Eighteen year-old Honor Harris is looking forward to spending the rest of her life with the man she loves, however when a tragedy occurs on the eve of her wedding, the marriage never takes place. Fifteen years later, as England is divided by a civil war that pits neighbour against neighbour, Honor is sent to stay at Menabilly where she encounters her lost love, Richard Grenvile.
Despite her efforts to stay away from Richard, Honor finds herself drawn to him once more but the war complicates matters as Richard’s position as the king’s general has made him many enemies. Fully aware of his ruthless streak, Honor chooses to love him anyway and their blossoming relationship threatens to become scandalous. As the Parliamentarian forces take Cornwall, betrayal is never far away and Honor finds herself in grave danger.
Originally published in 1946, The King’s General was the first novel Daphne du Maurier wrote at her beloved Menabilly and it was inspired by the discovery of a skeleton in Cavalier dress while renovation work was being carried out. Du Maurier was delighted when the Rashleigh family allowed her to lease the property in 1943 and the research she did while refurbishing the place is very evident in the novel. Menabilly has been owned by the Rashleigh family since the sixteenth century and the house features heavily in The King’s General which is set during the English Civil War. As you would expect, the descriptions of the house and grounds are vividly portrayed through the eyes of Honor who falls in love with the house in the same way as du Maurier did, although the air of mystery evaporates once its secret is revealed.
Most of the people in the story are based on real historical characters, including the Rashleigh ancestors who are connected to Honor Harris through marriage, however du Maurier adds her own inimitable twist by blending fact and fiction so convincingly, it is hard to work out what’s real or not. Although the character of Honor Harris was inspired by a memorial plaque in Tywardreath, the events in The King’s General and her connections to the historical figures have been heavily fictionalised. Honor’s romance with Richard isn’t a typical romance because it seems to be beset by obstacles from the outset and Richard is so hard to like due to his belligerent nature. Based on the real Richard Grenvile, the character is a complicated one because he can be downright cruel at times, particularly towards his son, yet he is so loving towards Honor, you end up seeing him in a completely different light.
Du Maurier is so good at creating complex characters, with both good and bad traits, it totally confounds your expectations, and that leads me to the fascinating Gartred Grenville, the sister of Richard. Gartred is introduced as the villain of the piece from the moment she arrives at the Harris home as the wife of Honor’s oldest brother, Kit. And while it is clear Gartred likes to manipulate people for her own gain, du Maurier very deliberately clouds her motives to the extent we are never sure whether she deliberately engineers events or just takes advantage of them when they occur. The scenes between Honor and Gartred at Menabilly are wonderfully drawn with rich undertones.
Unfortunately, The King’s General is let down by its pacing as the middle section of the novel is dragged down by the tedium of the English Civil War and gets quite repetitive at times. While there can be no doubt du Maurier did a tremendous amount of research, there are just too many dry passages padding out the chapters until the next big event happens. It could’ve easily been trimmed to keep everything ticking along nicely. Although I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, the rising tension between two of the characters concludes in a very predictable way, yet we are cheated out of the big confrontation scene as it happens “off page” which is downright annoying.
While The King’s General is nowhere near being du Maurier’s best work, neither is it her worst so I guess I’m somewhere in the middle with this one.