If you asked me to name my favourite author I wouldn’t be able to give a definitive answer; there are so many that I love and I would find it hard to single one out. But one name that would always be high on my list is Daphne du Maurier. I’ve read twelve of her books now, including this one, and I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed all of them.
The King’s General is set in seventeenth century Cornwall, during the English Civil War. Our narrator is Honor Harris, whose family are Royalists fighting for the King against the Parliamentarians. Honor is eighteen years old when she meets and falls in love with Richard Grenvile but on the day before their wedding tragedy strikes and the marriage never takes place. As the years go by, Richard rises through the ranks of the army, marries another woman and has children, while Honor stays in the Harris family home and remains single.
As the war intensifies and the fighting spreads throughout Cornwall, Honor joins her sister and brother-in-law in the safety of their home, Menabilly, and here she meets Richard again for the first time in fifteen years. He has left his wife, bringing their fourteen-year-old son, Dick, with him, and is now commanding the Royalist forces as the King’s General in the West. Richard and Honor discover they still love each other as much as before and although she refuses to marry him, they begin an unusual relationship that withstands the war, betrayal and rebellion going on around them.
I wasn’t sure at first that I was going to like this book. The first chapter was very confusing – it’s narrated by an older Honor looking back on her life and reflecting on people and events that we know nothing about yet, before going back in time in the next chapter to tell her story from the beginning. But as soon as Honor and Richard had their first meeting on the battlements of Plymouth Castle I knew I needn’t have worried! After I finished the book I went back to re-read the first chapter and it did make a lot more sense.
The King’s General is historical fiction rather than the gothic suspense Daphne du Maurier is probably better known for, but there are still elements of the gothic here, mainly in the atmospheric descriptions of Menabilly with its secret tunnels, hidden chambers and mysterious noises in the night. Menabilly (the inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca) was du Maurier’s home in Cornwall and previously belonged to the Rashleighs, one of the families featured in The King’s General. It was apparently the story of a discovery at Menabilly by William Rashleigh in the 19th century that inspired the writing of this novel.
But while this book could be described as historical romance, as you might expect from du Maurier the romance between Richard and Honor is not a conventional one and neither of the two main characters is a typical romantic hero or heroine. Even people who like flawed characters (and I usually do) might have trouble with Richard as he is not a very pleasant person at all. He’s ruthless, arrogant and cruel and the way he treats his shy, nervous son Dick is particularly horrible. I couldn’t help thinking that his relationship, or lack of it, with Dick reminded me of Heathcliff’s with his son, Linton, in Wuthering Heights and of course, many of du Maurier’s books do have a strong Brontë influence. The only point in Richard’s favour is that he does seem to truly love Honor and in the scenes where they are alone we sometimes see a more human side to him. Honor herself is another strong and complex person. I didn’t always agree with the decisions she made but I admired her courage in helping to protect her family and friends throughout the war and her strength in dealing with the disaster that befell her early in the story. I deliberately haven’t told you exactly what this disaster was because if you can manage to avoid knowing before you start to read the book, it will probably have more impact!
Du Maurier had obviously put a lot of effort into her research for the novel. Although this is a fictional story, the various battles and other historical events in the book did take place as described and most of the characters were real people recorded in history, including both Richard Grenvile and Honor Harris. The Civil War (actually three separate wars between 1642 and 1651) is not a period of English history I have read much about. I know the basics that we were taught at school – that the Royalists (Cavaliers) were defeated by the Parliamentarians (Roundheads), and King Charles I was beheaded and replaced by the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell – but beyond that, I don’t know very much at all. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, because my total lack of knowledge of the Battle of Lostwithiel, for example, or the Siege of Plymouth Castle, meant that I never knew what was going to happen next.
While The King’s General doesn’t rank as one of my top three or four Daphne du Maurier novels I still loved it and am looking forward to the remaining du Maurier books I still haven’t read.