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 One of them was a 1983 adaption of this novel, originally made for British television, and starring my childhood girlcrush, one Jane Seymour.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.