A Madder Caress, Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis
In 1918, writers Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis ran away to Cornwall together to begin one of the most sizzling affairs in literary history.
Daphne du Maurier describes the first time she saw Fowey Harbour. After a sometimes difficult youth, it was in Cornwall that she was to find herself, ‘both as a writer and a person'.
There was a smell in the air of tar and rope and rusted chain, a smell of tidal water. Down harbour, around the point, was open sea. Here was the freedom I desired, long sought-for, not yet known. Freedom to write, to walk, to wander, freedom to climb hills, to pull a boat, to be alone. It could not be mere chance that brought us to the ferry, and the bottom of Bodinnick hill, and so to the board upon the gate that said For Sale. I remembered a line from a forgotten book, where a lover looks for the first time upon his chosen one: “I for this, and this for me.” The cage was not fastened, and of the three doves I should be the first to fly. The way was open.
The other two doves were her sisters Angela and Jeanne. The siblings had been ‘cherished, loved, protected’, but kept within a gilded cage. Nineteen-year-old Daphne was the one who had felt the most constrained and she was now ‘ready for adventure’.
In 1926 she travelled from London with her mother, Muriel, and sisters in search of a holiday house. After a night spent in Looe (which Daphne described as claustrophobic) Muriel hired a car to take them twenty miles farther up the coast to Fowey. They travelled through lush rolling hills, then began a winding descent to sea level, towards the tiny settlement of Bodinnick. After numerous glimpses of the river Fowey through dense foilage:
The hired car swept round the curve of the hill, and suddenly the full expanse of Fowey harbour was spread beneath us…the sheet of wide water, the nearby jetties, the moored ships, the grey roofs of Fowey across the way, the clustering cottages of Polruan on the opposite hill by the harbour mouth…My spirits soared.
This was where her love affair with Cornwall began and her first novel, The Loving Spirit, would be conceived.
The women lunched in Bodinnick at the Ferry Inn. Beside the ferry was an unusual house ‘built like a Swiss chalet’ that was for sale. The ferryman said it was called Swiss Cottage. It was tall, to accommodate the building of boats underneath. Its first floor was used for lofts and the top floor for living quarters. It was perfect, they all were ‘mad about it’ and within a week the house was theirs.
Some months later they returned to inspect the extensive renovations that had been organised by the ever-capable Muriel. The ground floor where the boatyard had been was now one long living area, with a wide arched window overlooking the river and harbour. Renamed Ferryside, the house had a relaxed country atmosphere in contrast to the formality of their London home, Cannon Hall in Hampstead. The bedroom Daphne shared with Jeanne was the kind she had always dreamed of. Its windows faced both the estuary and the open sea and a doorway opened to the garden. From her bed she could hear the honking of ships’ horns and the cries of seagulls.
The women arranged finishing touches in preparation for the grand inspection by Daphne’s father, Gerald. They bought a motorboat which was moored just outside the house. It was painted red and renamed the Cora Ann after the heroine in The Ringer by Edgar Wallace. This play had been a hit at Gerald’s theatre, and the profits had funded this holiday home. They were anxious because Gerald could be tricky and difficult to please but his approval was granted – although he did say, ‘I should like to get some dynamite and blow up those houses opposite, with grey roofs.’
Ferryside became the family’s summer home and was visited by their many friends. The actress Viola Tree arrived by boat and, missing her footing at the landing, fell into the harbour.
She swam round in circles calling out, “Lovely, lovely” and emerged at last, a dripping curious figure, picture hat a little askew, and satin skirt covered in straw and mackerel scales.
That year the family celebrated Christmas at Ferryside. True to form, cousin Geoffrey groped Daphne’s knees under the table. She called him her Borgia brother, after the notorious Italian family. Despite the chimney smoking in the living room and problems with the boiler, it was declared a successful Christmas.
The day after her twentieth birthday (13 May, 1927), when the family returned to London, Daphne was allowed to stay on for a while:
I was on my own for the first time in my life. A Mrs Coombs came in to cook, but that didn’t count. I was free. I could come and go as I pleased, when I pleased.
She learned to row and scull, gut a fish and snare a rabbit. She swam naked in secret coves, climbed the hulls of abandoned boats, hiked all over the countryside and merrily trespassed in private estates:
The woody tang of a campfire. The seepy tread of a moorland bog…The splendid solitude of a grey manor house set deep amongst tall trees and rhododendrons growing wild…
The local walks satisfied her infinitely more than the tame ones she was used to on Hampstead Heath. For the rest of her life she would long for this place whenever she was elsewhere, writing in her diary while in London a little later:
… I am sick of my unhealthy lassitude, which comes from yawning over a fire, or breathing the stifling air in the tube, wearing tight hats and stupid shoes. I ought to be digging with a spade. I ought to be on the top of a cliff, running and running, and drinking in great draughts of sky, and grass, and sea.
In Cornwall, her dissatisfaction and depression lifted: ‘Oh the happiness of those first weeks!’
Daphne was soon friends with the villagers: the Couches, the Bunneys, the Hunkins and ‘little Miss Roberts waving from her cottage, her macaw Robert calling “Rob, Rob!” from the sea wall’. She also befriended the seamen who anchored their ships in a harbour busy with the trade in china clay.
She wrote in her diary:
I think Fowey means more to me that anything now. The river, the harbour, the sea. It’s much more than love for a person.
A local boatman, Adams, taught her how to helm and tack, and how to handle rough seas. ‘My time is spent in a sort of fatuous state of bliss and ridiculous concentration’, she wrote. As they fished for conger eels, Adams spoke about the past and told her stories about his family.
Daphne would take long walks beside the tidal river Pont Pill which had become a graveyard for the locally made wooden sailing boats. Her curiosity was piqued by the wreck of one of the schooners stranded on the mud flats, its figurehead still intact. Adams said the boat was the Jane Slade and had been named after his wife’s grandmother, who came from a family of ship builders in Polruan. He took Daphne to meet Jane’s grandson, Ernie Slade, who told her that Jane had taken over and expanded the ship building business after her husband’s death, an unusual achievement for a woman in the Victorian period. Ernie suggested Daphne visit Jane’s grave at Lanteglos Church, which soon became one of her favourite haunts. By the time she had to leave for London she knew the details of Jane Slade’s story by heart and hoped that one day Adams would let her read the family letters.
In London Daphne continued writing short stories, and eventually had two published in magazines. She secured a literary agent, the future publisher Michael Joseph, who was then working at Curtis Brown, and he encouraged her to write a novel.
Daphne was desperate to return to Ferryside for a decent spell so she could begin. Her parents finally permitted her to spend the autumn of 1928 there alone, provided she lodged with Miss Roberts. Convinced she was roughing it in the tiny cottage, she wrote to her ex governess, Tod: ‘It takes courage to crouch in a hip bath and use the outside lav.’ But the person to lug the hot water upstairs was Miss Roberts, who also washed her clothes, cooked her meals, and diplomatically looked the other way when Daphne tossed a sausage she didn’t want into the fire. Yet Miss Roberts grew fond of her young charge, who was appreciative and showed genuine interest in her life and the local gossip.
On 3rd October, Daphne began her first novel at Ferryside, seated at the window with a rug around her knees. The wild weather seemed apt for her seafaring story about the Jane Slade, which had been built in Polruan in 1870 by Christopher Slade, the son of its namesake. Daphne had researched the history of the ship and the lives of the Slade family, and Adams let her read the family letters in his possession: ‘They had about them a personal touch; it was almost as though I had opened up a coffin and looked upon the dead.’
By now she was familiar with the landscape around Fowey, its heron-haunted creeks and secret coves, and was determined to build a sense of place into her novel. Before she began, she had walked up to Polruan’s Castle Point on a night when the moon was high, and there was only the sound of water lapping the rocks.
It seemed to me that I was standing on the cliffs years hence with a grown-up son. I was a ghost, long dead, existing only in his thoughts. And from that I passed on to thinking about my unborn book. My thoughts were of a past and future no longer separated in time, and I knew it must be the story of four generations.
Daphne used her research on the Slade family as the vehicle to write her own interpretation of events. The name of the book, The Loving Spirit came to her early, taken from a line in an Emily Bronte poem:
Alas, the countless links are strong,
That bind us to our clay,
The loving spirit lingers long,
And would not pass away.
She wrote in her diary:
This, I feel, is what I wish it to be. And always, no matter what people say to me, there must be Truth. No striving after cleverness, nor cheap and readymade wit. Sincerity—beauty—purity.
Her obsession with the story was the start of a pattern which she later recognised as the ‘process of inspiration’ for all her novels, as described in her pictorial memoir, Enchanted Cornwall:
Something begins to well up in you; it’s irrepressible. Some dim sort of facet of the novel begins to well up in your own life. It’s a bit like having a baby, it grows inside you, it is an aspect of you, a second self. Then the time comes to sit down in front of the typewriter. When it’s over you’re purged and you feel a terrific sensation of relief, and then empty until the nagging feeling begins again.
She wrote in the mornings and after lunch with Miss Roberts would walk or row her boat until four o’clock, then she wrote for another three hours before dinner. Her evenings were for reading and early nights.
Daphne reserved Sundays for new people in her life. In Fowey, she met a woman who became her friend for life: Foy Quiller Couch, ‘It was a great day for me, when, after some preliminary gestures of friendship on the part of…Foy, I was invited to Sunday supper.’
Eight years older, Foy also had an independent spirit and a love of the sea. Years later Daphne wrote to her: ‘You are the greatest comfort to me always.’
Foy’s father, Sir Arthur, an eminent academic fondly known as ‘Q’. He became a valuable friend and literary mentor, who urged Daphne to focus on quality as against content. She appreciated this Cornish family’s quiet good humour and they restored her morale when her writing was not going well.
Foy introduced her to Lady Vyvyan whose 17th century home Trelowarren by the Helford river Daphne described as ‘the most beautiful imaginable’. They were unusual women, not the ‘nice’ type of girls that Daphne loathed. Together they would stride about the countryside: Daphne in her daring red slacks, Foy in a strange jumble of clothes, and the much older Clara wearing a beret atop the flowing hair she had never cut in her life. Years later Clara remembered them being turned away from one establishment because the proprietor mistook them for gypsies.
Once a month, Daphne agreed to accompany Miss Roberts to the Women’s Institute. She was both bemused and horrified by the proceedings. A Mrs Burghard would be seated at the piano,
…eyes fixed feverishly on a piece of music, demanding in frantic tones that some unseen presence should bring her her chariot of fire…My spirits sank as Mrs Morten from Truro announced that all over England a quarter of a million women were meeting together as we were doing…and finally reached zero when Mrs Burghard told us of a competition next month when every member was to make a lady’s handbag, the materials of which must not cost more than a shilling.
Within five weeks, Daphne had written 90,000 words and completed the first two parts of her novel, but the third part involved episodes set in London between 1888 and 1912, a period about which she knew little. Miss Roberts spread the news about this problem, and one Richard Bunt, from ‘up the hill and across the fields’, appeared. He lent her volumes of detailed histories that helped her over the impasse. ‘Oh these are my people, they really are,’ she wrote.
After Christmas in Hampstead Daphne returned to wind, rain and even snow. It was too cold to work at Ferryside so she set up in Miss Roberts’ sitting room. Buoyed by the news that one of her articles had been accepted for publication, she slogged away to the sound of Miss Robert’s quavering voice singing hymns in the background. At last, after 200,000 words and an enormous effort, she was done.
The novel is both a romance with Gothic elements and a family saga, tracking four generations of a family of boat builders in the seaside village of Plyn (Polruan). It begins with the marriage of Janet Coombe (Jane Slade) to her cousin, the serious, god fearing boatbuilder Thomas. Janet is a dreamer with ‘heathenish ways’. On the morning of her wedding she gazed from her window at the view across the harbour, her heart filled with:
strange unaccountable feelings, and she could name none of them. She loved Thomas dearly, but she knew in her soul there was something waiting for her greater than this love for Thomas. Something strong and primitive, lit with everlasting beauty.
One day it would come, but not yet.
The novel hinges on this faith in transcendence, a reaching for the sublime, and a love so powerful it overcomes the mundanities of daily existence. The intense emotional scenes are offset by lushly written passages describing the haunting beauty of this place:
Joseph felt the longing rise in his heart for Plyn. He wanted to look upon the quiet waters of the harbour, and the little cottages clustered about the hill, with the blue smoke curling from their crooked chimneys. He wanted to feel the cobbled stones of the old slip beneath his feet, where the nets were spread to dry in the sun, and where the blue-jerseyed fishermen leaned against the harbour wall. He wanted to hear the sound of the waves, splashing against the rocks below the Castle ruins, and the rustle of the trees in Truan woods, the movement of sheep and cattle in the hushed fields, the stirring of a rabbit in the high hedges that bordered the twisting lanes. He longed once more for the faces of simple folk, for the white wings of the crying gulls, and the call of the bells from Lanoc Church.
It concludes with a description of the figurehead of the Jane Slade. Ernie Slade retrieved it from the mud flats when the stranded boat was broken up, and gave it to Daphne.
Placed against the beam is the figurehead of a ship. She leans behind them all, a little white figure with her hands at her breast, her chin in the air, her eyes gazing towards the sea. High above the clustered houses and the grey waters of Plyn, the loving spirit smiles and is free.
The figurehead still hangs from a beam below what used to be Daphne’s bedroom window at Ferryside (see the picture). Daphne’s son Christopher, named after Jane Slade’s son, now lives there.
On the day she completed The Loving Spirit, Daphne walked across to Lanteglos (Lanoc) church to make a thanksgiving and visit Jane Slade’s grave. Michael Joseph’s response to the manuscript was enthusiastic. Daphne’s life as a published novelist was about to begin.
Aram Khachaturian – Spartacus, Performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
In an interview with Ray Plomley for Desert Island Discs Daphne du Maurier said her favourite piece of music was the Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from the ballet Spartacus by Aram Khachaturian. It’s a piece that ‘sends me’, she said, and she thought it would get her moving to do something on that desert island.
The piece was chosen as the theme music for The Onedin Line, a BBC television drama that screened in the early eighties about the rise of a nineteenth century shipping line. Daphne associated the music with this drama, and no doubt the image of the tall sailing ship that was featured in the opening and closing credits.
She chose the collected works of Jane Austen to read on the desert island, and her favourite luxury was to be whiskey and ginger ale.
Du Maurier country is lush and rolling, sometimes forested, with rivers, creeks, an estuary, and the beautiful deep harbour of Fowey. I had long wished to take the Hall Walk, an ancient circuit that links the villages of Polruan and Bodinnick with the town of Fowey. On a fine spring morning last year, I headed for Bodinnick.
This pretty hamlet is set on a steep hill, its cottages lining a lane that winds down to the harbour. At the bottom is the ferry that is known to have existed in various forms since at least the fourteenth century, and beside it lies Ferryside. There are no shops in Bodinnick, just a small church and the Old Ferry Inn, which is over four hundred years old.
A woman sweeping outside the Inn directed me to the start of the four mile Hall Walk . The path winds through forests, private farmland, and for part of the way, runs adjacent to the Pont Pill river where Daphne spotted the wreck of the Jane Slade.
As soon as I set out I found myself in a fairyland, alive with birdsong and carpeted with red campion, hawthorn blossom, bluebells, luxurious ferns, buttercups and cow parsley, and glorious views to my right of the glittering harbour, followed by the river.
A small settlement at Pont Pill marks the halfway mark between Bodinnick and Polruan, and here the river can be crossed by a small bridge. I took a detour inland, up the sunken hedge-lined lane to St Wyllow, known to locals as Lanteglos Church, where Jane Slade and her family are buried. There is another story connected to this church, to which I will return another time. The pictures you see of the church and Pont Pill river were taken at the end of autumn to give you a taste of a different season.
In the village of Polruan I stopped to chat to a landscape gardener who had created a stunning terraced garden, with wide, harbour views, ‘the best job I’ve ever had,’ he said. He told me the owner actually lived in the house all year round, a rare occurrence in many of these villages but welcome, as sometimes in winter he felt like he was the only one left in the village. His wife came from a very old Polruan family, ‘wicked, they were.’ He added that she had particularly olive skin, probably inherited from a Moroccan or Spanish seafaring descendant hundreds of years ago. Later I read about a local family called the Mixtows who had been particularly successful at piracy, making good use of their small creek and river frontage. I wondered if perhaps the gardener’s wife came from this notorious clan.
Boat building still takes place by the water’s edge, and there was plenty of activity there that day. To augment the small general store, a woman does the rounds of the village in a tiny truck, selling fresh produce from local farmers – the milk still comes in glass bottles. The coffee shop was busy with tradespeople, locals, dogs and the odd visitor. At the head of the estuary towards the open sea of St Austell Bay is the 14th century block house (also known as a castle); from here heavy chains had been stretched across the harbour to the second block house on the Fowey side, to keep undesirable ships out. Often, the undesirables represented the law, helping smuggling to flourish in these parts. There is an utterly timeless feel about this place.
After lunch I took the ferry across the harbour to the fine town of Fowey. John Betjeman described it as ‘a haunted town made for sailors and pedestrians.’ It has been an important port for centuries because its deep harbour was strategically placed to guard the entry to the English Channel. In medieval times, ships sailed from here loaded with Cornish tin, pilgrims departed for Spain, and it is still in use for the export of china clay. Ships have participated in significant warfare here, too. In 1347, forty-seven ships set out to assist Edward III in his siege of Calais, and during the reign of Elizabeth I, a ship owned by the local aristocracy, the Rashleighs, sailed with Sir Francis Drake against the Spanish Armada. The town centre has quaint, narrow streets filled with restaurants, cafes and pubs, with some buildings dating to the fifteenth century.
The best way to discover Daphne du Maurier country is on foot. There is very little parking in Bodinnick but there is a car park next to the ferry at Fowey (although it is expensive) and one above the town. Alternatively, parking is available at the top of the hill in Polruan. Don’t be tempted to take the back route by car from this car park to Polruan’s harbour as I once did. It’s hair raising as the steep lane becomes narrower and narrower, and some cars may be too wide to pass.
Here’s an extract from the documentary ‘The Make-Believe World of Daphne du Maurier’ that features Daphne talking about The Loving Spirit.
This film of Fowey and Bodinnick was shot in 1938, just twelve years after the du Mauriers arrived. Note that Daphne’s actor father, Gerald, is the one who is mentioned as they pass Ferryside, not Daphne.
And how it looks now – not much different.
The Hall Walk, the four-mile National Trust circuit joining Bodinnick, Polruan and Fowey.
A selection of du Maurier’s books both new and second hand can be bought at the bookshop opposite the Literary Centre: Bookends of Fowey
The Fowey Festival of Arts and Literature held each May attracts writers and artists from all around the country. In 2013 its name was changed from the Du Maurier Festival of Art and Literature in a bid to widen its appeal, but it still features talks about du Maurier, and the landscapes she made famous.
The official website for Daphne du Maurier is a very useful resource.
The Old Ferry Inn in Bodinnick is open for lunch and dinner, and accommodation is also available.
If you’re doing the Hall Walk you’ll be spoilt for choice for lunch in Fowey. Here are some Trip Advisor Recommendations.
Alternatively Polruan’s The Lugger Inn do a good lunch. It is down at the quay, just near the ferry to Fowey.
Another option for exploring du Maurier country is to take a boat trip. Here are some details for Fowey River Trips and Sea Cruises.
Details and history of the area can be found on the Lanteglos by Fowey Parish Council website.
And Visit Cornwall features suggestions for a host of different activities in Fowey from learning to sail to kayaking and paddleboarding.
Du Maurier, Daphne. Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornwall: Her Pictorial Memoir, Piers Dudgeon, 1995
Du Maurier, Daphne. Myself When Young, Virago, 2007
Du Maurier, Daphne. The Loving Spirit, Vintage, 2003
Du Maurier, Daphne. Vanishing Cornwall: The spirit and History of Cornwall, Penguin Books, 1972
Forster, Margaret. Daphne Du Maurier, Arrow, 1994
Macaskill, Hilary. Daphne du Maurier at Home, Frances Lincoln, 2003
Shallcross, Martin. The Private World of Daphne du Maurier, St Martin’s Press, 1992