After needing to recover from a disappointing read, I knew I needed to pick a book which would be an immensely enjoyable reading experience. Looking through my shelves, my eyes were drawn almost immediately to a few of the unread Daphne Du Maurier books I own. I have only actually read two of Du Maurier’s novels, both extremely different to one another, and whilst I preferred one much over the other, there is something about the quality of her writing which is both comforting and thrilling. I can already tell that she is without a doubt one of my favourite authors, and after having now read Jamaica Inn, my suspicions have been confirmed.
Jamaica Inn, like the revered Rebecca (a bloody brilliant book you all should read immediately!), is one of Daphne Du Maurier’s more well known novels. It follows the character of Mary Yellan, a young girl whose mother has recently died. On becoming an orphan Mary must make her way to live with her aunt Patience, and her aunt’s husband. However, upon arriving at her aunt’s home, the bleak eponymously named ‘Jamaica Inn’, she finds a woman barely recognisable as her aunt of former years, a woman dragged beneath the weight of her marriage, trained in a mock resemblance of a dog to its master. Joss Merlyn, her husband, is a brute of a man, rather thuggish in appearance , with a nasty temper and unnerving manner which immediately startles Mary into awareness. As she embarks on her new life, in her new home, Mary learns the terrible secrets of ‘Jamaica Inn’, secrets which haunt her new family, threatening ruin and destruction.
The edition I read, as with all my other Du Maurier books, was published by Virago Modern Press, and as usual comes with the additional bonus of a brilliant introduction. From an academic point of view, having studied English Literature, I loved the depth of analysis and ideas which are presented in this short introduction. Having said that, it is an extremely accessible read which I feel would not only enlighten new readers to the context of Du Maurier’s writing, but also present enjoyable ideas to those familiar with the work. As Sarah Dunant states, ‘we are in the territory of the Gothic novel, but one with an undercurrent of modern sensibility’ (p. vii), and following from this, the novel only continues to increase in its Gothic intrigue.
I think that a lot can be assumed by a writer’s first chapter, and Du Maurier is certainly no exception. Quite frankly, I found the opening to this novel extremely high in skill. The description of the scenes as Mary travels the desolate moors to her new home, are given in abundance, with a rich detail that only encourages the reader’s imagination. In many ways, there is a great similarity to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, in the way that she places such importance on nature as a character in its own right. The dark and atmospheric start to the novel not only calls upon classic Gothic tropes, but also provides a sense of foreshadowing to the rest of the novel, and the terrible things which are soon to be discovered. Not only does the opening chapter create an intense environment to set the novel’s tone and mood, it also works twofold to establish Mary’s past, and her reasons for adventuring across the moors on such an oppressive night. All in all, a very clever opening.
Building on this opening, Du Maurier is capable of increasing the suspense to a degree which is suffused with the menacing edges of terror and horror. As the coach driver grimly informs Mary, ‘Jamaica Inn’ is ‘no place for a girl’ (p. 10), and ‘Respectable folk don’t go to Jamaica any more’ (p. 11). By creating a place already isolated in its physical location, but isolated further by the fear of the local people, Du Maurier replaces the Gothic tropes of castles and crumbling monasteries with the more modern, yet equally thrilling, Inn, creating instant curiosity. Not once did I feel that this curiosity decreased, or was lacking, with the atmospheric thrills continually increasing to a deafening level. The plot remains fairly straightforward, which only adds to the novel’s effectiveness, giving the secrets a chance to surprise the reader with their own intensity, free from the confusion of overly hectic plots.
What really made this novel such a great read for me was the balance between plot, suspense, and character development. The story may be suspenseful, but the character do not suffer for this. Aunt Patience in particular struck me as a very interesting character. In many ways, she is symbolic of what Mary could become if she were to give her heart to a man who had once been as charmingly handsome as Joss is supposed to have be. In Aunt Patience, we have a study of how a woman can lose her own self at the expense of her love, or indeed the patriarchy she is ruled by.
Joss is likewise a symbol of how his younger brother, Jem, could turn out if he becomes as haunted by the things he has done as his older brother is. As noted, ‘If the younger one had any sense in his head he would pull himself together before he travelled the same road’ (p. 69). As if this threat were not implicit enough, the brothers are remarkable similar in appearance, with Mary seeing in Joss’s younger brother how he may once have looked himself. Aunt Patience and Joss, then, are the precursors of what may befall Mary and Jem. The ideas of crimes being physically visible is an interesting one, as is the idea of unconditional love, even in a twisted, unhealthy manner. The women of the story seem helpless in their choice of love, a victim to it as much as any one else. This love manifests itself into an unshakable devotion which both emotional and physical threats cannot seem to shake. This is something which the Merlyn family seems to be haunted by in their past, with mothers and grandmothers before them standing firmly by their men despite the consequences and personal threats.
As a reader, I was completely enthralled by what could befall Mary, and whether her natural inclinations towards love would ultimately lead her to the same sad end as her aunt. Whilst I felt fully invested in Mary and the love interest which Du Maurier brings to her, I did feel the relationship blossomed somewhat prematurely. Mary seems to waste no time in declaring herself in love, and I could not help but feel she had consigned herself to a similar self-sacrificing love as her aunt had in too short a time frame. Looking back, I much preferred the active moments with Mary and her potential lover, as opposed to her self-reflective thoughts and feelings.
Perhaps my favourite character, which is probably an odd choice, was Joss Merlyn himself. Whilst he is in no terms a friendly man, I did find his choices and decisions completely fascinating, and would have loved to have more of his backstory. In many cases, his characters seemed more fleshed out than even Mary’s was, with his character dominating the book with deadly intrigue as much as his physical appearance.
To critique this novel is not an easy task, as I think it is an excellent piece of work. What I would say is that I did feel there were certain moments of disconnect in the novel, where I did not feel as actively involved as a reader. Perhaps sometimes Du Maurier becomes a bit too descriptive, and this can become slightly repetitive where the environment is concerned. I also felt there were a few select moments where the dialogue did not seem entirely authentic, and was a bit orchestrated.
This novel is one which definitely builds with momentum. Rather akin to the ships which are so savagely tempted to shore, as a reader I felt completely compelled to reach the end, even if it meant crashing and floundering likewise amongst the waves. I think its fair to say that I loved this book, and found it to be a brilliant union of plot and skilled writing, multilayered with so many themes which are just waiting to be examined more closely. The more I think of this book in retrospect, the more I love it, and the more the characters present themselves once more to my mind.
Having now read three of Daphne Du Maurier’s books, I can confidently say she is one of my favourite writers. Each of the books I have read are vastly different in plot, with the location of Cornwall usually being a predominant theme in each, yet she manages to captivate me continually with her work. I cannot wait to get stuck into another!
Publisher: Virago Modern Press