I’m so excited to be writing a review for the first Miranda’s Notebook Book Club choice! When this post goes live, I’ll be just about to meet everyone attending the London get-together, and I can’t wait to chat about the book in person as well. Here are my thoughts, though, for our online discussion of Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier:
Some Background to Jamaica Inn
At 22 years old, Daphne du Maurier got lost with her friend Foy Quiller-Couch as they set out on horseback from Jamaica Inn across Bodmin Moor. Daphne later wrote ‘we ventured out across the moors, desolate, sinister, and foolishly lost our way, to our horror rain and darkness fell upon us, and there we were, exposed to the violence of the night.’ They took shelter in a barn and eventually made their way to safety, but the dread she felt lost on those lonely moors clearly sparked an idea for what would later become Jamaica Inn.
Bodmin moor, as described by du Maurier in her novel, becomes a character in its own right in the book, and its malevolent, brooding atmosphere is reminiscent of the Yorkshire moors in Wuthering Heights. Gothic novels were certainly an inspiration to du Maurier when writing Jamaica Inn (the opening scene of the book echoes the beginning of Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and she liked to draw parallels between Cornwall and the Yorkshire moors made famous by the Bronte sisters. Indeed, du Maurier pointed out in her book, Vanishing Cornwall, that the Brontes had a Cornish mother and aunt, inferring that they would have been told Cornish myths and legends as children.
Just as their landscape, as well as stories and legends, inspire the Brontes, so did Cornwall inspire du Maurier, to the extent that her name is forever linked with the area. Jamaica Inn is one of her most gothically dramatic Cornish tales.
My Reactions to the Novel
** Warning! There are spoilers ahead! **
I first read Jamaica Inn as a teenager, so my recollections of it were a little hazy, although it’s hard to forget the brooding menace of the Cornish moors and the rotting inn Daphne du Maurier describes so brilliantly. I found it fascinating to reread the book as an adult, and this time, rather than the plot (which occasionally I found a little heavy-handed), it was the character of the protagonist, Mary Yellan, that I found most intriguing and kept me turning the pages.
Mary’s story begins with plenty of dark foreshadowing: hurtling through the driving rain (so different from the gentle drizzles of her native southern shores) across the Northern Cornish moors in a carriage whose driver urges her to reconsider her journey to Jamaica Inn. ‘That’s no place for a girl,’ he says darkly. Mary has little choice, however, but to continue her journey to her aunt and uncle-by-marriage, who live at the Inn. Having made a promise to her dying mother to go to her Aunt Patience and her husband, Mary is determined to keep her word. On arrival, she is horrified by the appearance of her aunt, who has been broken in body and mind by her brutish husband, Joss Merlyn. Her Uncle is not beyond threatening Mary too, but states he won’t touch her as long as she keeps her nose out of the mysterious business he conducts at the dilapidated inn, that never has any guests. Mary suspects her Uncle to be involved in smuggling, but soon discovers his secret is much more horrifying and deadly when he confides in her after a night of heavy drinking.
Male violence is a theme du Maurier explores many times in her books. The men she writes about are often murderers, with women as their victims. The topics du Maurier touches upon in Jamaica Inn – domestic violence, rape, murder – must have been shocking for her audience at the time (the novel was published in 1936) and many of the scenes are still disturbingly haunting today. In many ways, I feel Jamaica Inn is one of her angriest novels. Reading the book, you sense du Maurier’s wrath against male domination and brute strength on almost every page. Since childhood, du Maurier was intrigued by the differences between men and women (as a child she invented a male alter-ego for herself), and the frustration she felt at the restrictions imposed upon women seep through her writing.
In contrast to the female protagonists in novels such as Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, who are all undeniably feminine, Mary Yellan is quite a different kind of heroine. Described as being like a boy, with a ‘monkey face’, Mary isn’t too delicate to swear in annoyance. She displays a great deal of physical, as well as mental, strength: Mary can walk for hours on the moors; she fights off her would-be rapist and carries out physically taxing domestic tasks. Whenever she’s told she can’t do something (being only a woman), Mary invariably proves her naysayer wrong.
Mary does, however, perceive a weakness within herself: her attraction to Joss’ younger brother, Jem. Unsure whether she can trust him, yet feeling at ease in his presence (whilst still noticing his rather fine hands), Mary riles against herself over accepting Jem’s kisses. In time, however, he is proven worthy of her faith.
In contrast to Mary’s resolute, unwaveringly courageous character, it is the men in the novel who display the most weakness. Joss Merlyn is revealed to be a blustering bully with an insatiable taste for drink. He cannot control his binges or his tongue and at night is tormented by the faces of the men and women he has killed. He is exposed as a mere puppet in the hands of a much more sinister opponent, against whom he is ultimately powerless.
In general, I enjoyed rereading Jamaica Inn, although I do not feel it stands up so well against du Maurier’s later novels. It lacks the depth of Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, and, although I admire Mary Yellan, in the end I felt a little dissatisfied with her character. She is brave and headstrong, yes, but what else? Compared to du Maurier’s later protagonists, Mary feels two-dimensional, for all her toughness and courage. Perhaps my dissatisfaction stems from preferring du Maurier when she writes in the first person, when the reader can become truly immersed in the mind of her narrator. I feel, too, that du Maurier is at her very best when she’s exploring the (albeit it often strained) dynamics between men and women in love. Jem and Mary’s romance feels a perfunctory affair, and Jem barely says more than handful of lines in the novel, so there seems little to his character but superficial charm. Jem ‘rescuing’ Mary at the end is rather a let down; surely, after everything else she’d handled unflinchingly alone, Mary could have managed her escape perfectly well by herself? Mary choosing to hop into Jem’s cart and ride off into the distance with him, facing their future together, lacks any real emotional charge. Jem’s uncharming little speech to Mary where he says she’ll probably live to regret her decision, left this reader at least without hope for much romantic bliss between them.
In conclusion, then, I felt Jem and Mary’s relationship was the novel’s biggest flaw, but Daphne du Maurier’s ability to evoke a sense of place and atmosphere and build up heart-thudding suspense is dazzling, and the descriptions of the desolate Cornish moors, coupled with a strong-willed heroine, make Jamaica Inn very much a tale worth reading.
I would love to hear your thoughts on Jamaica Inn, so please do add them in the comments. Here are a few questions as prompts to get the conversation flowing, but feel free to comment on whatever aspect of the story you wish to explore. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say!
Some Questions to Prompt Discussion:
What is your opinion of Mary Yellan? Did you warm to her? What did you like / dislike about her?
Mary is repeatedly told she is ‘only a woman.’ In what ways, though, does she repeatedly show she’s more than a match for her male companions?
Do you find the romance between Mary and Jem believable? Did you feel Mary’s liking for Jem was an unfortunate weakness on her part, or were they well-matched?
What types of evil does du Maurier describe in the book? Does she write about one more convincingly than the other?
What did you think of the Vicar of Altarnun? Did you feel there was a supernatural quality to him?
In what ways does du Maurier use the setting to build up suspense?
Did the novel’s ending come as a surprise to you, or did you guess what would happen?
How do you feel Jamaica Inn compares to du Maurier’s other novels?