Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

What a wonderful thing that Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn was the most recent pick for the Slaves of Golconda reading group (in which everyone is welcome to participate!). I’d read du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, and liked it very much, but somehow I never got around to reading further in her work. But I loved Jamaica Inn and am inspired to read more du Maurier now. The novel surprised me. After reading Rebecca the plot twists and turns and the moodiness and sensationalism of it weren’t a surprise, but I expected it to be another novel that takes place in a big house amongst people with wealth. However, Jamaica Inn is very much a novel of the lower classes; it takes place among farms and tiny villages and its characters are smugglers and horse thieves.

The novel tells the story of Mary Yellan, a 23-year-old who has just lost her mother and now, to fulfill a promise, has gone to live with her Aunt Patience. The last time Mary met Patience, she was happy and full of life, but things have changed: Patience has married Joss Merlyn, a surly, violent man who now runs Jamaica Inn, a place strangely devoid of customers — and a place that, mysteriously, no one wants to talk about. As Mary settles in to Jamaica Inn, she becomes determined to get her aunt away from her husband and into a better situation, but she gets unwillingly caught up in her uncle’s doings — which she realizes are worse and worse the longer she lives there — and becomes more and more miserable.

There are two sources of hope for Mary, although neither is particularly hopeful. The first is Joss Merlyn’s brother, Jem, who cheerfully admits he is a horse thief but whose involvement in his brother’s darker doings is uncertain. He is a mysterious figure whom Mary doesn’t trust, but something continually draws her back to him. The other figure of hope, a more substantial one, is a local vicar, Francis Davey, who treats Mary kindly, but who is distant and almost otherworldly. Something about him doesn’t sit right with Mary. But she is on her own and needs to take help wherever she can find it.

The novel started off just a tad slowly for me, but once it gets going, the plotting is very well done — the novel is suspenseful and exciting. Okay, I could figure out roughly where things were going, but there were plenty of surprises and du Maurier kept me glued to the book. In addition to the plot, though, there is much to appreciate. The novel is set in Cornwall, which du Maurier evokes beautifully. The sea, the moors, the marshes, the country roads are all integral parts of the book. Mary is a champion walker, and I could feel the rain and the wind as I read about her exploratory rambles around Jamaica Inn.

Mary is a fascinating character, spirited and independent, as I imagine her Aunt Patience once was. She is often doing things that other characters think women shouldn’t do: taking those long walks unaccompanied, for example, often in circumstances that would frighten just about anyone. She frequently thinks that all she wants to do is live a man’s life, which is to say, she wants to work a farm independently, as a man would. She has no aspirations to marry, as she knows marriage can often lead to subjection and misery, as it did for her aunt. She knows how the world works and what she needs to do to keep herself safe.

She is not a complete loner (although, appealingly, she prefers people who know how to keep quiet when they should to those who will talk nervously through any situation); she has fond memories of living in her small village with her mother, knowing all the people who live around her and being able to count on them for help. She wants a community and to know her place within it, and she is not interested in social climbing; when offered the opportunity to live with a family from a higher class than hers, she rejects it, knowing it’s not her place.

On the one hand, Mary knows who she is and what she wants out of life, but, on the other, there is something appealing about excitement and newness, an appeal that is reflected in the wild landscape surrounding her. At times the rough winds of Cornwall are frightening and lonesome, but at others, they are exhilarating. Perhaps Mary isn’t so sure what she wants out of life after all.

Jamaica Inn is so different from Rebecca that I wonder what du Maurier’s other novels are like. I’m looking forward to finding out.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

10 responses to “Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

  1. I really liked how Mary was so fully who she is, without regard for society’s expectations, and with a spirit and a sense of goodness that make her an extraordinary person. Yet she has all the contradictions and confusions real people have. Even right up until the end, I wasn’t sure what life she would choose, and either choice would have pleased me because it seemed like she could be happy either way.

    My Cousin Rachel is an altogether different sort of book from this or Rebecca. It’s constructed in such a way that even after it’s over you don’t know what actually happened. I read it last year and loved it. You might also want to look into her short stories. I’ve read several and they’re often dark and subversive–altogether different again from the novels I’ve read.

    • My Cousin Rachel sounds very interesting! I don’t know when I’ll actually read du Maurier again, but that book will probably be the next one. I agree with you about the novel’s ending; I think also that she could have been happy either way. I think that’s what I like about Mary, that she knows how to deal with life and can get what she needs out of it, one way or another.

  2. Rohan

    Wonderful post! That’s a great point about Mary being a “champion walker”: she enjoys a kind of mental and physical freedom that is exhilarating even by proxy — and even though it proves a pretty dangerous habit at times. It has been a while since I read Rebecca but as I recall, its heroine is a much less energetic character, which may be why Mary was such a surprise to me. I thought she might be more of the shrinking violet gothic heroine type, but though she takes some rough knocks, she’s definitely a fighter.

    • Thank you! Yes, the heroine of Rebecca is very different (although Rebecca herself is another matter!) and not at all like Mary. I’m so glad she’s not the typical Gothic heroine and has so much more complexity and agency. I admire the fighter in her. Mary is actually a kind of person I wouldn’t mind being myself.

  3. I only got my copy of this today – bit late, I know! I skimmed your review but will return to it once I’ve read the book. I’ll go as fast as I can.

  4. I’m another one voting for ‘My Cousin Rachel’ if you want to explore du Maurier’s work further. Or you might enjoy her short stories, one of which was filmed as ‘The Birds’.

  5. Yes! My Cousin Rachel is a must. I loved it. I haven’t read Jamaica Inn yet, but I can feel it calling.

  6. I did not plan this right and missed reading Jamaica Inn in time for the discussion. I definitely want to read it though. And, I echo the recommendation of My Cousin Rachel!

  7. Ahhh, I see from GoodReads that you have finished The Luminaries. I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it since I have it on my TBR stack — sitting there like a big ol’ concrete slab of a thing!

  8. I loved Rebecca so much that I read everything else DuMaurier wrote. To me, they all paled in comparison. But, that’s probably because I was enamored with Rebecca, not because they were inferior somehow.

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