REVIEW: Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier
Before I started Jamaica Inn, I had only read one book by Daphne Du Maurier – Rebecca. But I did have an acquaintance with this story. I grew up in the golden heyday of television miniseries. Though the breadth and quality of television offerings available to us these days is unsurpassed, I still look back fondly on all of the (mostly cheesy) miniseries I consumed growing up. One of them was a 1983 adaption of this novel, originally made for British television, and starring my childhood girlcrush, one Jane Seymour.
I don’t remember *much* about the series, actually, since it has been 30+ years since I saw it. I remember Jane Seymour, Jane Seymour’s great hair, a British inn and a lot of peril. That’s about it. I vaguely recalled there was a romance for Jane (well, of course there was!) but I was more enthralled with Jane’s hair than (…checks IMDB)….Trevor Eve?
Anyway, I wanted to read Du Maurier again, and though I had My Cousin Rachel in the back of my mind as my next foray, Jamaica Inn fell into my lap and I was happy to give it a try. I’m slightly wary of gothics as a rule but “gothic” can mean different things and I wasn’t too worried about what it might mean in Du Maurier’s hands.
Mary Yellan leaves her childhood home in Helford in sorrow – her mother has recently died, some years after Mary’s father passed away. Mary’s home is sold and she’s sent to live with her aunt Patience, a woman she vaguely remembers from a childhood meeting as lively and vain. Patience is married to Joss Merlyn, and they reside at Jamaica Inn, an isolated coaching inn in Cornwall.
Cornwall is very different from what Mary’s used to, and her introduction, in foul weather, to Jamaica Inn is not an auspicious one. The coachman who drops her off tries to warn her off the place, saying it’s no place for a young lady and hinting at dark rumors about the goings-on there. Mary is determined to get to her aunt, though. When she arrives she finds the inn dilapidated and not appearing to attract much, if any, custom. Her aunt Patience is unrecognizable – a faded, debased, nervous wreck.
Patience’s husband Joss Merlyn, on the other hand, is a huge man, almost immediately recognizable as a drunk and a bully. He abuses his cowed wife and attempts to intimidate Mary on their first meeting. But Mary is stronger than she appears. She sets her will against Joss’s, and tries to make plans to leave Jamaica Inn as soon as possible. The hitch is that Mary feels an obligation to take Patience with her, which is easier said than done. Not only is Patience terrified of her husband, she retains a strange devotion to him in spite of his brutishness.
As she settles reluctantly into life at Jamaica Inn, a coaching inn that coaches never stop at, Mary begins to wonder at certain odd and ominous occurrences. Late-night wagons in the stableyard and rough men hanging about; a meeting behind closed doors (which Mary eavesdrops on) featuring a menacingly wielded noose. Mary reasonably puts two and two together and concludes that Joss and his companions are smugglers. She doesn’t approve but she seems to mostly want Joss exposed as a way of separating him from Patience and getting out from under his thumb. But the truth of what Joss and his companions are is far darker than Mary imagines.
Mary meets two very different local men. One is the vicar, Francis Davey, an albino, in whom she confides about the suspected activities at Jamaica Inn. Davey unsettles Mary slightly, with his strange looks and sometimes intense manner. But she sees him as a possible savior and resolves to go to him when she has solid evidence against her uncle.
The other man is Joss’s younger brother Jem, who both attracts and repels Mary. His faint resemblance to Joss disturbs her, and she’s troubled by the notion put forward (by more than one character) that the Merlyns are just bad – a family with bad blood in their veins. Joss and Jem’s father was hanged, as was their grandfather. No one in the family seems to do honest work – Jem cheerfully admits to being a horse thief. But Jem also lights something in Mary that hasn’t been lit before, and she finds herself drawn to him in spite of her better judgment.
Mary is an interesting heroine. It’s her character that reminds me that though the book is set in the early 19th century, it was written in the 20th. She’s not as romantic a figure as my hazy memories of the miniseries would suggest. For one thing, she has a somewhat cynical attitude towards romance; she’s aware that it fades quickly under the cares of everyday life. She’s a strong and moral character, but she’s practical, as well – the notion of smuggling in Cornwall doesn’t give her a fit of the vapors. I appreciated how different she was from the shy and mousy narrator of Rebecca, though at times I did not know where her courage came from – she seemed almost not to care if Joss harmed her. Perhaps it was that she was so fatalistic about the turns her life had taken that she didn’t have a strong sense of hope for the future.
Jamaica Inn has the veneer or perhaps reputation as being sort of a gothic/adventure/romance (again, perhaps going back to not just the Jane Seymour miniseries, but the earlier film adaptation starring Maureen O’Hara). But it’s much more a psychological tale than an action-filled one. The conflict between Mary and Joss is fraught with menace, a menace that’s sexual at times, though Joss denies that he would importune Mary in that way (a denial, of course, which serves to introduce the threat). Mary may think of herself as a somewhat tough country girl, used to hard work and not starry-eyed or naive – but the ugliness she encounters at Jamaica Inn is beyond her experience, by far. Jem is no hero to save her, and even as Mary thinks she knows the extent of the evil she’s encountered, she finds how wrong she is.
Ultimately I felt a little disappointed in either the novel or myself that I didn’t quite connect with the indisputably well-drawn atmosphere of oppression and evil. I could admire how DuMaurier crafted it, without being as moved by it as I would’ve liked to have been. I don’t know if it’s just me or the fact that we live in an era when much more graphic horror is omnipresent; our ability to be shocked is blunted (though some of the descriptions by Joss of his misdeeds were indeed chilling). It didn’t help that the twist at the end wasn’t really a twist, either because of recollection from 30 years ago or mild spoilers I read or mostly likely because it was kind of obvious all along.
Still, Jamaica Inn was a solid read and I am glad I read it. My grade is a B+. Now, on to My Cousin Rachel.
See if you can catch Trevor Eve in the mini-series “Heat of the Sun.” Very well done.
And yeah, Jane Seymour’s hair is amazing.
My favorite du Maurier is the somewhat obscure THE PARASITES, about three half/step-siblings on the Continent and in England between the wars through the 1950s. It has a very interesting narrative structure—sometimes it’s as if all three siblings are narrating simultaneously.
@Jayne: Thanks, I will check “Heat of the Sun” out!
@DiscoDollyDeb: That sounds interesting! I do think I’ll make my way through all her works now that I’ve started.
I am not generally a fan of gothics either. In gothic romances in particular, the shadows, the dreary weather, the sense of foreboding and the brooding male character rob the books of color and light and often don’t compensate for that as much as I would like them to.
(It may be also that for me all the other gothic novels that I’ve read so far fall short of Wuthering Heights, where the weather, the shadows, the sense of foreboding all echo the destruction that the impassioned emotions of the main characters have left in their wake, and therefore serve a more substantial purpose.)
I’ve digressed far, so I’ll focus back on the topic at hand. I’ve been interested in DuMaurier for a long time but have never read her. Do you think I would prefer Rebecca or this one?
@Janine: I think you might prefer Rebecca. Have you seen the movie?
I think in my limited experience with gothics the heroines are often helpless ninnies. Even though I’m not a fan of Wuthering Heights, I do think it did such a good job of conjuring the gothic atmosphere, and again, the books I’ve read pale in comparison.
@Jennie: Oh yes, I’ve seen–and loved–that Alfred Hitchcock / David O. Selznick movie of Rebecca. There have been few movies whose black and white cinematography I’ve appreciated as much. The opening voice over, the startling shots of creepy Mrs. Danvers and all those billowing curtains… It was in my top ten movies when I was in my twenties, but I haven’t seen it in many years.
I’ve heard the book is pretty different, though. Is that inaccurate?
Did you ever see the Kenneth Branagh movie Dead Again? It stars Branagh and Emma Thompson (his wife back then). Robin Williams has a great cameo in it, too. It is shot in black and white and pays homage to the movie of Rebecca>.
And re. Wuthering Heights. We’ll always differ on it, but the atmosphere is a huge part of why I love it so. The book has what E.M. Forster calls “a wrecked air” in Aspects of the Novel and I think that’s what makes it so special to me. Those characters and their story would be very much diminished without the damage and the haunted surroundings that they left behind.
@Janine: The book is different in one key plot point, and in general it’s less romantic. I haven’t seen the film in years either, but IIRC it smooths over the flaws in Max’s character in order to create a more traditional romance between him and the narrator.
I did see Dead Again, SO long ago. I remember liking it a lot, though I don’t remember it well (I do remember the big twist, though).
I agree with your comments on Wuthering Heights. I actually don’t hate it; I just don’t like the characters and I think the plot is cuckoo for cocoa puffs. But the book is still interesting.
@Janine: Yes, the movie version has a Hollywood-ised ending, which disappointed me when I first watched it at uni, having read the book only a couple of years previously. The book has an opening that is quite intriguing because you don’t know who the narrator is talking about, and it doesn’t all make sense until the very end. For me, the movie didn’t have the melancholy resonance of the novel, although it’s cinematically stunning.
I love this kind of technique. It makes me wish I hadn’t seen the movie first, because now if I read Rebecca I won’t have this kind of reading experience. That happened me with Jane Eyre. I saw a movie version first and knew all about the wife in the attic. It sapped Jane Eyre of much of its suspense and I ended up putting it down unfinished.
I recently re-watched the Jane Seymour version of Jamaica Inn and I have to say they did a great job of adapting the book, (far better than the recent version with Sybil from Downton Abbey which was unwatchable in its dullness). They used much of the language from the book and Trevor Eve (father of Alice Eve) is appropriately roguish and conveys the seedier side of Jem Merlyn. The whole movie stood up to my childhood memories of it, even after having recently read the book for the first time.
One thing that stood out to me reading the book and contrasting it to the movie, was the ending. In the book it really felt to me that Mary was giving up her fierce independence and surrendering to her “doom” in partnering up with Jem. It’s almost accepted as a forgone conclusion that her life isn’t going to be a happy one with him and that in so many years she will be in the same boat as his mistreated mother as the Merlyn men do not know how to love or respect a woman, let alone anyone.
In the movie Mary is shown being adventurous (and foolish in the eyes of a teenage and adult me) sending her belongings off on the coach while venturing off in the other direction with Jem Merlyn. In the movie Jem validates her trust in him by offering her the reins to point in any direction she wants, but in the book he doesn’t and she has put herself wholly into Jem’s hands and power. And book Jem is not nearly as heroic seeming as the TV version played by younger Trevor Eve. In 1983 I was a little concerned about Mary Yellen’s fate. After reading the book I am pretty much convinced it will not be good.
And I heartily endorse ” Heat of Sun” as well.
@Christine: That’s an interesting observation about the ending – I’m not surprised by the discrepancy between the movie version and the book. Again, I feel like the book is much more complex and psychological, and it makes a weird sort of sense that the movie would flatten out that complexity and just make a straight romance out of Mary and Jem’s relationship.