…she saw through the kitchen window that the sun had already disappeared behind the furthest hill, and that before many hours had passed the gray malevolence of a November dusk would have fallen upon Jamaica once again.
And with that early line, I realized what a timely read this was.
Daphne Du Maurier has been on my to-read list for years—I picked up a collection of her short stories as a kid because it had a copy of “The Birds” after watching Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Since then, I’ve meant to read her many novels—Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, and The House on the Strand among them—but kept putting them off for one reason or another. Despite those lingering accusations of plagiarism sullying her reputation, I was impressed by the strength of her short fiction and wanted to see her take on a longer work. Well, here we are.
I first heard about Jamaica Inn when I saw the 1939 film version, often considered the worst film by Alfred Hitchcock and one of the worst films ever made. I actually kind of liked it—it’s somewhat campy and the acting is “stagey,” but I don’t remember it being as bad as something like Plan 9 or Manos. (Then again, I saw it once ten years ago, so re-watching it may shatter some illusions.) At the least, I liked it enough to want to read the novel, which by all accounts is the superior work.
The year is 1820. Mary Yellan is a strong and capable woman–these are traits most likely inherited from her mother, a determined and independent woman who carried on running the family farm long after Mary’s father passed. She couldn’t go on forever, and her dying request was that Mary move in with her aunt Patience and her husband, who runs an establishment called Jamaica Inn. With trepidation and reluctance, Mary sets out to begin her new life with her relatives—she knows Patience as a lively woman, but what of her husband?
Mary is shocked when it turns out her uncle Joss Merlyn is a boorish, foul-mouthed scoundrel, and even more shocked to find her aunt Patience is a fractured husk of her former self. The inn hints at its own dark secrets—its guest rooms unkempt and filled with vegetables, a basement door locked and boarded shut. The Merlyns have a horrible reputation in the area, as does Jamaica Inn, and Joss’s verbal abuse reinforces Mary’s opinion that she needs to get herself and aunt Patience out before too long. With the seedy clientele and nightly arrival of strange wagon caravans, Mary suspects smuggling. The truth is far worse: Jamaica Inn is home to wreckers, scourge of the Cornwall coast, dangerous men who mislead ships to run aground, then killing the crew and looting what cargo washes ashore.
Learning this foul truth may enable Mary to put Joss Merlyn behind bars, but only if it doesn’t get her killed…
Du Maurier’s prose is an echo of the Victorian gothic; it’s methodical, careful, and rich in atmosphere. It reads like it really was an old gothic novel, from the dialogue to the description to the setting, and atmosphere is a crucial element that gives it that gothic flair. The writing creeps across the page like morning fog spreading out across the moors:
Black cattle grazed on the moors beneath, their careful feet treading the firm ground, and with inborn knowledge they avoided the tufted, tempting grass that was not grass at all, but soggy marsh that sighed and whispered. When the wind blew on the hills it whistled mournfully in the crevices of granite, and sometimes it shuddered like a man in pain.
I hope you like that kind of lush imagery, because that’ll enable you to enjoy Jamaica Inn; otherwise, be forewarned that there’s a lot of this description, and the heavy description moves with lethargic precision. Yet much of my enjoyment was due to Jamaica Inn‘s plot moving at such a careful pace: spending the extra time setting the scene, be it a misty moor or the darkened halls of Jamaica Inn, increased the suspense and uncertainty. I didn’t find the entire work gripping—the first half or so is setting the scenery, and you don’t even see a strange goings-on for some time—but there are some great scenes of tense suspense—the wreckers in the midst of doing their dirty deeds; Mary creeping around the dark hallways of the deserted inn. Job well done there.
And it isn’t a complete gothic without a romance, or in this case two, despite Mary’s independent tomboy-ish streak. The first is Jem Merlyn, uncle Joss’s brother; the two are always at odds, a sibling rivalry turned deadly. Jem still lives in the Merlyn family homestead out in the moor, and despite his rough exterior he invites her into town on Christmas day. The second is Francis Davey, the albino vicar of a neighboring village, a quiet and pious man who becomes Mary’s confidant. You can probably see where this is going: the wild and dangerous rebel and the pure, friendly priest. Well, du Maurier is a bit of a cynic when it comes to romance, and there’s a couple of surprises in store regarding Mary’s two love interests.
I hadn’t expected to read another gothic just yet, much less a 1930s novel written in the style of a Victorian gothic, but it turned out all for the best. The dark beauty of the prose and brooding atmosphere amplifies the moments of chilling suspense. The characters are complex and have depth, and having a strong and independent female protagonist—despite her limitations and some dated sexism—was a refreshing change for the gothic genre. Jamaica Inn isn’t a perfect novel, and I could leverage some complaints in its direction—I’m sure others dislike the pacing, and the mystery elements are thin on the ground—but I found it an engaging novel, a good book to get drawn into for a couple of nights. Besides, books with pirates are pretty cool, and what are wreckers if not land-based pirates?