Sometimes it pays to give an author a second — or even a third — chance. Such has proved to be the case with Daphne du Maurier, an author I first encountered via My Cousin Rachel. Unfortunately it proved a deeply unsatisfying experience. I was expecting far more suspense and menace but though the book promised so much in this direction, ultimately for me it failed to deliver.
But I had another of her novels sitting unread on my bookshelves; Jamaica Inn. Surely the woman considered a master of the art of telling suspensful stories with sinister overtones couldn’t disappoint a second time? I’m happy to report that she didn’t. Jamaica Inn is a romp of a novel that proved a perfect companion during a heatwave that robbed my brain of any ability to deal with taxing reading material.
Written in 1935 but set in the early 19th century, Jamaica Inn is a fast-paced drama full of murder, paranoia, violence and sexual threats. It’s set in a delapidated Cornish coaching inn, on a lonely road between Bodmin and Launceston, a place surrounded by treacherous marshes and high tors. This is an unforgiving landscape, certainly not the pleasant farmland community of ‘shining waters … green hills and sloping valleys’ that was home to our heroine Mary Yellan for 23 years of her life. But on the death of her mother, she cannot continue to manage their farm single-handedly. Without the farm she has no option but to take refuge with her aunt Patience and her husband Joss Merlyn who run a pub called Jamaica Inn.
Her arrival at the isolated inn is the first stage in her journey from paradise to hell, from ignorance to tortured knowledge and from innocence to sexual awareness. Du Maurier provides a suitably Gothic tone to herald Mary’s arrival at the inn. She travels in a coach that creaks, sways and groans its way across the bleak moors in mist and driving rain. Mary reflects that the people of this part of the country must be “born of strange stock who slept with this earth as pillow, beneath this black sky. They would have something of the Devil left in them still.”
When she arrives at the inn it’s to discover a place that seems steeped in suffering. It’s “like a live thing’ yet has a “cold, dead atmosphere”. A clock ticks “like a dying man who cannot catch his breath” and on Mary’s first night she is spooked by the battered wooden inn sign that creaks “like an animal in pain. ” Outside Mary hears the wind whistling across the moors as if it’s “a chorus from the dead” which isn’t that far from the truth since there are indeed the corpses of murder victims buried among the bogs. It doesn’t take long for Mary to learn that the inn’s reputation as a place of secrets is fully justified.
As she is drawn inexorably in to the smuggling, theft and murder committed by Joss Merlyn and his associates, Mary learns also what it is to be fearful for her own safety. She’s a brave girl, repeatedly facing up to her thuggish uncle and refusing to be cowed by his brutality but she treads a treacherous path; torn between the desire to expose wrong doing yet wanting to protect her aunt.
Uncle Joss is one of the great villains of fiction. He’s the key figure in a network that lures ships off course and sends them crashing into the rocks so they can steal the cargo. He’s a powerful figure whose considerable physical presence is matched by a cunning nature. When he opens the door to Mary on her arrival she sees:
… a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high with a creased black brow and skin the colour of a gypsy. … He looked as if he had the strength of a horse with immense powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees, and large fists like hams. His frame was so big that in a sense his head was sunk between his shoulders giving that half-stooping impression of a giant gorilla, with his black eyebrows and his mat of hair.
He and Mary play a cat and mouse game from her very first night when he threatens to “break you until you eat out of my hand” if she gossips about anything she hears or sees at the pub. She faces down his threats instantly: “If you hurt my Aunt Patience in any way, I tell you this — I’ll find the magistrate and bring him here and have the law on you and then try and break me if you like.” But though Joss has a grudging respect for her courage, she’s still a threat to his empire and one he will not refrain from harming if it suits his purpose.
Amidst the dramatic scenes du Maurier has woven a few interesting themes. One is around love and sexual desire. Mary becomes attracted to Joss’ brother Jem Merlyn though she knows he’s a dangerous man, a horse-thief who bears a physical resemblance to her uncle. Mary is smitten by his bright eyes and long dark lashes but can she trust him? How much does he know about the smuggling? Her encounters with Jem set up a conflict where Mary recognises “he stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him.” This is not a girl with a rose-tinted view of the relationships between men and women, but one who knows that if she gives in to her temptation there would be no turning back.
Du Maurier broadens this romantic dilemma into a broader theme about the female situation. Mary is frustrated that as a woman she has fewer weapons in her armoury against her uncle. As a man she could challenge him uncle in open combat, but as a woman she is nothing more than “a petticoat and a shawl.” Later, during a day out with Jem, she becomes as frustrated by differing gendered attitudes towards sexual liaisons:
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. But she was a woman, and it was impossible. A few kisses had made a fool of her already.
Mary knows that the real risk of a relationship with Jem isn’t a damaged reputation, it is that she would become the kind of abused woman she finds in her Aunt Patience. In her aunt she sees someone whose previous lively personality and intelligence have disappeared because of constant fear of her husband. Living in “perpetual high anxiety” under his reign has turned into into “a whimpering dog that has been trained by constant cruelty to implicit obedience.”
Mary puts her faith in her own strength of will to combat a fate where she would, like Patience, trail like a ghost in the shadow of her master. But she is operating in a world where it seems violence against women is normal and all Jem can promise her is a hard life. The novel’s ending leaves us wondering whether there will in fact be a ‘happy-ending’ for Mary.
Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier: Endnotes
Jamaica Inn, inspired by du Maurier’s stay at the real inn in 1930, was published in 1936, the fourth novel she had written. Three years later it was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock, the first of three of her works he was to transfer to the large screen (the others were her novel Rebecca and short story The Birds). The coaching inn still exists though today is a far more successful commercial venture than it was in the novel. From the pictures on the website it looks rather cosy. I’ve never been there by my husband tells me it’s a ‘bit touristy’…..
Daphne du Maurier was born in London into an artistic and literary family. Her connections helped her establish her literary career, giving her the ability to publish some early works in Bystander magazine. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931. Her most famous novel Rebecca, published in 1938 became one of most successful works. In 1969 she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire but never told any of her family about the honour and never used the title. She died in 1989.
Jamaica Inn is one of those novels that it’s guaranteed people will have heard of even if they have never read it or seen one of the various film/tv adaptations. I found it in a library sale and thought it was about time I gave it a go. It was on my reading list for 20booksofsummer2017