him again that his skin didn’t belong to him, that he was a puppeteer moving a stranger’s body. That was playing a character, while the real, lonely, frightened Peter was buried inside him…. I’m here to fight. I’m a boy.” (page 47)
This Peter Pan however, is very pro-fighting and pro-war. He arrives in Neverland driven to take his place back as leader almost immediately, and wants to fight the pirates even though there has been a ten year peace treaty on the island. He sees pirates as one dimensional and is constantly in the mood for a fight. My interpretation is that this is a result of years spent among regular people and growing up back in London. Before Pan was a playful fighter whereas now he just wants to fight with an anger-driven passion.
There is a romantic/sexual dynamic between Hook and Pan which others find distracting, based on some reviews I browsed, however, I thought it worked really well with this retelling. I didn’t know I’d love that but I did. I always thought there was a strange sort of tension or sexual energy between Hook and Wendy (even more apparent in film adaptations like Hogan’s), and if Wendy is Peter, then it makes perfect sense.
The author, Austin Chant, identifies himself as “a bitter millennial, decent chef, and a queer, trans writer of romance and speculative fiction.” He co-hosts the Hopeless Romantic, a podcast dedicated to LGBTQIA love stories, and the art of writing romance. I look forward to his next books, and I recommend this one to anyone who enjoys retellings, Peter Pan, or just wants to look at Pan from a different angle.