April reads, best books 2014, book reviews, Byronic hero, classics, classics you should have read, Cornwall, Daphne du Maurier, fiction, goodreads, Gothic, gothic romance, Jamaica Inn, Jem Merlyn, Joss Merlyn, literature, Mary Yellan, moors, pirate stories, Rebecca, shipwrecks, top books, what to read, wreckers
Daphne du Maurier‘s Jamaica Inn (1936) is firmly in the category of Books I Should Have Read By Now. I’m a little obsessed with her most famous novel, Rebecca (1938), because Gothic mansion + handsome yet troubled hero + creepy housekeeper + murder + moody atmospherics + girl-who-could-be-any-girl seeking to solve the mystery = awesome reading (Seriously, Charlotte Brontë called and would like her plot back). But while I’ve read and re-read Rebecca, I’ve never taken a peek at any of du Maurier’s other books. I didn’t want to be disappointed.
Jamaica Inn did not disappoint. It seems that in her writing du Maurier was on a mission to out-Brontë the Brontës. When her mother dies, twenty-three-year-old Mary Yellan is sent to live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss at Jamaica Inn on the lonely, wind-swept moors of Cornwall. But Jamaica Inn has not offered hospitality for many years and dread and despair seep from the very walls. Mary’s aunt is a ghost of her former, cheery self, unable to speak of the horror she has witnessed, and Mary’s uncle, cruel enough by the light of day, speaks of murder in his sleep. There is a locked room Mary must not enter and mysterious travellers who arrive out of the mist in the dead of night and are not to be found by morning.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Joss’s younger brother Jem lives nearby, and yes, he’s a horse thief, and, yes, a fortune teller says he’s destined to kill a man one day, but damn is he a looker, at least to Mary’s way of thinking.
There’s also an albino priest who’s ostensibly well-meaning, but creepy as hell, people getting lost on the moors, storms, fog, shipwrecks and a rising body count.
It all sounds like the stuff of fantasy, but Jamaica Inn is a real place and much of what takes place in the book is based (alright, very, very loosely based) on events that occurred in Cornwall in the early nineteenth century.
If I’d read Jamaica Inn as a teenager, or even in my early twenties, I would have thought it one of the most amazing books of all time ever and probably spent an awful lot of time imagining Jem Merlyn coming to whisk me away in the dead of night on one of his stolen steeds, much as I spent those years dreaming about Maxim de Winter, Rochester and Heathcliff (I know, I know, I was young and naive). However, being in my late twenties, I spent most of the book wanting to slap some sense into Mary and tell her to grab her aunt and get the hell out of Dodge.
That said, for those who like a good Gothic Romance (and I do, I really, really do), Jamaica Inn ticks all the boxes. It’s got buckets of gloomy atmosphere, handsome dangerous men, silly girls falling in love with them (despite the reader screaming what a bad idea that is) a creepy inn, murder, secrets and death, death, death. In the early stages of the narrative, du Maurier has us quaking in our ugg boots with terrors unseen. A length of rope from a rafter suggests murder, a creak upon the landing betrays a stranger lurking in the inn and the lack of warmth behind a priest’s kind words turns them sinister. It’s what she does best, and one of the things I loved most about Rebecca—in which the title character is dead before the story begins but has such a haunting, overbearing presence that the reader is terrified every new page will bring young Mrs de Winter face-to-face with Rebecca’s ghost.
However, in the later stages of the narrative, du Maurier does bring us face-to-face with the horrors of Jamaica Inn, and instead of just losing a little of the fright factor, as is inevitably the case when the monster/s is/are finally shown, the reveal is a little clunky and, for me at least, I was so distracted by thoughts of WHAT? NO! THIS WOULD NEVER HAPPEN THIS WAY! that the horror took a backseat.
Mary Yellan is largely the problem. The plot would almost work without her. She’s the ‘innocent’ drawn into the Gothic underworld, who doesn’t do a whole lot while she’s there other than act as a kind of lens for the reader to experience the horror through. This occasionally works well when the character has plausible motivation to stay despite the horror (I’m looking at you Richard Papen in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History), but other than her aunt, whom she hardly knows, Mary has no real reason to stay at Jamaica Inn and no reason not to inform the authorities (who are sniffing around anyway) as to what’s going down in the dead of night. Even her relationship with bad-boy Jem comes off as half-baked.
Maybe I’m just getting too old and cynical for this kind of story. I hope not.
Overall, despite what I’ve written above, I sincerely enjoyed Jamaica Innn and finished it in a couple of sittings, and fans of the Brontës, Robert Louis Stevenson and all things Gothic and sensationalist will enjoy it too. It’s a fun, freaky read that really gets the heart rate going and is best served with wine and chocolate on a dark and stormy night.