Jamaica Inn

jamaica innJamaica Inn was the novel Daphne du Maurier wrote before she produced her masterpiece, Rebecca. She had been married a few years and was trying to adapt herself to life as an army wife, a situation with far less money than she was used to, and far less independence and solitude. She had recently come to the conclusion that she was only happy ‘in the middle of Dartmoor in a hail storm within an hour of sundown of a late November afternoon.’ Yet she found herself cooped up in army quarters, surrounded by other army wives and their children in whose business she was expected to show an interest. For the first time she experienced the dreariness of poverty around her, and could not understand how other wives coped with their domestic burdens.

There was one wretched woman,’ she wrote to a friend, ‘whose husband was only a private and she had nine children under nine! They live in a room half the size of yours… and three of them wouldn’t walk and had a skin disease and they were all propped up on chairs around the room while the poor woman cooked the rather unsavory stew for midday dinner.’

She found such circumstances deeply disturbing but her temperament led her to shrink from them. She wanted to do better; she was deeply in love with her new husband, and it was a marriage of passion, love at first sight, she had admitted, which had shocked her to the core of what she had always considered to be her unromantic soul. ‘It was,’ she wrote, ‘going to be a bit of a job at first to change all my old ideas and to have a shot at living “unselfishly” for the first time in my life.’ She was impressed by her husband’s ideals and his integrity, his sense of duty. Still, she often found herself escaping from the barracks and roaming Bodmin Moor, where a new novel began to take shape.

Jamaica Inn has elements of what would become classic du Maurier – a powerful sense of place, a strong spirit of adventure, a determined heroine who would struggle and suffer but not be beaten. Her heroine is Mary Yellan, who is obliged by a promise to her dying mother to go live with an aunt she barely knows in the middle of the inhospitable moors. It is precisely the kind of windswept November dusk Daphne loved that Mary is travelling through when the novel opens. The coachman is reluctant to set her down at Jamaica Inn, which has so bad a reputation he will not speak about it. Mary arrives to find her uncle, the landlord, is a drunken bully and a criminal who has reduced her aunt to a quivering wreck. All too soon, Mary learns that the Inn is the gathering place for a network of smugglers, rough, ugly reckless men who will stop at nothing to follow their trade. She decides that her uncle will not break her, and that she will somehow get her aunt away from him.

Daphne du Maurier’s eye-opening experiences with the honorably poor were transformed in her writer’s imagination. She has a particularly lurid collection of thieves, pedlars and vagabonds clustering around Jamaica Inn, and the inn itself is a wonderful piece of squalor and degradation. But rather than the tedious reality of reduced circumstances, her poor folk step a few rungs further down the ladder and take on the altogether more vivid and fictionally alluring mantle of crime. Jamaica Inn, and all it stands for, is portrayed as brilliantly, aggressively terrible.

Mary’s purpose is troubled, however, when she meets Jem Merlyn, the landlord’s younger brother. Jem is upfront about his profession – horse thief – but he has charm and sobriety that brother Joss lacks. Despite herself, Mary finds she has fallen in love with him. Daphne du Maurier knew what it was to fall in love unexpectedly, and to be attracted to a certain kind of alpha male, whose clear and steady convictions exert a potent desirability. Mary’s plans to bring the landlord to justice herself, and to maintain her stout-hearted independence are repeatedly undercut by Jem’s better insight into the situation at the inn, and her sheer lust for him. Writing in the early years of her marriage, tightly bound to her husband, but feeling for that very reason that her wings had been clipped, we might assume that du Maurier knew whereof she spoke.

Jamaica Inn is essentially a rip-roaring, old-fashioned sort of tale that stands the test of time because of the evocatively wrought atmosphere and Mary’s spirited defence of herself and her aunt. But for all her boyish determination, Mary is trapped by her gender. No one will allow her to live alone or make her own choices. She is simply not as strong as a man. Love is a cage of its own making. At regular intervals across the narrative, Mary bemoans her misfortune in being born female, and nothing in the story gives her reason to change her mind; even falling in love, supposedly the one adventure open to women in her era, is a different kind of prison. Daphne du Maurier was writing in the 1930s, when women were restrained and held back every which way, and could never have dreamed of the life their granddaughters would lead. Du Maurier was more far-sighted than most, having been born half-boy as she liked to think. But precisely because her own spirit hankered for more than she was allowed, she could be bitter about the constraints she had to accept.

Marriage was about to make one almost intolerable demand on her. Tommy, her husband, was soon to be transferred to Egypt and Daphne would go with him. For someone who loved rainy moors in November, Egypt was a hellish exile. Daphne’s sense of place, already strong in her writing, would reach its apogee in Rebecca, as she longed for the Cornwall of her youth. And her artistic vision would have matured too. Rather than write about someone who has everything she wants and loses it for love, as Mary Yellan ultimately does, she wrote about a woman who has nothing, and whose gains in marriage are invaluable and all too precious. Then she puts them at terrible risk from being haunted, and maybe destroyed, by the past. Jamaica Inn was a very useful – and readable – stepping stone on Daphne du Maurier’s creative pathway.

This is my desperately late contribution to the Slaves of Golconda read of Jamaica Inn. Better late than never, right guys?





35 thoughts on “Jamaica Inn

    • You’re welcome! My second favourite du Maurier novel is My Cousin Rachel. I recommend that as a follow-up to Rebecca, if you are interested in reading more by her!

  1. I love this little essay. It told me so much more about Jamaica Inn than I had imagined – only associating du Maurier with Cornwall and a sense of privilege as I had.

    I loved Jamaica Inn as a teenager – I liked it more than Rebecca as it is more immediate, more of an adventure than the mind games of Rebecca. And reading this I realise it makes sense, with the greatest of respect, that Jamaica Inn appeals more to the less mature mind, being a book written in the run up to the greater masterpiece.

    • I think the difference between the two is that Jamaica Inn is a romance – which is to say, it’s about not knowing what they future holds, or what the other person is really like, but wanting to reach the fulcrum of a fantasy. Rebecca is what happens after the fulcrum is past, and reality seeps in. So Jamaica Inn is wonderful for its verve and spirit, whereas Rebecca is disturbing and subversive. I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of teenagers would prefer the first! I still like Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne du Maurier – it’s quite old now but still brilliantly written, if you’d like to know more about her. Thank you for the lovely comment!

  2. What an interesting review, it makes me picture the book as if I was reading it. My reading list is so long now, and my reading so slow, I don’t think I can put it on my list now, but it must go, soon.

    • I hear you about long reading lists! Mine is ginormous. And I will insist on adding to it all the time – someone put mittens on me please and lead me away from the keyboard!! 😉

  3. Having been very disappointed by My Cousin Rachel, I haven’t been keen to pick up another du Maurier. This one sounds far more interesting. I liked the way you interwove the themes of the books with the influences and experiences of her own life.

  4. I’m sure I read this as a teenager, but can’t remember any of it. When I last went on holiday to Cornwall, we did drive past ‘Jamaica Inn’ but didn’t stop – the coachpark was full.

    Thanks for setting the genesis of the novel in context, that was fascinating. I must read (or re-read) some Daphne one day soon. (That’s what I say about all books and authors I feel guilty of ignoring though)…

    • I say it too! If only there weren’t so many tempting authors out there (and then again, I’d be very sorry not to have almost infinite variety…). I’ll bet Jamaica Inn is a huge tourist attraction now – makes you long for the days of du Maurier’s novel, even if it was a dreadful dive then! 🙂

    • I had a huge passion on her books in my late teens and hoovered a lot of them up then. I reread Rebecca a few years ago, and now this one (which I can’t even recall if I’ve read or not – how I miss my memory!). One day I’ll reread My Cousin Rachel, as I recall that one being especially good.

  5. Such an interesting post.
    I’ve read this as a teenager and it was the only one of her books I really didn’t like. Reading your review I wonder if we read the same book. I’m even tempted to reread it.

    • I love looking at the moment in time when a book was written. It seems to say so much to me about the book itself. I know I often feel differently about books now than I did as a teenager, but there’s no rule as to whether I’ll like them more or less! But I have been surprised by how very differently a book can strike me on separate readings of it.

  6. So interesting to think about this book in the context of du Maurier’s life. I know little about her and hadn’t bothered to see where this fell in the sequence of her novels, but your observations about her recent marriage shed a new light on both Mary and Patience’s romantic relationships and the general ambivalence toward romance in the novel. The book seems quite clear-eyed about both its dangers and its appeal, and I’m wondering how we’re supposed to feel about Mary’s choice at the end in light of all this.

    • Isn’t the end intriguing? Part of me shudders at how little Mary is prepared to accept from Jem in exchange for her love and loyalty. I sort of felt that Jamaica Inn had spoiled her, that she couldn’t go back to the gentle, peaceful life she’d led with her mother, even though she wanted to. But if that’s the case, it doesn’t say anything very positive about romance, which is definitely a case of hope triumphing over reason.

  7. It’s amazing what a little biography can bring to your understanding of a book. Thanks for this! It’s interesting to hear that she wrote Rebecca in Egypt, too – I’d always assumed she was in Cornwall, but it makes more sense that the strong sense of place came not from being in it but from missing it.

    • I’ve been reading up about Dodie Smith lately, who wrote I Capture The Castle in exile in America. Exile seems to be a really fascinating state for writers to be in, and it often provokes them into their best work. Perhaps you could like Crete less, for the sake of your art? 😉

  8. Wonderful post as always, Litlove! I’ve only read Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel (and maaaaybe Frenchman’s Creek a long time ago?), but I’d like to read more of Du Maurier’s stuff. I think she has creepy/interesting things to say about gender in her times.

    • I completely agree about the creepy gender things. I wonder whether her short stories wouldn’t be the best way to pursue that part of her writing. Some of them were incredibly creepy and what we might call gender-perplexed.

  9. a most lovely and thoughtful review.

    reading daphne duM’s childhood memoirs was a revelation of her innermost thoughts and yes, you’re right, the half-boy, fighting against the restraints and constraints of 1930s england was almost too much for her at times.

    thank god she wrote.

    thank the gods we all write!

    or we would go cRaZY 😉


    _tg x

    • You are so right – she is such a good example of someone who wrote to stay sane. And by extrapolation a good example of how helpful writing is for sanity! I think I will have to borrow your delightful spelling of cRaZY but I’ll credit you, never fear!
      *wavingfromcambridge* xx

      • ah. we didn’t make that up.

        who-we-are-in-RL works in technology and it was a ‘big thing’ in the mid-90s to do random capitalization of letters as a way of ‘denoting difference’ and geekdom 😉

        so feel free.

        let’s reclaim it for the Literary Smart Set.

  10. Halfway through your review I realised I was as lost in it as I become when I’m reading a good novel … you write so very well. I’m looking forward to your own fiction (I am right in thinking that’s your path, aren’t I? Or at least one of them …).

    • What a lovely comment, thank you! I’m actually into creative non-fiction at the moment, but given how hard I work to try to make it read like a fictional narrative, I am particularly pleased by your remark! I did try to write a novel the year before last, but then abandoned it before the final chapter. I know, I know! But the energy just went, and there it was, looking silly. Perhaps one day I’ll manage to finish it off.

    • I did exactly the same thing, and yes, her novels take me back very vividly to the ‘sun-lounger years’ when I had nothing more taxing to do during holidays than read in the back garden – nice memories!

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