What it is: The Loving Spirit is a family saga spanning four generations of the Coombe family. It begins in 1830 with the story of Janet Coombe, a passionate young woman who abandoned her dreams of adventure when she marries her cousin Thomas, a boat builder and settles down to start a family, because that was what girls are supposed to do!
The book began in 1830 and ending in one hundred years later in the 1930s. Along the way we meet Janet’s son, Joseph, her grandson, Christopher, and finally her great-granddaughter, Jennifer. The book is divided into four parts, one devoted to each of the main characters.
The title is mentioned in Emily Brontë poem, Self-Interrogation, which inspired the title of this novel:
“Alas! The countless links are strong
That bind us to our clay;
The loving spirit lingers long,
And would not pass away!”
Janet’s has 6 children but has her favourite on Joseph, whose temperament is similar to Janet, in his thirst for adventure and free spirit. Joseph’s son Christopher Coombe however is a disappointment because he was afraid of the sea! Joseph’s daughter, Jennifer lives part of her life in London and through the call of home in the cornish coasts that she yearns to return to see her father’s ancestry home.
Janet’s loving spirit – the passionate yearning for adventure and for love – is passed down to her son, and through him to his children’s children and forms the link that bind the four generations. As generations of the family struggle against hardship and loss, family feud and marriages, their history is set against the backdrop of war and the decline of the shipyard and ship building industry.
What I thought:
I have mixed feeling about this book and I do wonder if I should be brutally honest and risk the wrath of Du Maurier’s fan or maintain my professionalism in reviewing this book?
You see, the whole idea is rather grandeur. The book opens up with diagram of a family tree and divided in four parts which gives the impression of the book being a saga. The book title draws impression from Emily Brontë’s poem which serves to impress the reader.
The family tree though is a problem.
I’m reading another book who has not one, but four sets of family trees and the book is called A Suitable Boy. While A Suitable Boy didn’t give me any clue about the plot, the ones in The Loving Spirit spoil it all, as soon as a love interest pops up in the life of these 4 Coombes, I know which one he or she will be married to. Imagine if the same happens to A Suitable Boy and I was told who Lata’s suitable boy would be in the family tree, where is the suspense and what is the point of reading about Lata’s pursuit for the suitable boy?!!
There are also a few faux pas which I thought an experienced writer wouldn’t commit; it is to bare all your intention and bare it all at the very beginning. For example (now this is going to be a bit of a spoiler), Christopher Coombe has wrote many letters to his father which Christopher received no reply. Jennifer was not even born yet and I was told that Jennifer found the letters while Christopher’s life was still under the limelight. Another example is the moment when Jennifer stepfather’s saw her and “He disliked her” straightaway. I think I like to make up my own mind if he really do!
Once I got all the above gripes out lets talk about the merit of this book.
The Coombe family live in Plyn, a fictional shipbuilding town on the coast of Cornwall, and you can expect some beautiful, vivid descriptions of the Cornish coastline, the sea and Plyn itself. Du Maurier is able to capture very well the essence of a adventurous woman’s yearning to be free yet bound by her duties and obligations to her family and the pain of her son Joseph leaving her to start his career as a seafarer was searing and moving.
“It was as if she had two selves; the one of a contented wife and mother, who listened to her husband’s plans and ceaseless talk of his great business and laughed at her baby’s prattle, and visited her own folk and the neighbours of Plyn, with a real pleasure and enjoyment of the happenings of her daily life; and another self, remote untrammelled, triumphant, who stood tiptoe on the hills, mist-hidden from the world and where the light of the sun shone upon her face, splendid and true.” – page 27
The love of Janet to her son Joseph was so strong that it almost seems a little perverse (I’m not sure if you sense it?). As Michele Robert’s introduction to the book says: “On one level this son-lover is an animus-figure like those found in Jungian interpretation of Fairytales, he who helps make a bridge for the woman into the wider world.” and Janet may be a dangerously possessive mother.
I am not a possessive mother but there were several occasions that it struck me that my sons could live my dreams. The dreams that I couldn’t achieve by virtue because I am a woman and therefore my first duty is with the family; I hope my sons achieve them in the future. In other parts of the world where women’s traditional roles are more entrenched, such as those in Middle East or Mediterranean I often wonder about the strong bonds between the mothers and their sons, and the root of such bonds. Are they stemmed from this reason? Anyway, that’s another topic for another day, I think.
“Someone (Janet Coombe) who knew that restlessness came from a rebellious mind, that fancied loneliness was the outcome of an awakening heart, that sleeplessness was due to the hunger of instinct, that dreams were the prelude to fulfilment, that fear was the tremor of a spirit craving completion”. – page 386
Getting the final word in:
The Loving Spirit is not Du Maurier’s best but it is page-turning entertainment that makes a rather good read. There are many other interesting supporting casts that was quite interesting. Du Maurier published this when she was 24-year-old, the writing shows signs of immaturity. It is also interesting to see how she has improved and it was not until she published “Jamaican Inn” that she became famous. The other 4 latter works that I have read: Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, Frenchmans Creek and My Cousin Rachel are all superb and polished.
If this book were part of a three-course meal, it would be the appetiser: nice but not yet satisfying. This book would whet your appetite for her other more accomplished work.
Have you read any debut novels by authors you love after reading their masterpieces? Did they give you a different feeling or distinct differences between their debut and masterpiece? I almost feel like this is my first experience that I could remember, perhaps I rarely read the debut novel after reading their masterpiece. How about you?
The book itself is based on the real life of Jane Slade of the Slade ship-building family of Polruan which all adds grist to the narrative mill and I have been reading Jane Doe’s book on her family alongside The Loving Spirit and to great atmospheric effect. The carved figurehead of Jane Slade which guided the ship bearing her name across the oceans of the world, and features so strongly in Daphne’s book as Janet Coombe, now resides proudly on the wall of Ferryside at Bodinnick, where Daphne wrote the book between October 1929 and January 1930, and is clearly visible to all who use the little ferry across the River Fowey there.
Paperback. Publisher: Picador 2010, originally published 1931; Length: 404 pages; Setting: Cornwall, England. Source: Own copy. Finished reading at: 21st September 2012.