a review by Rich Horton
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Back to a true Old Bestseller this week. The King's General was the bestselling book in the United States in 1946 according to Publishers' Weekly. (One review I saw called it a "modest bestseller" which makes me wonder what it would have taken for that person to call it a big bestseller?)
Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) was a very popular author and playwright. Her best known novel, by far, was Rebecca (1938), but novels such as Jamaica Inn, Frenchman's Creek, The Scapegoat, and the book at hand, The King's General, also attracted plenty of notice. She was treated very well by filmmakers, especially Alfred Hitchcock, who filmed Jamaica Inn, Rebecca (Best Picture winner in 1940), and The Birds (from a novella). Another movie often called "Hitchcockian", Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, comes from a du Maurier short story. Other significant films from du Maurier novels include Frenchman's Creek (starring Joan Fontaine), The Scapegoat (starring Alec Guinness), and My Cousin Rachel (starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland).
Du Maurier came from a literary family: her grandfather George du Maurier wrote the notorious 19th century novel Trilby, which introduced the term "Svengali" for a behind the scenes manipulator of another's career; and her sister Angela was also a writer. (Her father Gerald was an actor, and her other sister Jeanne was a painter.) She was also a cousin of the Llewellyn Davies family, whose boys were the inspiration for Peter Pan. Du Maurier became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, styled Lady Browning.
Du Maurier's critical reputation suffered because of her popularity, it seems to me ... at any rate, she seems to have felt that. Of Rebecca, for example, V. S. Pritchett said it would be "here today, gone tomorrow". Pritchett got that prediction rather spectacularly wrong. She was stereotyped as a romance novelist, though most of her novels have sad or ambiguous endings. Jennifer Weiner would probably have a field day analyzing her reviews.
For all that, I hadn't read any of her books, though I have copies of at least Jamaica Inn and The Scapegoat on my bookshelves, in addition to The King's General. I read the latter because the historical setting seemed interesting.
It's a story of the English Civil War. Du Maurier tells it from a deliberately unpromising viewpoint: the narrator, Honor Harris, is a crippled woman, remembering in 1653, shortly before her death, the events of the Civil War, from more or less the late '30s to 1648. She's a Royalist, but fully aware of the shortcomings of King Charles I, and of the mistakes and wrongs perpetuated by her side. As of 1653 Cromwell's tyranny (as she (and I, mostly) would see it), is at its peak. So we know that the novel will end badly -- Honor's side loses, and, because of her injuries, she never marries and dies fairly young.
Her respectably Cornish family becomes entangled with the more prominent Grenvile family when she is 10 (about 1620) as her older brother Kit falls for and marries Gartred Grenvile. Honor, even at that age, dislikes Gartred from the start, and her dislike is proven correct as Gartred is unfaithful to Kit, who soon after dies. A bit later Honor falls for Gartred's brother Richard, a brilliant soldier with a nasty temper and reputation, and they become engaged, but the engagement is broken off when Honor is paralyzed after a nasty fall from a horse, partially caused, it is suggested, by Gartred.
Years pass, and Richard Grenvile makes a disastrous marriage for money, fathering a son and a daughter before the marriage founders. Honor lives quietly at her family's home. Then the Civil War starts, setting family against family, even in mostly Royalist Cornwall. Honor stays with her sister's family at Menabilly (where du Maurier herself lived, and also the model for Manderley in Rebecca). She ends up saving Richard Grenvile's son from the Roundheads using a secret passage she discovers, even while dealing with more bad faith acts by Gartred.
Honor and Richard, despite her injuries, and Richard's mercurial temper, become closer than ever (though it's not clear they are actually lovers -- she may be unable, actually, because of her injuries). Richard is a key general in the Royalist Army, portrayed in the book (fairly accurately, it seems) as probably the most talented Royalist soldier but fatally flawed because he, er, doesn't play well with others. Richard has many other flaws, most notably his inability to deal with his son Dick, whom he hates because he is not very brave, and because he hates his mother. Honor, however, becomes close to Dick. Richard and his cause fail (as he would have it, because of the incompetence of the King and his advisers as well as some of Richard's officers), and he goes into exile, only to return for the abortive rising of 1648 in Cornwall, which fails, as this book has it, because of a truly wrenching piece of treachery by someone close to him.
The novel is, really, a true tragedy, portrayal of a brilliant but fatally flawed man. And du Maurier's portrayal works, in good part of because we end up believing that Honor truly loves Richard, but also sees his terrible failings. Honor herself is an involving protagonist, and an affecting case. Despite the mostly inactive main character, there is a plenty of action; and a pretty legitimate-seeming portrayal of the war in the West, and of the atrocities committed by both sides.
I wouldn't call it a masterwork, but it's enjoyable and interesting, and the decision to end it in 1653, at the lowest ebb, more or less, for its characters, is effective. (The real Honor Harris did die in 1653, and Richard Grenville (as the name is usually spelled) died in 1659, just before the Restoration. But his nephew, Jack Grenville, was a major supporter of Charles II, and was created Earl of Bath after the Restoration, so in the end Honor and Richard's side, in a sense, did make out OK.)