On a foggy day in 1830 Cornwall, England, Janet Coombe (b. 1811) married her second cousin Thomas Coombe (b. 1805) in the little old church at Lanoc across the bay. Both were residents of the fictional riverine seaside village of Plyn. Hours before their wedding, standing together high on the hill above Plyn, Janet spoke puzzling words to cousin Thomas. She said: "Our children'll grow beside us, an' they'll be wed, and their children after them. We'll be old, and then the two of us at rest in Lanoc churchyard. ... An' here we be now, Thomas, not knowin' no reckonin' of it."
She contnued: "In a hundred years there'll be two others standin' here, Thomas, same as us now -- an' they'll be blood of our blood an' flesh of our flesh."
Thomas thought Janet talking wildly and from a different perspective from the preacher's Christianity. To which she replied: "... I reckon in my heart there's but one thing that matters; an' that's for you an' I to love each other, and them as comes after us" (Book One, Chapter I).
How right Janet Coombe was about what would happen on that same hill 100 years later. Flip through to the final two pages of THE LOVING SPIRIT (Book Four, Chapter Two, Chapter XI). There in 1930 Jennifer Coombe Stevens and her third cousin/husband of 2 1/2 years John Stevens meet on the hill above the village of Plyn. They are great grandchildren of Thomas and Janet Coombe. Echoing great grandmother Janet's words, young Jennifer, the very image of Janet at the same age, says: "Funny to think our fathers and mothers loved, and our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers -- perhaps they all said the things we've told each other, up here, on the top of Plyn hill in the morning sun."
Her husband wants only to think of the two of them, not their ancestors. Jennifer goes on, clinging to her husband but looking over his shoulder at something: "A hundred years ago there were two others standing here ... People of our blood, who belong to us"
They walk down to their house, where their great grandparents once lived. On a wall outside the nursery of two-year old Bill is the carved wooden figurehead of a long wrecked ship The Janet Coombe. "She leans beyond them all, a little white figure with her hands at her breast, her chin in the air, her eyes gazing toward the sea."
The following sentence ends this dazzling first novel: THE LOVING SPIRIT: "High above the clustered houses and the grey harbour waters of Plyn, the loving spirit smiles and is free."
There is more than a little of the historical fact-based gothic novels of Sir Walter Scott in Daphne du Maurier's THE LOVING SPIRIT. If you don't believe me, read Scott's two intertwined novels of the early Calvinist revolution in lowland Scotland, THE MONASTERY and THE ABBOT (both published in 1820, ten years before the opening of du Maurier's first novel). She was a great reader of Sir Walter.
In all three novels a guardian family spirit watches over generations of a family. For Daphne du Maurier that "loving spirit" is Janet Coombe. An unloving, destructive family spirit is that of her youngest son Philip, great uncle of 1930's Jennifer Coombe and John Stevens. Philip destroys the lives of Janet's beloved son Joseph and ruins the fortunes of Joseph's son Christopher, Jennifer's father. If at all possible, evil Philip will also deliberately ruin, indeed murder his great niece when she returns from growing up in London to confront and haunt Philip. For Jennifer seems Janet reincarnated to miserly but very successful, nearing death Philip Coombe.
Five generations of Coombes (if you count baby Bill born 1928) interact almost as if there were no time or death. They may leave Cornwall and Plyn for a time. But all are drawn back. Place matters. The sea matters. Sailing ships and even skiffs and rowboats matter.
Certain preternatural gifts run in this family. Dying relatively young, Janet Coombe's loving spirit removes to the figurehead of the sailing vessel built to honor her and named for her. Her sons and others consult her either as figurehead or when visited by her in visions. Her great grandson John Stevens, who owns the wreck of The Janet Coombe, often consults Janet's spirit. At times John resents Janet's loving watching over him: "Janet Coombe was a decided nuisance. She was always bent on telling him what to do. Of course, it had been she who had suggested starting the shipbuilding yard, but now that this was accomplished he was hanged if he would listen to her any more. It was all his imagination anyway, she was only a bit of painted wood" (Book Four, Ch. X).
Fortunately for his future wife Jennifer, John acted on the warning of that bit of painted wood that Jennifer was in mortal danger from her uncle Philip. Otherwise what might have been?
I hope that this little review of an easily read, amazingly good first novel, gives you enough information to make up your mind whether to read it or not.
What did you think of this review?