Once again I am taking part in Ali’s Daphne Du Maurier Reading Week – a celebration of the work of Cornwall’s finest. I am really grateful to Ali for hosting this event, as I don’t think I would have pushed myself to read so much of her work.
The cold walls of Jamaica Inn smelt of guilt and deceit. Its dark secrets made the very name a byword for terror among honest Cornish folk
As with many of Du Maurier’s novels, Jamaica Inn begins with a journey, in this case, a very inauspicious one. Mary Yellen is 23 and all alone in the world. Her mother’s dying wish was that she not stay alone, but go and live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss at their establishment, Jamaica Inn.
Mary soon realises that honouring her mother’s wish may have been a mistake. ‘That’s no place for a girl’ says her visibly anxious coach driver, who has no wish to linger at the isolated and menacing inn. The depth of her mother’s mistake soon becomes apparent as Mary finds her Aunt Patience to be a pale, terrified shadow of her former self, living in terror of Joss and his violent rages and bouts of drinking.
And what of the mysterious wagons and men who come to Jamaica Inn in the middle of the night? Mary makes the assumption that Joss is nothing more than a cowardly drunk who keeps Jamaica Inn as a barely disguised front for his smuggling business, but during a session of heavy drinking, Joss admits the horrifying truth to Mary and it is worse than she could ever have imagined.
But who can she turn to? She is attracted to Joss’s younger handsome brother Jem, a horse thief who claims he is nothing like his brother, but can he be trusted? A better bet is the local vicar, Francis Davey, an albino, quiet, composed and offering support if Mary needs it.
What follows is a gothic tale of violence and intrigue, a page-turning story of adventure featuring smugglers, wreckers, romance and the dangerous exploits of a bold, attractive heroine played out on the vast and desolate landscape of the moors. Which in and of itself would be enough, but Jamaica Inn has much more depth than that.
This is a darker, more disturbing exploration of the male capacity for stupidity, greed and violence, especially against women. Joss enjoys telling Mary of the violence that he and his friends could do to her and Aunt Patience is a pitiful creation of a victim of domestic abuse. But as with all bullies, Joss is at a loss when someone stands up to him, which is exactly what Mary does.
Mary is all too well aware of her place, in both the home and in society, of how the lot of women is so much more fraught than that of men but she still rails against it.
She wished that women were not the frail things of straw she believed them to be; then she could stay this night with Jem Merlyn and forget herself as he could forget, and both of them part with a laugh and a shrug of the shoulder in the morning. But she was a woman, and it was impossible. A few kisses had made a fool of her already. She thought of Aunt Patience, trailing like a ghost in the shadow of her master, and she shuddered. That would be Mary Yellen too, but for the grace of God and her own strength of will.
Mary is a fantastic creation. Within moments of arriving at the inn, she is speaking back to her Uncle, despite being alone in a strange landscape. Throughout the novel, she uses her physical and mental strength to take decisions that are not only brave, but often reckless, in the protection of her Aunt. She speaks her mind, sticks to her guns and Joss senses that strength and in some ways enjoys having a worthy adversary in his home.
It’s a shame then that Mary’s bravery is undermined by her inability to know who to trust and as the book gallops to its conclusion, it becomes clear that the evil Mary thought she was fighting is something beyond what she could have understood. There exists something colder and more calculating than ‘the bad man (who) wears a tail beneath his cloak and breathes fire through his nostrils’. When Du Maurier finally plays her hand, it is testament to her skill as a storyteller that the reader turns out to have been as wrong-footed as Mary herself.
As with all Du Maurier’s books, Cornwall and its surrounding landscape is almost a character in its own right, with some stunning descriptions of the dark and barren landscape. Like the novel itself, the moors around Jamaica Inn hold their secrets and can pull you under quicker than you could imagine.
The great jagged summit of the tor lifted its face to the sky like a crown above the mist, and below them the clouds hung solid and unchanged, a massive wall defying penetration.
The air was pure here, and crystal clear, disdaining knowledge of the world below, where living things must grope and stumble in the mist.
The description of Bodmin Moor with its dark grey skies, contant driving rain and stark isolation makes for an appropriate backdrop for a story of drunkenness, smuggling, murder and madness.
Jamaica Inn has echoes of many classic novels, Treasure Island, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in particular and what it also shares with them is an uncertain end. Mary may have courage and a strong sense of independence, but Du Maurier hints that by making the choice she makes, all may not end well for Mary Yellen.
Thanks to Ali’s yearly celebration, I have now read My Cousin Rachel, The House on the Strand and Don’t Look Now and Other Stories. I find the stories hard to beat, but Jamaica Inn may have just become my favourite Du Maurier novel!
Read on: iBooks
Number Read: 261
Number Remaining: 485
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!