Review: Jamaica Inn, Daphne Du Maurier

For some reason or other, Daphne Du Maurier has the reputation of being a romance novelist, yet sentiment or even flirtation is largely absent from her fiction.  Her most famous work is of course Rebecca, a common teenage read but one which left me utterly cold.  Jamaica Inn was recently serialised on television and despite initial misgivings, I enjoyed it (once I had switched the subtitles on, obviously).  It was with great curiousity that I approached the novel and it is a very strange story.  At times dream-like and at others a nightmare, Du Maurier’s heroine Mary Yellan descends with the reader ever deeper into a dark world of corruption and Gothic horror.  From the outset, we are in a world of gusting winds and heavy storms.  Jamaica Inn gives Wuthering Heights a serious run for its money in terms of the atmospherics and the parallels do not end there.

Joss Merlyn

Like Wuthering Heights, Du Maurier’s writing is notable for its excess.  Mary Yellan has travelled to the Inn to live with her aunt Patience, now married to the barbaric Joss Merlyn.  As a grumpy teenager who loathed romance, I was attracted to Wuthering Heights because even the characters who were supposedly in love seemed to hate each other.  Still, while Emily Bronte conjures up Heathcliff as a tortured soul whose scorned love twists to something far more complex, Du Maurier’s Joss Merlyn is far more brutal.  Standing at seven feet tall, his violence and lust stop just short of rendering him a caricature and there is no romance in this man’s heart.  Mary Yellan herself takes a suspicious view of human relationships; she sees how her once vivacious Aunt Patience has become a pathetic and pitiful figure under Joss Merlyn’s dominance. Knowing that too many of her peers have been reduced to child-making drudges, Mary herself has sworn not marry.

Mary and Jem Merlyn

That Mary then finds herself attracted by Joss’ much younger horse-thief brother Jem raises the question of whether or not Mary will risk her limited independence for love – or even more pertinently the sexual satisfaction which Jem promises her.  This is further underlined by Joss Merlyn’s drunken ravings to Mary in which he states that there was a time when he himself could have won her and Mary herself realises that this is true.  She sees in Joss what she believes Jem will become and fears Jem’s involvement with the dark and ugly secrets at the heart of Jamaica Inn itself.  Mary’s determination to do what is right makes her a very appealing heroine, far more so than the intentionally forgettable and insipid second Mrs Dewinter of Rebecca fame.  Lost in an unfamiliar world, Mary attempts to make her way as she realises that her uncle is in fact a ‘wrecker’ – leader of a group of men who lure ships onto the rocks and steal their cargo.

Patience Merlyn

The television adaptation missed this central conflict at Mary’s core but added certain additional nuances; Jem became far kinder, his bond with Mary far more appealing, Aunt Patience was rendered complicit in Joss’ crimes and the kindly vicar was given an equally charitable sister.  The smuggling storyline was given flesh with additional characters to balance out the thinner parts of the narrative.  Jamaica Inn is a dark tale, it explores the very nature of evil itself.  Mary has been terrified during her time at the Inn, yet despite being told to hide her face in her blanket and ignore all that went on as her aunt did, Mary’s own sense of moral outrage prompts her to investigate further.  Along with Mary, the reader crouches in passages, listens in doorways and sits in quiet horror as a drunken Joss confesses to his crimes.  It was a pleasure to come across a Gothic heroine who was allowed so much agency.

Mary Yellan (c) BBC

Still, like all heroines, Mary has a fatal flaw.  Jamaica Inn is full of sinister shadows, but the darkness is not just where its heroine expects.  There is the sickening moment of revelation where all is revealed to be not as it seemed, the true villain tells Mary that she has got her information about right and wrong ‘from old books’; Mary has thought her uncle Joss to be the devil himself but while Joss is undoubtedly a drunken thug, he is humanised by his childish nocturnal fears in a way that his co-conspirator cannot be.  The question of evil, the insidious creep of it, is something rarely brought out in such a scalp-shrinkingly unpleasant manner.  Decades of Scoobie-Dooesque ‘I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you darn kids’ style revelations have deadened us to the twist ending but Jamaica Inn is written with a true sense of unease and the eerie.  The mists and mires of the surrounding countryside mirror Mary’s sense of confusion about where to go and who to turn to.

Jamaica Inn is a startling read in context; first published in 1935, it explicitly states that Mary would have been gang-raped if her uncle’s fellow wreckers had not known her as his niece.  Joss Merlyn tells Mary about the time he murdered a young mother and her child.  Aunt Patience is Joss’ battered wife, utterly cowed into subservience and with no will left of her own.  This is not a nice place to be.  Mary’s energy and determination to keep to her conscience is never portrayed as mealy-mouthed; she is a woman of courage and passion.  Daphne Du Maurier has not set out to moralise, but rather to unsettle.  We leave the novel with a sense of discomfort, that the rules we have believed in have been proven false and that we and Mary will forever look over our shoulder in unease.  While the television adaptation placed emphasis on the central mystery, the novel focuses on its heroine’s internal struggles.  Jamaica Inn is a story to snuggle into on a rainy day; compelling, frightening but with a confident heroine who lifts the novel from pot-boiler to classic.

CGrace over at Book and a Quilt wrote an excellent post in response to this one, read it here.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
Published by Hachette UK on December 17th 2013
Genres: Fiction, Thrillers, Suspense, Romance, Psychological
Pages: 320
ISBN: 9780316252904

This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

4 thoughts on “Review: Jamaica Inn, Daphne Du Maurier

  1. Great review! I really loved Jamaica Inn, too. I do remember that this book had an unsettled, intense feeling to it. Was it more intense as a TV series?

    I also loved Rebecca, though. It's funny, because the second Mrs. Dewinter (I think it was brilliant to keep her nameless, by the way) was kind of mealy…just so bland! But for some reason, the plot really gripped me. However, I can totally understand the faults you mention with the story.

  2. BBC made a television series about a month or so ago and what it has become best known for is that the actors were rather inaudible (lots and lots of mumbling). I enjoyed it once I'd put the subtitles on but having read it, I can see that they fleshed out the mystery by adding extra characters while the actual book is far more focussed on Mary. The novel is all about Mary's choices, her beliefs, her feelings while the TV series gives the other characters slightly more scope. I can see advantages to both but I really enjoyed the book.

    I agree that it really highlighted the second Mrs Dewinter's formlessness to leave her unnamed – I just find it really odd that Rebecca is marketed as a romance novel when it is named after a dead woman who (spoilers) was killed by her rather insufferable husband. There is a sense of the unpleasant in a lot of Du Maurier's fiction – I think Mrs Danvers is one of the most fantastic villains that there has ever been. I tend not to warm to books which have no likeable characters and although I think that Rebecca is very well done, I just never could love it the way so many other people did. Thank you for the comment – I read your post in response – very interesting. Is it ok if I post a link to it in this post? 🙂

  3. Go ahead and link! I would be fascinated to read somebody's thesis on Daphne DuMaurier's complex psychology that made her write such unpleasant scenarios (how's that's for a niche thesis?!)

  4. Having swiftly read Jamaica Inn ( concurrently with Hungry Hill, tho this is isn’t quite so much a page turner and will be consumed at a leisurely pace) I was really impressed by the quality of the author’s style, plot building and her ability to convey with justice the majesty and bleakness of Bodmin moor.

    The characters are portrayed like an ink drawing, with no superfluous detail . Just as it works for Hardy to character study in rich oils his provincial and country characters, du Maurier gives the reader of Jamaica Inn just enough background and history, thus keeping the narrative direct and always going forward. That lack of indulgent introspection never has the novel at risk of being bogged down – the constant danger of Cornish marshes do that for the writer far better …

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