Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Anchorage and Play in Frenchman's Creek: Children, Gender, and National Identity

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Anchorage and Play in Frenchman's Creek: Children, Gender, and National Identity

Article excerpt

`The children were still asleep, [...]. Poor Henrietta had been sick for the fourth time, and now lay pale and wan, a tiny edition of Harry, her golden head against the nurse's shoulder. James never stirred, his was the true sleep of babyhood.' (1) This brief sketch introduces to the narrative of Frenchman's Creek the children of its heroine, Dona St Columb. And, beyond subsequent notes that each child is marked by an improved glow of health, that Henrietta disliked dirty clothing, that James continued unsteady on his feet, and that both children resemble their father, no further elaboration is added to these constructions. And with so little detail, it would be very easy to dismiss these characters: to observe that they are superfluous to the novel. In such a frame of reference it would be easy to argue that the characters also exceed the requirements of genre. It would hardly be inconsistent with the conventions of the historical romance that play through Frenchman's Creek if Dona St Columb were childless. Nor would it be inconsistent with the heroine's constitution as a privileged eighteenth-century aristocrat if both children and nurse had been left behind in London as Dona embarked upon a precipitous flight to Cornwall in order to escape a boring husband and potential consequences arising from previous excitement-seeking escapades. The absence of children would not alter or undermine the details of the heroine's subsequent adventures and love affair with a French pirate whose ship lies at anchor in the eponymous creek. Nor would such an absence necessarily undermine what Alison Light suggests are the escapist pleasures of the text. (2)

On the contrary, given that escapist pleasures are constituted in opposition to historically specific social tensions, (3) the stratagem of a childless heroine would seemingly function to enhance the gratifications of a novel published within the discursive circuits of the Second World War. In these circuits, femininity is positioned in relation to `traditional' discourses of nurture and domesticity, as well as those specific to the mobilization of women into the war effort. In this discursive matrix, motherhood does not constitute an exemption from the additional demands of female mobilization. Rather, the specificities of wartime femininity are mapped on to existing configurations of motherhood and prescriptions of womanhood. And, a subsequent myth notwithstanding, these graftings and reformations were not supported by adequate or sufficient childcare provision. (4) It is more the case that patterns of childcare were typically ad hoc, largely informal, and totally out of step with wartime requirements for women's contributions to both paid and unpaid labour outside the domestic environment. (5) The contradictions, tensions, and responsibilities inherent in this discursive web constituted a hugely problematic female subjectivity that was frequently an uncomfortable position to occupy. From this perspective, the account of the heroine's flight in Frenchman's Creek can be read much more as a reiteration of the specific complexity of intersections between wartime femininity and discourses of childcare, than as the construction of an escapist fantasy.

Equally however, the account of the flight is also positioned as a prelude to the construction of subsequent oppositional pleasures when the heroine, relieved of the burden of childcare through the unlikely ministrations of a benign pirate crewman, encounters romance, passion, and adventure aboard a French pirate ship. In short, whilst the pleasures of the narrative hinge upon an exchange of childcare responsibilities between Dona St Columb and William the pirate, the initial deferral of those pleasures is also crucial to the play of the text. And notably, that deferral is produced in the relationship between heroine and children: a discursive interaction in which the two child characters secure both the terms of feminine responsibilities and the conditions of their release. …

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