The King’s General is not usually people’s first choice when they start to read Du Maurier’s novels. Most read her more famous novels: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel or Jamaica Inn. Yet this piece of historical fiction was my first Du Maurier novel and I first read it when I was a girl. To understand why you probably need to know something about my childhood. For the most part I’d been an active and lively tomboy, out climbing trees, riding ponies and gallivanting round the countryside with my younger brother. Then, when I was 11 years old I had an accident while somersaulting at school and ended up with two fractured vertebrae and a crushed disc in my spine. I was very lucky. The fractures were mid-thoracic and because they broke down and away from the spine my spinal cord was undamaged. I was centimetres away from becoming paraplegic. I missed the last few months of primary school, instead going up to the local grammar school in the autumn. The accident did cause long term problems though. A lack of proper rehabilitation meant the muscles around the break seized up affecting my ability to use my shoulder and arm. Even now, repetitive movements like typing or painting can seize up my whole right side. I have a chiropractor for regular acupuncture and manipulation to free up that side.
The Kings General was the first time I encountered an adult character with a disability. Of course before my accident I’d read Pollyanna, a rather saintly little girl who can’t walk after a fall and is still looking for things to be glad about. I’d also read the What Katy Did series where the spirited and tomboyish Katy has a fall from the yard swing and can’t walk. She spends a year as an ‘invalid’ and the experience quietens her and she learns to run a household from her bed, becoming a more tamed and acceptable version of femininity. The King’s General tells the story of Honor, a lively young woman who in 1653 decides to write her life story, based around the love she had for the charismatic soldier Richard Grenville. She then takes us back 30 years to when she was 10 years old and her brother Kit brings his bride Gartred back to the family home of Lanrest. Gartred is from the very important Grenville family and doesn’t make a great impression on the slightly more humble Harris family. She has a sharp tongue and Kit thought she flirted with other men, especially his brother Robin. For Honor their marriage is an eye opener and she learns a lesson about marriage:
“For the first time I realized, with something of a shock, that marriage was not the romantic fairy legend I had imagined it to be, but a great institution, a bargain between important families, with the tying-up of property.”
The marriage is short-lived as Kit dies from smallpox, and when Gartred leaves, Honor hopes to never see another Grenville again. Fate has something different in store as she encounters a dashing young soldier on her 18th birthday. She visits Plymouth Sound with her brother and sister to watch His Majesty’s Fleet sail into Plymouth Sound, followed by a banquet held by the Duke of Buckingham. Richard Grenville is quite sarcastic, even rude, and Honor has some barbed and witty exchanges with him. They immediately have a rapport and he actually shows his kinder side when Honor has to leave early. They meet in secret after this, often meeting in an apple tree at the bottom of the orchard where Honor likes to climb up and read. They’re clearly very compatible and start to fall in love with each other. Honor might just get the fairy tale after all as Richard decides to speak to her family and proposes marriage. However, their happiness comes to an abrupt end the day before their wedding when Honor has a terrible accident when they’re out hunting with falcons. Honor’s horse is spooked, becomes disoriented and falls into a ravine. Sadly, Honor’s injuries are serious as her legs and spine are shattered and she can no longer walk. Realising she will probably never walk or have children, she calls off the engagement and tells Richard to be happy with another woman. They don’t see each other until civil war breaks out and Honor must leave Lanrest where she was living alone to go to her sister’s house Menabilly. It is here where Honor will encounter Richard again. Will things have changed between them?
From this point in the story we start to get Du Maurier’s trademark mystery elements and as usual she is very adept at creating tension and suspicion. I really enjoyed the way that her two main characters are so linked to the land around them. Their emotions are often mirrored by the weather and landscape in a rather Brontë way. Her strength here though is in these characters, who love each other despite being able to see their flaws. Honor finds the older Richard bitter, proud and arrogant, but just as attractive as ever. However, he’s quite gentle and tender with Honor and there’s a scene where she even shows him her damaged legs. There’s a feel of Heathcliff about him in these war years, as he’s quite cruel. Honor observes that war seems to make beasts of men. I enjoyed this book because it showed me that an accident doesn’t have to stop you being you. Yes, experience changes us in some ways but her accident doesn’t stop Honor being adventurous or taking on a challenge. It also doesn’t mean she has to become quiet and ladylike. Most of all, Honor is still loved. Despite what happened Richard still loves her, and this was the first book that showed me life doesn’t stop because you have a disability.