Jamaica 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?