The King’s General is one of Daphne Du Maurier’s historical novels, set at her beloved Menabilly in Cornwall. It takes place during the civil war and the events of the novel are drawn from true fact, inspired by the discovery of a skeleton in a hidden cell of Menabilly by a builder. From this fact Du Maurier wove fiction into the story, creating a beautiful and devastating love story. It is a story of love and heartbreak, and war.
The story is told from the eyes of Honor Harris, looking back on her youth. The novel begins with an account of Autumn, in typical Du Maurier style she evokes a feeling so strong you actually believe that you are there and that Autumn leaves are falling around you. Honor tells the story of when she meets Sir Richard Grenville – a soldier who becomes famed as ‘the King’s General in the West’ – she soon falls in love despite her initial dismissal and dislike of him, and his cold, offensive, aggressive manner, which upsets so many people.
Yet tragedy ensues. A little after they are engaged, Richard’s sister Gartred misguides Honor and she tumbles off her horse, crippling herself.
The lovers’ part and Honor is bound to her bed for the rest of her life, while Richard Grenville gallivants off, to lead his army, and his own life, free from any constraints which Honor is now bound to.
It is not until years later, when Honor is sent to Menabilly as the war worsens that their paths cross again. She learns of many of the secrets of the house and sees through her own eyes the comings and goings of the Royalist army who are fighting in Cornwall. She remains resident in the house when it is taken by enemy forces and experiences the hardships of war. She remains shrewd and cunning despite many others belief of her weakness and she plays her part in the war when it is necessary.
Honor reflects back on her life and the events which led up to her being positioned so. Despite all that happened, she accounts how she remains loyal to Richard, no matter what he does and no matter how wrong others think him.
The story contains Du Maurier’s typical darkness and charm, and an essence of nostalgia and loss also runs through it. A sense of longing runs throughout the novel, and it is tinged with this, amidst the wider topics of war and history, and the Cornish landscape to which it is set. The characters are complex and sometimes difficult to understand – Gartred’s actions for example can be very difficult to understand. The characters in the novel are mostly historical, although often romanticised. Yet this is the charm of the story. Honor herself is a very strong female character and her compelling narrative draws you in and makes you very sympathetic towards the characters. The places are very real as well, and being real it is very easy to imagine these locations and imagine the story taking place, even in the hundreds of years that divide the reader and the characters.
The novel is gripping, and one of those ones that you want to return to time after time. The characters become very real, and the terrors and heartache that they are put through as the war worsens become your own. Like all Du Maurier novels you become immersed in the story, and it becomes yours. There is a darkness and a sadness to the writing, and the imagery is haunting and beautiful. It is a novel which carries many of the same themes as her other works, but also contains its own magic and haunting message.
I become aware of a shadow, of a sudden droop of the sea, once far-off and a faint, comes louder now, creeping towards the sands. The tide has turned. Gone are the white stones and the cowrie shells. The sands are covered. My dreams are buried. And as darkness falls the flood-tide sweeps over the marshes and the land is covered. (page one-two)
(The Kings General, Daphne du Maurier (c) 1946)