I fell in love with the period of the English Civil War when my father, who loved reading aloud, read me THE KING’S GENERAL by Daphne du Maurier. In hindsight it probably was not the most suitable book to read to an eight year old but it fired my imagination into what was to become a lifelong passion.
Du Maurier wrote the book during the dark days of World War II when her own husband, as she describes him in the dedication “Also a General but hopefully a more discreet one”, was away from her side. Renovations to her home Menabilly (that was later to also become Manderlay in “Rebecca”) during the nineteenth century had unearthed a secret room hidden in the buttress. In the room the skeleton of a young man, dressed in the clothes of a cavalier was found. With no clue to his identity, Du Maurier wove the story of The King’s General around this bit of local history.
The King’s General of the title is Sir Richard Grenville (grandson of the Elizabethan sailor immortalised in the poem “At Flores in the Azores, Sir Richard Grenville lay...”).
History is not kind to Sir Richard Grenville, his majesty’s general in the West country during the English Civil War. Even before the war had begun, his violent temper had destroyed his marriage to Mary Howard and earned him two spells of imprisonment. Escaping to the continent he filled in his time fighting in the continental wars until the King raised his standard at Nottingham in 1642. Sir Richard returned to England and initially showed his colours for Parliament, but it was an elaborate ploy to obtain men and money and once he had been given both, he joined the King at Oxford.
The years from 1643 to 1646 were marked by his temper, his hot headed responses and his refusal to accept the authority of superior commanders. Added to this were allegations of hanging prisoners without trial, extorting money for his own purse and other atrocities.
In January 1646 he was captured at Launceston and imprisoned on St. Michael’s Mount from where he escaped to the continent where his temper and impetuousness earned him the enmity of Clarendon and banishment from the exiled King’s Court. He died in Ghent in 1658 aged 57.
It is hard to find anything to love about the historical “Skellum” Grenville as contemporary accounts describe him but Du Maurier, who researched him extensively for her book, gave him a hitherto unknown humanity and the love of a good woman, the fictional Honor Harris. It’s not a romance, there is no happy ever after, but it is a love story and a good one too. I am rereading it again and had forgotten what an exceptional writer Du Maurier.was. If you love this period then read THE KING’S GENERAL and find out Du Maurier’s tragic solution to the skeleton in the buttress.
|Du Maurier and her family at Menabilly|
For a more authoritative and complete review than I have the room for here see AnnWindsor’s write up at http://www.dumaurier.org/reviews-general.html
Du Maurier's other seventeenth century book is the pirate tale Frenchman's Creek.