On the jacket of du Maurier’s Vanishing Cornwall, an unidentified author wrote that “Cornwall has provided the writer with the background for her most famous novels: Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, The King’s General, My Cousin Rachel, and The House on the Strand.” (The Loving Spirit and Rule Britannia are also set in Cornwall.) While it is true that the Cornwall scenes du Maurier saw inspired her, du Maurier was far too creative to use in her novels the settings she loved unaltered. In each book, she changes settings to arrive at the atmosphere—or details—she wants. Visitors to Cornwall even shortly after a book was published could not, using the descriptions in her books, find the settings she describes.
Table of Contents
- The Loving Spirit, 1929
- Jamaica Inn, 1936
- Rebecca, 1938
- Frenchman’s Creek, 1941
- The King’s General, 1946
- My Cousin Rachel, 1951
- The House on the Strand, 1969
- Rule Britannia, 1972
The Loving Spirit, 1929
Du Maurier first visited Cornwall as a child, and when she returned, she became more and more infatuated with what she saw: the villages, the water, the boats, the moors and some of the buildings. She fell in love with the area around Fowey, in Southeast Cornwall. This is how she first saw it:
The du Mauriers drove down the startlingly steep hill into Bodinnick and saw Fowey across the estuary, spread out along the waterfront with woods behind. The houses, painted grey and white, with the occasional touch of blue and pink and yellow, were all different shapes and ages, and hugging the sea so closely gave a first impression of some Mediterranean village. (Forster 44)
The du Mauriers rented houses until they brought Ferryside, next to the Bodinnick ferry, in Fowey. In 1927, the repairs and renovation of Ferryside were completed, and the family moved in. When her parents gave her permission to spend the winter at Ferryside, she began there her first novel, The Loving Spirit. Its setting is a mix of what she saw in Cornwall, although somewhat rearranged, and what she imagined. She wrote that the inspiration for the book occurred during a walk along Port Creek, an estuary separating the Bodinnick and Polruan, when she saw the wreck of an old boat, the Jane Slade (Shallcross, Private World 41). She became interested in the Slade family, and drew on their history for The Loving Spirit, although in the book, the Slades became the Coombes. Her first heroine was Janet Coombes, and Polruan became the fictional fishing village of Plyn. The Loving Spirit covers the family’s adventures and misadventures from 1830 to 1930.
The Loving Spirit is a romance, a tragedy, and a ghost story, and is imbued with the feeling of a seaside town. Du Maurier focuses on the tides, the storms, the shipyard, the wrecks. But only rarely does she utilize the detailed and exquisite descriptions of settings found in some of her later books.
When du Maurier describes a particular setting in a particular season, her great talent is revealed, even at this early date. We see Plyn in the fall through the eyes of Janet, her first heroine (1830-1863):
It was autumn, the time of year that she and Joseph loved the best. The ripe corn was cut, and the rough edges that were left were short and prickly stubby to the feet. The hedges were bright with hips and haws, and in the gardens in Plyn drooped the scarlet fuscias. Down in Polmear Vally near Lanoc Church the golden bracken was waist high and soft lichen clung to the branches of the trees. The farms smelt of manure, and of the bitter wood smoke that rose from the bonfire of the fallen leaves. (du Maurier, The Loving Spirit 94)
When Christopher Coombe (1888-1912), who has lived in exile in London for years, returns to Plyn, he sees from the train:
The wide river stretching and turning away, the first sight of Truan woods fresh with their young greens, the banks of yellow primroses clustered in the low valleys, and a glimpse of a blue carpet spread beneath the shivering trees, a carpet of bluebells and soft violets…(The Loving Spirit 292)
And Plyn through the eyes of Jennifer Coombe, the last heroine (1912-1930):
Although the sun is already high in the heavens, the little town is still wrapped in an early morning mist…The tide is ebbing, the quiet waters escape silently from the harbor and become one with the sea, unruffled and undisturbed. No straggling cloud, no hollow wind breaking the calm bearing of the still white sky. (The Loving Spirit 448)
As Shallcross wrote, “Real Cornish locations were peopled from her imagination, real events were heightened into a gripping story. The use of Cornish people, town and countryside was a formula to which she would return, and which would bring her world-wide fame” (Shallcross, Private World 41).
Jamaica Inn, 1936
Jamaica Inn, a novel about wrecking and smuggling in the 1800s, takes its title from an eighteenth-century inn in Bolventor, about 12 miles from Bodnin, along the A30. Jamaica Inn still stands, but not with the menacing presence that du Maurier gives it. (Indeed, it never did show that frightening face. Shortly after the novel was published, perhaps to clarify the difference between the fictional and the fact, du Maurier wrote that “Jamaica Inn stands today, hospitable and kindly, a temperance house on the twenty-mile road between Bodnin and Lancaster” [Shallcross, Private World 47].)
As to how she came to write Jamaica Inn, du Maurier told her friend and biographer Martyn Shallcross, “I developed the idea for Jamaica Inn during an expedition with my friend Foy Quiller-Couch when we visited the Jamaica Inn on horseback (in the 1930s). I had just begun Treasure Island as bedtime reading, and that is when the characters began to develop, and the idea of Jamaica Inn, with wrecking and smuggling, became clear to me” (Shallcross, Private World 47).
The gray slate inn, with its tall chimneys, forbidding and uninhabited though it seemed, was the only dwelling place on the landscape…grim and hateful was this new country…barren and untilled, with Jamaica Inn standing alone upon the hill as a buffer to the four winds…
The house and outbuildings formed three sides of the little square that was the yard, in the centre of which was a grass bank and a drinking trough…as far as her eyes could see there was nothing but the black hills and the moors…” (du Maurier, Jamaica Inn 37)
Later on, when Mary leaves Jamaica Inn:
…she looked up at Jamaica Inn, sinister and gray in the approaching dusk, the windows barred; she thought of the horrors the house had witnessed, the secrets now embedded in its walls…and she turned away from it, as one turns instinctively from a house of the dead. (Jamaica Inn 227)
The choice of a real site, and how she alters it to fit the plot, is an example of du Maurier’s creative ability.
As a young adult, du Maurier read about Menabilly, the home of the Rashleigh family. She learned that it was built in the time of Queen Elizabeth and had always been owned by the Rashleighs, but that the current owner, Dr. John Rashleigh, lived elsewhere, and the house was closed.
In the early 1930s, she and her sister, Angela, set out on foot to find Menabilly, invisible from public roads. They found the lodge at the Four Turnings, and walked down the three-mile-long drive. When dark approached, they were forced to turn back before reaching the house.
But du Maurier did not forget about Menabilly, and in the Spring, she made her way to it. For fifteen years, she visited the house, trespassing for hours at a time, even climbing through a window to explore the interior. She later asked and received permission from the owner to stroll through the grounds (Shallcross, du Maurier Country 52).
But not until 1943, when she visited Menabilly again, and felt that it had been “left to decay” (Shallcross, The Private World 91), did she decide to try to rent it. (It was entailed, and could not be sold.) She was able to rent it for twenty-four years, and spent a fortune restoring it.
Rebecca was the first novel that featured Menabilly. Du Maurier began Rebecca when she was in Egypt with her soldier husband, and homesick for Cornwall. Some of the interior scenes were taken from Milton, near Peterborough, the ancestral home of the Fitzwilliam family, a house du Maurier visited as a child. “The entrance hall at Milton is exactly as I described it in Rebecca,” she told Shallcross (Shallcross, du Maurier Country 47). She transplanted to the Menabilly setting a large house, similar to Milton. (Menabilly was “modest in size, two-storied, long and low, unadorned, a quiet-looking house” [Forster 59].) The outdoor setting of Rebecca is drawn from the grounds of Menabilly. The beach house in the cove at Menabilly became the beach cottage in Rebecca, and a small cove, Pollcerris, became Kerrith (Shallcross, du Maurier Country 64).
Du Maurier told Shallcross that “‘Years ago when I first visited Fowey, I walked across to Pridmouth Bay and there I saw a wrecked boat on the beach.’ Later, looking backward, she made that beach the setting for Rebecca’s murder and the wreck of her boat” (Shallcross, Private World 66).
The drive wound away in front of me twisting and turning…The woods, always a menace…had triumphed…They crowded, dark and uncontrolled to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head… (du Maurier, Rebecca 1)
Du Maurier told Shallcross, “That is the drive I had in mind when I wrote Rebecca” (Shallcross, du Maurier Country 51).
Rebecca is crammed with secrets and revelations. It is the most Gothic of du Maurier’s novels, including as it does a typical Gothic feature—an innocent, unsophisticated young woman finding herself in a dangerous world. She learns that Maxim murdered Rebecca, and is haunted by Rebecca’s memory during her time at Manderley.
When Maxim and the innocent and nameless narrator of Rebecca learn that Rebecca had a terminal illness (a convenient motive for suicide, although in fact de Winter murdered her), they are relieved, as Rebecca’s cousin has insisted she would never have killed herself, and is forcing an investigation. But when returning to Manderley, after their talk with Rebecca’s doctor, they see strange lights in the distance:
“Maxim,” I said. “Maxim, what is it?”
He drove faster, much faster. We topped the hill before us and saw Lanyon lying in a hollow at our feet. There to the left of us was the silver streak of the river, widening to the estuary at Kerrith six miles away. The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blow towards us with the salt wind from the sea. (Rebecca 380)
The first lines of Rebecca are, in fact, an epilogue: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” (Rebecca 1). “Manderley was no more” (Rebecca 4).
Frenchman’s Creek, 1941
Frenchman’s Creek is set in the seventeenth century during the reign of Charles II. In it, the glamorous (and married with two children) Lady St. Columb, tired of her fashionable London life, escapes to Cornwall to Navron House, owned by her husband’s family, and standing empty. Navron “was based on one of the old houses on the Helford” (Shallcross, du Maurier Country 76). Part of Lady St. Columb’s holiday involves an affair with a dashing French pirate. The name “Frenchman’s Creek” preceded the book. Du Maurier learned from her research that French sailors and pirates often visited the area with contraband and alcohol to sell to Cornwall residents. The name of the creek and its history inspired her story.
The book opens with wonderful descriptions of Cornwall:
When the east wind blows up Helford River the shining waters become troubled and disturbed and the little waves beat angrily upon the sandy shores. The short seas break above the bar at ebb-tide, and the waders fly inland to the mud-flats, their wings skimming the surface, and calling to one another as they go. Only the gulls remain, wheeling and crying above the foam, diving now and again in search of food, their grey feathers glistening with the salt spray.
The long rollers of the Channel, travelling from beyond Lizard point, follow hard upon the steep seas at the river mouth, and mingling with the surge and wash of deep sea water comes the brown tide, swollen with the last rains and brackish from the mud, bearing upon its face dead twigs and straws, and strange forgotten things, leaves too early fallen, young birds, and the buds of flowers. (du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek 1)
The turbulence of the water is perhaps symbolic of Lady St. Columb’s state of mind.
In 1991, Shallcross wrote that Frenchman’s Creek “owes its genesis to a real place. The Helford River and its surrounding countryside is difficult to find, and many people believe that Frenchman’s Creek does not exist—it is perhaps one of the most remote and elusive landscapes in the du Maurier canon” (Shallcross, Private World 86).
Du Maurier first visited Frenchman’s Creek during her honeymoon in 1932. “It was completely captivating; never had [she] seen such a tranquil setting” (Shallcross, Private World 86). Despite her description of its tranquility, her story of Frenchman’s Creek is violent: the heroine is nearly raped, and kills her would-be rapist. “The Frenchman” is about to be hanged when Lady St. Columb helps him escape. He returns to France, and she returns to her husband. Her adventurous days are over. (The man she killed is thought to have died accidentally.)
The King’s General, 1946
The narrator of this book, Honor Harris (d. 1653), is engaged to Richard Grenville (d. 1659), grandson of the legendary Sir Richard Grenville of Stowe on Stratton “who won immortality when he fought fifty-two Spanish galleons from the deck of his small ship, Revenge, and died while doing so” (du Maurier, Vanishing Cornwall 88). On her eighteenth birthday, Honor is crippled—permanently unable to walk—while riding, and because she cannot be his lover or bear his children, withdraws from the engagement. The lovers meet again fifteen years later during the 1640s war, during which Sir Richard served King Charles. (His epitaph: Sir Richard Grenville, the King’s General in the West.)
Honor has lived in a house called Lanrest, but when war broke out, was forced to move to the relative safety of Menabilly, where her sister, Mary (who had married a Rashleigh), lived, and where other relatives were already sheltering.
In this dark and grim book, du Maurier uses her talent for describing settings, first depicting Menabilly as it was when Honor arrives:
…we turned down from the highway into the park and I saw the great stone mansion…The gardens were extensive, surrounded by high walls, and laid out to the eastward on rising ground, which, when the summit was reached, looked down over dense woodland across to further hills and the highway that ran down to Fowey, three miles distant. To the south lay pasture land and farm buildings and another pleasure garden, also walled, which had above it a high causeway leading to a summerhouse, fashioned like a tower with long leaded windows, commanding a fine view of the seat and the Gribben Head. (du Maurier, The King’s General 79, 82)
Menabilly after its destruction by the rebels:
More than three hundred of the sheep had already been slaughtered, thirty fatted bullocks, and sixty store bullocks. All the draught oxen taken, and all the farm horses, some forty of these in number. A dozen or so hogs were left out of the eighty there had been, and these would all be gone before the week was out. The last year’s corn had vanished the first week of the rebel occupation, and now they had stripped the new, leaving no single blade to be harvested. There was nothing left, of course, of the farm wagons, or carts, or farming tools. These had all been taken. And the sheds where the winter fuel had been stored were as bare as the granaries. (The King’s General 202)
…the sound of the ripping wood, the breaking of the furniture, the hacking to pieces of the great dining table….The first thing that was thrown down to us across the hall, torn and split, was the portrait of the King, and even the muddied heel that had been ground upon the features, and the great crack across the mouth, had not distorted those melancholy eyes that stared up at us without complaint from the wrecked canvas. (The King’s General 213)
…the panels [were] ripped, the floors torn open, the windows shattered from their frames, and all the while the driving rain that had neither doors nor windows now to bar it, blew in…with great flakes of charred timber and full soot from the burning rubble in the courtyard… the black churning slough that once was road and park. (The King’s General 218)
When the book ends, Sir Richard is in exile, and Honor and a surviving brother live in a small house, dependent on the charity of the Rashleighs.
My Cousin Rachel, 1951
“They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days” is the first line of My Cousin Rachel. The Four Turnings crossroad was a real place. Du Maurier’s research revealed that a gibbet once stood there, and men were hung there for stealing and other crimes, their bodies left dangling for days as a grisly warning to others (Shallcross, The Private World 127).
Du Maurier sets My Cousin Rachel in Menabilly and its grounds, although some of the local names have been changed, and the sunken garden where Rachel dies is an imagined addition. The name Ashley, in whose house the story takes place, is taken from Rashleigh, the owners of Menabilly. (Du Maurier was fascinated by the Rashleigh family, and the name appears in several of her novels.)
In My Cousin Rachel, Philip, the narrator, has learned that his cousin Ambrose has married Rachel in Italy, and shortly before he died, Ambrose wrote that Rachel had poisoned him. Ambrose suspects that Rachel is involved with Rainaldi, her Italian friend and constant companion. Philip travels to Italy, but his cousin is dead, and Rachel has left the country. Rachel, apparently unaware of Ambrose’s accusations, comes to Cornwall, and despite his suspicion of her, Philip invites Rachel to stay at the house he now owns.
Gradually Philip falls in love with Rachel, although he is still troubled by his cousin’s accusations. Rachel shows no sign of returning his love, but he is certain she will come to love him, and is gloriously happy. As du Maurier often did, she shows us Cornwall in a joyous season, matching her character’s mood:
……the first days of Spring came, being in themselves a blend of torment and delight. Blackbird and Chaffinch sang beneath our windows on first waking. Leaning out, looking over the meadows to the sea. The ewes and the young lambs. Lapwings came in a little cloud… Down on the shore the curlews whistled. The air had a zest to it, salt-tasting, under the sun. (du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel 232)
But long after Ambrose’s death, Philip receives a missent letter from Ambrose reaffirming his suspicion of Rachel, again raising the possibility that Rachel is poisoning him, and again stating that he thinks she is involved with Rainaldi. Philip is uncertain about Rachel, but too much in love to be sensible.
Philip transfers his entire estate—money, land and jewelry—to Rachel, and she allows him to make love to her. He believes she has agreed to marry him, but the next day she denies that she has ever encouraged him to think that she will marry him. Rachel invites a female companion to stay with her, keeping him away from her. He is deeply hurt.
Suddenly, Philip is very ill, and comes close to dying. When he wakes (or comes out of his coma) weeks later, he has dreamed that they are married, and believes that the wedding has in fact taken place. She tells him he’s mistaken. He discovers she has been meeting Rainaldi secretly, and plans to return to Italy. He also learns that she has been sending money out of the country.
He is warned by Tamlyn the gardener about the poisonous nature of the seeds of the Laburnum Rachel has planted: “‘There was a fellow the other side of St. Austell who died eating those,’ said Tamlyn” (My Cousin Rachel 336). Philip recalls that he saw Laburnum in Rachel’s garden in Italy. He searches Rachel’s room for letters from Rainaldi, and finds an envelope containing Laburnum seeds. He is convinced they were used to kill Ambrose and that they are being used to kill him.
The weather changes with his mood:
The bluster that should have been in February and March had come at last. Gone was the mellow warmth of the past weeks, the smooth sea, and the sun. Great clouds with dragging tails, black-edged and filled with rain, came scudding from the west, and now and again with sudden bursting fury emptied themselves as hail. The sea was a turmoil in the western bay. (My Cousin Rachel 314)
Philip is now convinced that Rachel is a murderer. When the gardener warns him against walking “on the bridgeway we are building across the sunken garden” because the framework “doesn’t bear no weight” and “anyone stepping on it, thinking to cross to the further side, could fall and break their neck,” (My Cousin Rachel 370) Philip deliberately fails to warn Rachel, and she does fall and break her neck.
After she died, Philip is no longer sure that Rachel was a murderer. But he knows that he is a murderer. Hence the final line: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though” (My Cousin Rachel 383).
Martyn Shallcross wrote that du Maurier often said that “Everyone asks me was Rachel innocent or guilty. Do you know, I could never make up my mind about that—actually I think Rachel was the culprit” (Shallcross, Private World 125).
The House on the Strand, 1969
When in 1969 the Rashleighs decided to move back into Menabilly, du Maurier, forced to leave the house she loved, moved into Kilmarth, the Menabilly dower house, half a mile or so from Menabilly. Kilmarth (which means “Retreat of Mark’s” in Cornish) was described by Shallcross as “a fine old building overlooking the great sweep of Par Bay” (Shallcross, Private World 157). Du Maurier was to live in Kilmarth until her death in 1989, and she became interested in the history of the house.
Kilmarth’s fourteenth-century foundation, and “the animal embryos and other intriguing things” (Shallcross, Private World 162) left behind by a previous tenant were part of the inspiration for The House on the Strand, a time-travel novel in which the action takes place in and around Kilmarth, in both the twentieth century, and the fourteenth century. Du Maurier learned that in the fourteenth century a priory had stood nearby, was fascinated by it, and featured it in the book.
In The House on the Strand, the male narrator, Dick Young, is vacationing in a borrowed house (Kilmarth), and is persuaded by its owner, his friend Professor Magnus Lane, to take an experimental drug allowing him to visit the past, and see the land on which Kilmarth stood in the fourteenth century. When he arrived in the fourteenth century, he saw that the land was far less developed, with fewer buildings and people, but with buildings that no longer existed in the twentieth century, including the priory. He saw:
Small dwellings, thatch-roofed, squat, clustered around a sprawling green on which where pigs, geese, chickens, two or three hobbled ponies, and the inevitable prowling dogs… The church was smaller and had no tower, and forming part of it ran a long low building of stone, the whole encompassed by stone walls. Within this enclosure were orchards, gardens, outbuildings, a wooded copse and beneath the copse, the land sloped to a valley, and up that valley came the long arm of the Sea. (du Maurier, The House on the Strand 5)
Kilmarth lay beyond the little wood. There below in the hollow lay a dwelling, stone-built, thatched, encircled by a yard deep in mud… I recognized one thing only, the scoop of the land in which the dwelling lay. (The House on the Strand 9)
When he returned to the present, he tried to compare what he saw with what exists:
I…looked up the street, then back again to the church. None of it fitted. The green where the people had so lately crowded must have covered all the present area, and beyond it too, where the modern road turned uphill. The Priory yard would have been in that hollow below the gents’ hairdresser, boundering the east wall of the churchyard, and the Priory itself, according to one theory mentioned by the vicar, filled the entire space that the southern portion of the churchyard held today. I closed my eyes. I saw the entrance, the quadrangle, the long narrow building forming kitchens and refectory, monks’ dormitory, chapter house, where the reception had been held, and the Prior’s chamber above. Then I opened them again, but the pieces did not fit, and the church tower threw my jigsaw puzzle out of balance. It was no good. Nothing tallied save the lie of the land. (The House on the Strand 37)
Young became more and more interested in the past, and less interested in his wife and his stepsons—her two children by a previous marriage. They join him at Kilmarth for a summer vacation, but he is annoyed by their presence, which interferes with his time travel. His wife is offended by his behavior.
The story moves towards two horrific climaxes. Rich’s friend, Magnus, experimenting with the time travel drug, is killed by a train, when he is in a location that in the fourteenth century held no danger, but is a train track in the present. In his will, he leaves Kilmarth to Dick, whose family want to move back to the United States (his wife and her children are American). But he is determined to live in the house. The marriage, strained by Dick’s strange behavior and the different desires about where they will live, comes to an end, and his family departs.
Dick continues to use the time travel medicine, although he has many odd physical symptoms. Even when he learns that the drug “contains a substance of some toxicity that could seriously affect the central nervous system, possibly leading to paralysis,” he continues to take it (The House on the Strand 289).
On the final page, Dick “crossed the room to answer [the telephone] but a silly thing happened as [he] picked up the receiver. [He] couldn’t hold it properly: [his] fingers and palm went numb, and it slipped out of [his] grip and crashed to the floor” (The House on the Strand 289).
Rule Britannia, 1972, is du Maurier’s last novel, and a major departure from her earlier works, in both style and substance. It is set in the future and in it, the United States Army occupies Cornwall. The book has been described as “bleak and bizarre” (Introduction, Rule Britannia vii).
Although the book is a protest against the invasion of tourists and a defense of the landscape du Maurier loved, it is not devoted to the beauty of the land, but is very political. There are few, if any, descriptions of the setting.