Friday, 19 February 2016

Book Review: The Loving Spirit by Daphne du Maurier
2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

We all know that love in all its forms is not just a strong emotion but also a very important driving force in life. And it can outlast death so we like to call it eternal. The mere idea of it makes us dream and not least because of this quality, love has always been a favourite topic of authors and readers alike. Bestselling lists prove that the romance genre keeps being enormously popular – and also very diverse since it comprises works considered as shallow chick lit as well as highbrow literature. The classical novel The Loving Spirit by Daphne du Maurier first published in 1931 is a sentimental family saga in the tradition of Emily Brontë. It recounts the lives of Janet Coombie and her descendants that through a hundred years remain connected and characterised just as much by a wandering as by a loving spirit passed on from generation to generation.

Daphne du Maurier was born in London, England, United Kingdom, in May 1907. Born into a family of artists and writers, she early set out on a literary career and published her debut novel titled The Loving Spirit in 1931. In 1932 she married Major Frederick Browning, but continued to write under her maiden name. During the following almost six decades her output of novels, short stories, three plays and some non-fiction was considerable. Her most famous works are the novels Jamaica Inn (1936), Rebecca (1938), The King’s General (1946), and The House on the Strand (1969) along with short “tales of terror” like The Birds (1952), The Apple Tree (1952), or Don’t Look Now (1971; also published as Doubleday) that have been adapted for the screen by renowned film directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Roeg. The author has been repeatedly accused of plagiarism regarding above all her novel Rebecca and the short story The Birds. Daphne du Maurier died Dame Daphne du Maurier, Lady Browning DBE, in Fowey, England, United Kingdom, in April 1989.

The central character of The Loving Spirit is Janet Coombie, a wild as well as fearless girl with a great passion for the sea and yearning to roam the world aboard one of the big sailing ships that pass off the coast of her small fictional town of Plyn in Cornwall. In 1830 only marriage and motherhood are open to her, though. Thus the novel begins on the day of her wedding to her second cousin Thomas Coombie. In twelve years the couple has four sons and two daughters. Janet loves her husband and all her children, but it’s her third-born Joseph with whom she is closest because he takes after her in physique as well as character and they understand each other without words.
 “… it was like a union of spirit defying time and eternity – something that had existed between them before birth, before their physical conception of each other. …”
While the other children don’t seem to mind, the youngest son Philip is resentful which makes him mean and sly sometimes. When he is of age, Joseph does what her sex prevented Janet to do: he becomes a sailor. His brothers Samuel and Herbert join their father in the thriving boat building business and Philip embarks on a career in the local shipbroking firm with the goal to get rich and take revenge on his family. Before long the Coombies decide to build their own ship for Joseph to captain as soon as he qualifies as a Master in the Merchant Service. On the day when the ship with the figurehead carved after her picture is ready for launch, Janet Coombie is very excited.
“… This was herself, this was she fulfilling her dream, placed there in the bows of the vessel which bore her name. She forgot everything but that her moment had come, the moment when she would become part of a ship – part of the sea for ever. …” 
Janet Coombie breaks down with heart failure, her loving spirit, however, lives on in Joseph, in her grandson Christopher and above all in her great-granddaughter Jennifer who together with her great-grandson John Stevens closes the circle of love.

As clearly as the romantic family saga follows The Loving Spirit of Janet Coombie through time, it breathes the literary spirit of Emily Brontë. Not only is the title of the book taken from a poem of the nineteenth-century writer, but also each of the four books – each focusing on one generation of the Coombie family represented by its title-giving protagonist, namely Janet, Joseph, Christopher, and eventually Jennifer – opens with selected verses from her pen. In many other respects the influence of Emily Brontë is obvious too. As critics like Michèle Roberts in her introduction to my edition of the book pointed out, writing her debut novel Daphne du Maurier liberally borrowed ideas and stylistic elements from Wuthering Heights, notably in the first book surrounding Janet Coombie herself, making it in fact a homage to the masterpiece of Emily Brontë. Also the frequent use of powerful images of Cornish landscape, fauna and flora in all kinds of weather to mirror the emotions or state of mind of the depicted character along with a poetic, sometimes archaic and, if need be, biblical language strongly reminds of the author’s much admired precursor. In addition, Daphne du Maurier achieved a good balance between the sentimental and the mysterious making it at the same time a touching and a gripping novel.

All things considered, I enjoyed The Loving Spirit by Daphne du Maurier quite a lot, more than her best-known novel Rebecca in fact. Admittedly, I didn't appreciate its sentimental side too much, but the dense and varied plot and the colourful and vivid characters made more than up for it. The author's debut novel certainly deserves to be read more often. Therefore I recommend it.

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