I am excited to participate in the 1936 book club hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and StuckinaBook. I was thrilled to learn that Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier was published in that year. The novel is an underrated gem. Rebecca, the author’s more popular work, has unfortunately dulled its shine. Jamaica Inn is a Gothic novel par excellence which has a very Wuthering Heights vibe to it, and in my opinion may even be the superior work. The thrilling and fast paced novel is set in the remote and windswept Cornish moors. The strange isolation of the setting creates a very eerie atmosphere with a sense of impending doom. Cornwall was home to the author and is the inspiration behind many of her works. Jamaica Inn is a real place that still exists. Daphne du Maurier once lost her way while venturing on horseback with a friend across the desolate moors and eventually stopped at Jamaica Inn, a coaching inn that was once a meeting point for smugglers. The inn’s secluded location and sinister past fueled her imagination. The rest is literary history.
To honor her mother’s final deathbed wish, 23 year old Mary Yellan leaves the tranquil life on a farm in Helford, to live with her Aunt Patience in a remote part of Bodmin Moor. Her uncle Joss Merlyn is the landlord of Jamaica Inn, a dilapidated and forbidding dwelling which stands alone on the road to Laucenston. A coachman warns her that it is a dangerous place, unfit for a girl. Locals avoid the place like the plague. Coaches hurry past and never stop there. Her uncle is a sadistic man prone to bouts of drinking, mood swings and violent outbursts. Aunt Patience who was once a lovely and lively woman has become a shadow of her former self. Her spirit is broken and she lives in constant fear of her husband. Mary soon discovers that uncle Joss runs a smuggling ring and appears to be its ringleader.
The inn no longer hosts travelers and the bar is open to a few shady characters who engage in drunken revelry and seem to be accomplices of her uncle. Mary is called upon to serve in the bar as and when needed. She is determined to investigate the nefarious activities her uncle and his cronies are involved in and discovers that they are wreckers who deliberately decoy ships on to the coast with the aid of false lights prompting them to run aground so they could plunder them easily. She also suspects them of being murderers and senses danger. She plots an escape and wants to take her aunt along whom she wants to save from a life of servitude. She befriends Jem, Joss Merlyn’s brother who visits on occasion and seems to be a younger version of her uncle. Much to her annoyance, she is irresistibly attracted to him. Her only other acquaintances are people she chanced upon during her ramblings through the moors and into town- the kindly Squire Bassat and his wife, and Francis Davey, the gentle but strange albino vicar of Altarum to whom she turns for advice. Is Mary wise to trust her friends? Is her uncle the mastermind behind all the vile activities or does he report to someone else higher up? Mary sinks deeper and deeper into the mess like in the boggy marshes of the moor where one could easily drown if not careful.
I marvel at du Maurier’s ability to create such a captivating mystery. Although this was a re-read for me and I knew who the culprit was, I was still on edge throughout and the brooding inn and the wild landscape added to the unease. The menacing moors correspond to the characters’ emotional states. They too are at the mercy of forces they cannot control:
“No human being could live in this wasted country, thought Mary, and remain like other people; the very children would be born twisted, like the blackened shrubs of broom, bent by the force of a wind that never ceased, blow as it would from east and west, from north and south. Their minds would be twisted too, their thoughts evil, dwelling as they must amidst marshland and granite, harsh heather and crumbling stone.”
Although treacherous, the moors also offer comfort to Mary and provide an escape from the stifling tedium of her life. They represent wildness and freedom. Du Maurier has such a knack for evoking the atmosphere that I felt I was accompanying Mary on her long walks through the rough and bleak landscape with the mysterious tors and the hills in the distance cloaked in mist. I could hear the whistling wind and feel the lashing rain along with her.
Jamaica Inn is much more than a fascinating and atmospheric mystery story. It explores power struggles between the sexes within the traditional patriarchal structure. There is a darker story line of domestic abuse and male violence. Mary Yellan is one of du Maurier’s strongest female characters. She is a strong and independent woman with a mind of her own. She is courageous and resourceful and is not intimidated by the threats of her cruel uncle. Yet she is vulnerable as there is danger lurking around everywhere. She understands her limitations as a woman and sometimes wishes she were a man. Her small frame is no match for the enormous size and brute physical strength of her uncle. A girl has to have her wits about her to fend off unwanted advances. Mary is subjected to the lewd stares and comments of the men. She is referred to as a common slut and a woman of the streets in spite of being an innocent girl. She narrowly escaped a rape attempt by Henry the pedlar and she would have been gang raped by Joss’ men if not for the fact that she was his niece. Her uncle himself creepily says that “I could have had you your first week at Jamaica Inn if l’d wanted you. You are a woman after all.” On reading this novel in my youth, I admired Mary’s adventurous spirit. This time around I feared for her as a mother would for her daughter being aware of the constant threat of rape that hangs over a young woman.
She is a damsel in distress but takes control of the situation herself and refuses to be cowed into submission by her uncle’s brutality. In the process, she even gains some of his respect. Alas! Love changes everything. In spite of having no romantic illusions, Mary falls for Jem the horse thief who seems to be a younger and more energetic version of his odious brother. They have the same beautiful hands and fingers and although she is repulsed by the older brother, she is drawn to the younger one: “These fingers attracted her ; the others repelled her. She realized for the first time that aversion and attraction ran side by side ; that the boundary- line was thin between them.” Even though she despises her uncle, there is a fleeting moment the night when he imprisons her in her room to protect her from the pedlar, when she is confused by the feelings he arouses in her. He admits that he has a soft spot for her and says that if he had been a younger man he would have courted and won her too:
“She went then to her bed, and sat down upon it, her hands in her lap; and, for some reason forever unexplained, thrust away from her later and forgotten, side by side with the little old sins of childhood and those dreams never acknowledged to the sturdy day, she put her fingers to her lips as he had done, and let them stray thence to her cheek and back again.
And she began to cry, softly and secretly, the tears tasting bitter as they fell upon her hand.“
Daphne du Maurier was only 29 when she wrote this novel and I am amazed by her ability at that age to capture the ambivalence and subtleties of relationships.
How did the author get the reputation of being a romance novelist? Yes, there is plenty of romance if you are looking for it. Jem and Mary exchange passionate kisses at the fair in Laucenston and he enters her room through the window breaking the glass. But when she is at his house, she cleans the place and she obeys when he orders her to cook for him even though he makes disparaging remarks about women. At times their relationship mirrors the relationship between her uncle and aunt:
“For the first time in her life she saw a resemblance between herself and Aunt Patience. They had the same pucker of the forehead, and the same mouth. If she pursed up her lips and worked them, biting the edges, it might be Aunt Patience who stood there, with the lank brown hair framing her face.”
Minor Spoilers Follow
Some people might consider the ending to be happy. Mary has the choice of returning to the farm or to work for a respectable family in Bodmin Moor but she chooses to sail in the sunset to an unknown destination and destiny with Jem. He is stubborn and has no desire to please her or even consider her wishes for an instant. She tells him that she loves him but he doesn’t. These are the clues that du Maurier throws around for the discerning reader. Even Rebecca which people believe to have a happy ending, left me with a feeling of disquietude. There is more than meets the eye in du Maurier’s universe. Mary is aware of the constraints that women face and has a feminist streak but when it comes to putting it into practice, she chooses love for a rogue of a man. What can I say but that love sometimes makes the most sensible person act foolishly! As someone who follows her heart, I could understand Mary’s decision. I only hoped that she wouldn’t meet with the same fate as Aunt Patience who silently put up with abuse. That would be far more sinister than any of the abhorrent activities that take place in Jamaica Inn. For just as ” Dead men tell no tales”, docile women tell no tales either.