Rating 5 stars
Jamaica Inn is almost as famous a novel as author Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. It’s the novel that established du Maurier’s reputation and the author drew on the Cornish landscape and history she knew so well. Set at a similar time to the last book I read, Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, it concerns coastal life in a very different landscape to rural Shropshire, but captures the same flaws in human nature as are found in Webb’s book.
I have read a few du Maurier novels – Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek, My Cousin Rachel – and I’ve been keen to read more. In recent years, we’ve enjoyed exploring Cornwall on holiday. I picked up a second hand copy of Jamaica Inn at Bookmark in Falmouth and included it on my list of 10 books to read for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer reading challenge.
I watched the 2014 BBC adaptation of Jamaica Inn and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was widely criticised for its dialogue being impenetrable, but I didn’t struggle to tell what the characters were saying. Perhaps I have good ears, or a higher tolerance for ‘mumbling’. Anyway, I went into the novel knowing the story, but interested to read the source.
Mary Yellan is 23. We meet her in the coach from Helston to Bodmin, about to start a new life with her aunt and uncle. Mary is another strong farming woman, brought up by her mother after her father died when she was six, helping her mother on the family farm as soon as she was old enough. When her mother dies, worn out after 17 years of running the farm, her dying wish is for Mary to leave the farm, leave the familiar market town of Helford and move to Bodmin to live with her Aunt Patience.
All is not what it was with Patience, who, the last time Mary saw her, was as pretty as a fairy, in a silk petticoat and a skirt she lifted to save it from the mud of the farm. She is now the wife of the landlord of Jamaica Inn, an out of the way tavern on the road from Bodmin to Launceston. When she writes to Mary telling her she can come, there are subtle hints in her letter that hers isn’t a good life, that her husband isn’t a good man. And so the story begins.
The hints in the letter from Patience are strengthened by the reaction of the coach driver and the woman who works at the coaching inn at Bodmin. Jamaica Inn is no place for a girl, they tell her. On hearing that Mary’s uncle is landlord there, their demeanour changes. At this early point in the story, du Maurier makes clear what sort of woman Mary is – determined, unflinching, a pursuer of the truth. I’d only been in her company for half a dozen or so pages, but already I liked her.
Du Maurier was a master of building atmosphere and her description of Mary’s coach journey across Bodmin Moor immersed me in the scene, so that I shared Mary’s sense of dread about what might happen to her next. The moors that I am familiar with are Saddleworth and Dartmoor, and I recognised the wildness that du Maurier captured in her words.
The wind tore at the roof, and the showers of rain, increasing in violence now there was no shelter from the hills, spat against the windows with new venom. On either side of the road the country stretched interminably into space. No trees, no lanes, no cluster of cottages or hamlet, but mile upon mile of bleak moorland, dark and untraversed, rolling like a desert land to some unseen horizon.
Du Maurier was also an adept at capturing character. It would be easy to reduce the key players in this story to caricatures: the feisty young woman driven by justice; the vainglorious coquette who has fallen on hard times; the archetypal bully who acts the big man but is ultimately a fool; the rakish young man who needs saving from himself; the earnest man of the cloth and would-be confidante. In du Maurier’s hands, though, they are believable as people.
Within minutes of her arrival at Jamaica Inn, Mary reveals the strength of her character to her uncle Joss Merlyn, gaining a grudging respect from him, Joss reveals himself as a bully, and Patience is shown to be an abused wife.
Joss, like all bullies, is terrifying and ridiculous. Drink loosens his tongue, prompting expansive statements about his position in the local community that would be laughable were it not for his physical presence adding literal weight to what he says.
It’s clear from du Maurier’s description of the land around Jamaica Inn that experience is essential in writing. She penned this novel after staying at the inn herself, and in her confident description of the inn’s layout and her comparison of the exposed moorland with the softness of the Cornish south, there’s a sense of the writer being present there. Not in any distracting way. Du Maurier uses her own experience to describe Mary’s wonder at the change in her life, at the different landscape, and the sprawling yet claustrophobic atmosphere of the inn, in a way that makes it real for the reader.
Interestingly, du Maurier has Mary try to understand Joss through the landscape, imagining how his youth might have been influenced by the landscape he grew up in, including its role in his brother’s death, and in turn how that youth formed the man whose roof she now lived under. This is not to excuse his bullying behaviour, it seems, but to give Mary a small feeling of control over her situation by trying to understand her aunt’s husband.
At the end of her first week at Jamaica Inn, Mary witnesses smuggling activity on a grand scale. Her fears for her aunt are part of the reason she doesn’t leave immediately and inform on her uncle to the magistrate, but a larger part is her intelligence. She quickly realises that smuggling on such a scale must involve others than her uncle managing the process, and so she turns detective, determined to uncover everything and everyone involved in her uncle’s activities.
Her detective work doesn’t always go to plan and involves compromise, particularly where keeping her aunt out of danger is concerned. It also brings Mary into contact with three very different men: Joss’s brother Jem, who is a horse thief and at odds with his brother; the local squire Mr Bassat, who believes himself onto Joss but lacks proof; and local vicar Francis Davey, in whom Mary puts her trust.
Perhaps because I watched the tv adaptation, I already knew what was to come of these encounters, and was wary of some of the men on Mary’s behalf, knowing them to not be as they seemed to her.
Jem Merlyn is a rogue. Du Maurier describes him in a way that sets him up as the bad lad that Mary will fall for and turn good. When she accidentally visits his cottage, he behaves chauvinistically towards Mary, revealing a particular attitude towards women in general. I was hoping for Mary to stand up to him, but she’s a woman of her era and capitulates to his arrogant demands to cook and clean for him. Mary’s reaction to him is a conflicted one; despite her best efforts to resist, she finds that she can’t, that Jem gets under her skin. Her adventures with him in Launceston lead Mary to a very unpleasant situation.
Francis Davey in particular isn’t as a vicar should be. Mary finds his solitude and solicitous nature, his stillness and separateness from his parishioners compelling. She wants to trust him, as a woman of her time would trust a vicar, but there is something about him that makes that trust feel as though it’s given despite Mary’s common sense about the world she finds herself in. It is almost as though he mesmerises her into telling him everything she knows. Including the horrifying secret Joss Merlyn tells her one drunken night that burns into Mary’s mind.
Her uncle’s brutality reaches a peak that results in Mary being assaulted by his mob, and Joss effectively kidnaps her on her return from Launceston, after Jem mysteriously disappears and Francis Davey picks Mary up in his hired carriage on the road back to Jamaica Inn. Du Maurier ramps up the tension through her vivid description of the stormy weather and the fog, her focus on Mary’s fatigue battling against her resolve to do the right thing.
Du Maurier does something interesting with Mary as a character throughout the novel. Mary declares a couple of times that she has no interest in marriage, that she wants only to return to farming life, that she wants to live as a man lives. My reading of this is that Mary wants equality and independence, to be treated by the world in the same way that the world treats men, without expectation of wifehood or motherhood, without dismissing her as weak because of her gender. On her brief carriage trip from Launceston with Francis Davey, she explains herself more precisely, drawing on her confused feelings for Jem Merlyn, spurred on by the fear that Francis Davey is judging her appearance and concluding that she is a woman of loose morals, as many of her class are perceived to be by men of his class.
‘I didn’t bargain for this,’ she said fiercely. ‘I could face the brutality of my uncle, and the pathetic dumb stupidity of Aunt Patience; even the silence and the horror of Jamaica Inn itself could be borne without shrinking and running away. I don’t mind being lonely. There’s a certain grim satisfaction in this struggle with my uncle that emboldens me at times, and I feel I’ll have the better of him in the long run, whatever he says or does. I’d planned to take my aunt away from him, and see justice done, and then, when it was all over, to find work on a farm somewhere, and live a man’s life, like I used to do. But now I can’t look ahead any more; I can’t make plans or think for myself; I go round and round in a trap, all because of a man I despise, who has nothing to do with my brain or my understanding. I don’t want to love like a woman, or feel like a woman, Mr Davey; there’s pain that way, and suffering, and misery that can last a lifetime. I didn’t bargain for this; I don’t want it.’
Mary’s family dynamic makes her desire to be free of the expectation placed on her understandable. I grew up wanting to be independent, and in my own way, like Mary, wanted to live a man’s life, free of expectation. I still do, to an extent, but I’m a woman and beyond my own home I am subject to the residual binary rules of a society that can’t quite allow equality to happen, so I still find myself pigeonholed by others because of my gender. And I am married, which is a personal choice and doesn’t preclude a level of independence.
My initial liking of Mary after only a dozen pages was strengthened by du Maurier’s depiction of her as a woman in conflict with the world and, to an extent, with herself. She knows who she is and what she stands for, but she is also challenged by the parts of herself that she has buried. Across the du Maurier novels I have read, Mary is my favourite character. She seems the most life-like, the most robust.
The novel’s denouement stretches over 50 pages and is full of twists and turns, with people’s true natures being revealed. For Mary, it’s a roller coaster of emotions and physical danger, but she gets her freedom at last from Jamaica Inn.
Her feelings towards the landscape change, once she is free.
Mary walked alone on Twelve Men’s Moor, with the keen wind slapping her face, and she wondered why it was that Kilmar, to the left of her, had lost its menace, and was now no more than a black scarred hill under the sky. It might be that anxiety had blinded her to beauty, and she had made confusion in her mind with man and nature; the austerity of the moors had been strangely interwoven with the fear and hatred of her uncle and Jamaica Inn. The moors were bleak still, and the hills were friendless, but their old malevolence had vanished and she could walk upon them with indifference.
It’s not enough of a change in feeling to keep her in the area, but her plans to return to her home in Helford are scuppered at the last minute by the reappearance of Jem Merlyn, who is hilariously depicted by du Maurier as a slightly stroppy manchild pretending indifference in order to get his own way. Mary makes her choice, but I wondered about how long it would last. Du Maurier leaves things open enough that I could believe that Mary’s independent streak would reassert itself eventually. For all that I enjoy a good romance, I was unconvinced by Jem Merlyn as a romantic character and I preferred to think of Mary as she should be – strong and independent, living life on her terms.
This was my fourth summer read and my favourite so far.