As with many people, my first encounter with Daphne du Maurier’s writing was through the atmospheric Rebecca. However, whilst Rebecca is generally considered to be Du Maurier’s finest work and whilst I enjoyed it immensely, I have to admit that after reading Jamaica Inn I actually prefer it. Whilst there is something slightly irksome about the timid and tellingly nameless heroine of Rebecca who quails in the wake of a dead woman and a creepy housekeeper, Jamaica Inn’s Mary Yellan is by far one of the strongest heroines I’ve read about in a long time, holding her own against a violent thug and his cohort.
The story begins with Mary travelling to her Aunt Patience’s following the death of her mother. The last time she saw her Aunt Patience was years ago, and she remembers her a vivacious, spirited woman. However, when she arrives at her home, Jamaica Inn, she finds her Aunt a changed woman and her husband, Joss Merlyn, a cruel, violent drunk who uses the inn as a front for a gang of criminals. As the story progresses, Mary is drawn further into the lawless underworld of Jamaica Inn, and must question her own moral code, and deal with her growing feelings for her uncle’s brother Jem.
One of the things I like most about Daphne du Maurier’s writing is that whilst it has all the atmosphere and tension of a classic Gothic novel like Wuthering Heights, the accessible language makes it an easy read and I literally could not put this book down. I was hooked from the very first page, which expertly establishes the setting on the bleak Bodmin Moors. This setting proves so integral to the Gothic atmosphere that pervades the novel that it seems almost a character itself, being as moody and changeable as the landlord of Jamaica Inn.
The characterisation itself was also effective, with no one character being a clear cut good or bad guy. Mary, despite being in the position of the classic helpless Gothic heroine, refuses to be cowed by her uncle, and determinedly sets out to discover the truth about goings-on at Jamaica Inn, and see justice done. Joss Merlyn as the ‘villain’ of the piece is also well drawn. His immense size coupled with a violent temper, love of cruelty and drinking habit could easily have resulted in a stereotypical household tyrant, but this is not the case. In odd moments the mask slips and it is revealed that he is haunted by some of the terrible things he has done, and has some kind of admiration and respect for Mary’s strength. There is also something inherently creepy about the mad Aunt Patience, who seems to act as an almost spectral presence at Jamaica Inn. She is a shadow of her former self, wringing her hands and trying to evade her husband’s bad temper, whilst tenderly caring for him in his drunken stupors.
And then there’s Jem Merlyn, the ‘romantic hero’ of Jamaica Inn. Whilst there is something slightly Heathcliff-esque about him – he certainly isn’t the noble, dashing hero who swoops in to rescue the damsel in distress – he is inherently more likable. Whilst Heathcliff is moody and brooding, Jem is cheerful and bold and has a sense of humour that Heathcliff clearly lacks, teasing Mary at every chance. Whilst his openness about his ‘profession’ – stealing horses – and his family’s reputation for violence and criminality makes Mary understandably cautious of him, and initially reluctant to pursue her feelings, it becomes clear that his moral line is more clearly drawn than his brother’s.
Even the smaller characters in Jamaica Inn have impact, with the likes of the sneaky and repellent Harry the pedlar and the pompous but well-meaning Squire Bassat making memorable appearances throughout. And of course there’s the enigmatic albino vicar of Alternun, who seems to be Mary’s only ally against her uncle and his gang.
The plot of the novel is fast-paced, and doesn’t seem to waste a moment in building up both the setting and the suspense, even when, as in the first chapter, it is simply filling in back story. There is also, as in Rebecca, a monumental twist towards the end which, whilst not entirely unexpected, was effective nonetheless.
It’s testament to how much I enjoyed the book that I zipped through it in a little over a day, and then went on to almost immediately order more Daphne du Maurier titles online (I currently have Frenchman’s Creek and My Cousin Rachel winging their way to me!). Packing all the atmosphere of a Brontë novel and with complex, interesting characters, I would recommend the book to anyone. I would certainly be interested to watch the recent BBC adaption to see how it compares to the book, although, as I believe it is best watched with subtitles!