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On a bitter November evening, young Mary Yellan journeys across the rainswept moors to Jamaica Inn in honor of her mother's dying request. When she arrives, the warning of the coachman begins to echo in her memory, for her aunt Patience cowers before hulking Uncle Joss Merlyn. Terrified of the inn's brooding power, Mary gradually finds herself ensnared in the dark schemes being enacted behind its crumbling walls — and tempted to love a man she dares not trust.
The inspiration for the 1939 Alfred Hitchcock film.
Table of Contents
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Jamaica Inn opens with echoes of Dracula: a carriage rattling through a desolate landscape and wild weather to a place where even the locals won't go, so ferocious is its reputation. Inside rides Mary Yellan, newly orphaned and en route from the tame farmland of the Helford area to the rainswept moors of nineteenth-century Cornwall and the married home of her aunt, a woman once known for her rich curls and girlish laughter. We are in the territory of the gothic novel, but one with an undercurrent of modern sensibility.
Mary's destination, Jamaica Inn, stands dark and forbidding at the top of the moor. It is the house from hell. At night the sign outside twists in the wind like a human body on a gibbet. Inside, the place reeks of neglect, drink and male violence. The lovely giggling Aunt Patience is now a gaunt, shaky wreck, her spirit destroyed by abuse, and her husband, Joss Merlyn, is a monster: physically overwhelming, lumbering, violent and drunk. By the end of the first day, as the light bleeds away and Mary barricades herself in her miserable little room, a pact has been made with the reader. This is going to be a journey into darkness, and it's going to deliver both violence and sensation.
It doesn't take long to find out why the inn and its landlord are so feared. Early on, most readers will have guessed the reason. Cornwall, with its bleak, treacherous coastline and wild weather, was for much of its history a law unto itself. Jamaica Inn may now be a tourist trap reduced to kitsch by the publicity of minor literary fame, but when du Maurier would have first seen it, in the 1920s, it would no doubt have been a more desolate place which, with the right imagination, could easily be transformed into Robert Louis Stevenson territory and the heart of a smuggling ring that not only hides the booty but runs a gang of wreckers who lure the ships onto the rocks to drown their crew and steal their cargo.
There's no doubt that many of the ingredients of Jamaica Inn—wild men, wild land, dark secrets and violent ends—are close to gothic cliché and would have been even in 1936 when Daphne du Maurier wrote the book. But what makes the novel still vibrant is to see how in the hands of a master storyteller—because that is exactly what du Maurier is—the form can be revitalized and even to some measure reinvented.
The way she does it is twofold: first by sheer force of plotting. Mary, alarmed and demoralized, may have found herself in hell, but she has no option but to stay, held by her loyalty to her aunt and the need to protect her. In the eyes of the community that makes her virtually an outlaw herself. All good thrillers have to isolate their hero if the threat is really going to bite, and even when Mary manages to get herself out of the house, the desolation of the moors only mocks her helplessness, the landscape and the weather as much a force in this book as any of the characters. The only other people she meets are in their own way as bizarre as the inn's inhabitants. There is her uncle's younger brother Jem, a horse thief and an adventurer whose attraction keeps her on the wrong side of the law, and the strangely tender mercies of one Francis Davey, the Vicar of Altarnun, a fabulously unnerving character whose soft speech clashes with his bleached albino looks and his heavy whip on the horse's back.
But for most of the book it is Mary's battle with Joss Merlyn that keeps you turning the page. As a character he isn't to everybody's taste. Du Maurier's own biographer, Margaret Forster, finds him near to caricature, and it's true that he is larger than life. But there is also a terrible fascination to him. His brooding figure, craggy looks and wild temper are in their own way all attributes of the romantic hero inverted into violence and self-loathing—a Mr. Rochester without a Jane to redeem him. Before guilt and drink disabled Joss he would have been a charismatic figure. (Du Maurier had lived too long with a glamorous, powerful father—the actor Gerald du Maurier—not to have understood that there is a price to be paid for charisma.) There is something in Joss Merlyn's torment that smells of damage done as well as inflicted. And it's here that Jamaica Inn pushes at the boundaries of the romantic genre to suggest how passion between men and women can lead to abuse. Joss's wife may now be a quivering victim, but at one point she was madly in love with this powerful man, believing she could somehow save him from himself. There is a hint of collusion here, and despite her fear Patience still makes excuses for Joss, trying to deflect his anger in a way that only provokes it further. Du Maurier herself doesn't excuse him. Admittedly, she gives him a childhood with its own history of violence, and an abused, helpless mother, but she never lets him off the hook. For all his physical strength he is a weak character, and though Mary may be morally and physically repelled by him she is also up for the battle. And a battle it is, from the moment he latches onto her both as his prey, the next woman after his wife that he must break and destroy—and also in some desperate hope that Mary will match him and somehow bring him to redemption.
There is an extraordinary scene halfway through the book—in its way much more frightening than the real thing, which comes later—when Joss emerges from a drinking bout to accost Mary in the kitchen. Crazed by waking nightmares, he offers up a lacerating confession about the ships he has lured onto the rocks and the survivors he has bludgeoned to death in the roaring surf, their faces coming back to haunt him. His terror at that moment is much greater than Mary's, but it is her sentence to be the helpless listener. It is worth knowing as you read this scene that du Maurier's own husband, the affable, charming, good-looking Frederick Browning, had been a war hero; one of the things that marked the early years of their marriage was the way he would wake at night screaming, and she would have to try and comfort him. Some of du Maurier's own helpless horror is in Mary as she watches, repelled and overwhelmed by her uncle's raving confessions.
This painful realism of the relationship between men and women also underpins Mary's growing attraction to her uncle's brother, Jem. There is a quiet cynicism to du Maurier's description of their courtship. Mary knows that Jem will probably bring her as much pain as happiness, but she accepts it as part of how the world works. She has watched it unfold too many times around her to be fooled: seen how a teasing courtship down sun-drenched lanes will be replaced by the mundanity and exhaustion of married life, the man "calling sharply that his supper was burned, not fit for a dog, while the girl snapped back at him from the bedroom overhead, her figure sagging and her curls gone, pacing backward and forward with a bundle in her arms that mewed like a cat and would not sleep." Du Maurier had had her first child just a few years before she wrote this novel and while the nanny had done more caring than she ever did (the one time she was left with the baby it screamed its head off), there is a taste of experience to the vision. For a book which at one level is a romantic adventure story, Jamaica Inn is full of decidedly unromantic thoughts.
The novel doesn't dwell on them though. It's too busy winching the story ever tighter. Once you get past the second chapter it's almost impossible to read Jamaica Inn slowly. It is the burden of thriller writers to have the reader tell them admiringly how fast they read your books. "I couldn't put it down" is both the greatest compliment and the cruelest cut of all, since it almost certainly means that a reader's greed to get to the end of the book will have made them careless with some of the best writing on the way. It's a trade-off thriller writers have to accept. But du Maurier never set out to write literary fiction. Her style is intelligent and fluid, sufficient unto the cause of telling the story. But then it wasn't her style that made her famous. That's not why she is still being reprinted when a hundred other writers of her age are footnotes in fiction. And while she has dated in certain respects—her dialogue can sometimes feel a little stilted and there are perhaps one too many dark nights and haunted moors for modern taste—almost seventy years have in no way dimmed her capacity to hook the reader like a fish and angle them in through the rising waters of the plot. There is virtually no spare action here. It would be invidious to give away the last twist, and while there will be those who see it coming, foresight doesn't rob it of its elegant baroque menace, with more than a touch of the Hannibal Lecter/Clarice Starling relationship thrown into the dark mix. Mary Yellan sups with many devils in this book and by the end there is not even a long spoon between them.
In the end—well, in the end the book resolves itself as any good gothic adventure should, by bringing the reader out of darkness into at least a semblance of light. Mary Yellan survives. But even though the writer doesn't say it directly, you can be sure Mary will not sleep well at night. That is the price you pay for winning such battles. The good triumph but, like du Maurier's husband, they remain damaged by the fight. For all of her privileged middle-class upbringing, by the time Daphne du Maurier wrote Jamaica Inn at the comparatively young age of 29, she too, already had something of darkness about her. She was, in fact, well on her way to Rebecca.
Jamaica Inn stands today, hospitable and kindly, a temperance house on the twenty-mile road between Bodmin and Launceston.
In the following story of adventure I have pictured it as it might have been over a hundred and twenty years ago; and although existing place-names figure in the pages, the characters and events described are entirely imaginary.
Daphne du Maurier
It was a cold gray day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o'clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist. It would be dark by four. The air was clammy cold, and for all the tightly closed windows it penetrated the interior of the coach. The leather seats felt damp to the hands, and there must have been a small crack in the roof, because now and again little drips of rain fell softly through, smudging the leather and leaving a dark-blue stain like a splodge of ink. The wind came in gusts, at time shaking the coach as it traveled round the bend of the road, and in the exposed places on the high ground it blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed, rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man.
The driver, muffled in a greatcoat to his ears, bent almost double in his seat in a faint endeavor to gain shelter from his own shoulders, while the dispirited horses plodded sullenly to his command, too broken by the wind and the rain to feel the whip that now and again cracked above their heads, while it swung between the numb fingers of the driver.
The wheels of the coach creaked and groaned as they sank into the ruts on the road, and sometimes they flung up the soft spattered mud against the windows, where it mingled with the constant driving rain, and whatever view there might have been of the countryside was hopelessly obscured.
The few passengers huddled together for warmth, exclaiming in unison when the coach sank into a heavier rut than usual, and one old fellow, who had kept up a constant complaint ever since he had joined the coach at Truro, rose from his seat in a fury; and, fumbling with the window-sash, let the window down with a crash, bringing a shower of rain in upon himself and his fellow-passengers. He thrust his head out and shouted up to the driver, cursing him in a high petulant voice for a rogue and a murderer; that they would all be dead before they reached Bodmin if he persisted in driving at breakneck speed; they had no breath left in their bodies as it was, and he for one would never travel by coach again.
Whether the driver heard him or not was uncertain; it seemed more likely that the stream of reproaches was carried away in the wind, for the old fellow, after waiting a moment, put up the window again, having thoroughly chilled the interior of the coach, and, settling himself once more in his corner, wrapped his blanket about his knees and muttered in his beard.
His nearest neighbor, a jovial red-faced woman in a blue cloak, sighed heavily in sympathy, and, with a wink to anyone who might be looking and a jerk of her head towards the old man, she remarked for at least the twentieth time that it was the dirtiest night she ever remembered, and she had known some; that it was proper old weather and no mistaking it for summer this time; and, burrowing into the depths of a large basket, she brought out a great hunk of cake and plunged into it with strong white teeth.
Mary Yellan sat in the opposite corner, where the trickle of rain oozed through the crack in the roof. Sometimes a cold drip of moisture fell upon her shoulder, which she brushed away with impatient fingers.
She sat with her chin cupped in her hands, her eyes fixed on the window splashed with mud and rain, hoping with a sort of desperate interest that some ray of light would break the heavy blanket of sky, and but a momentary trace of that lost blue heaven that had mantled Helford yesterday shine for an instant as a forerunner of fortune.
Already, though barely forty miles by road from what had been her home for three and twenty years, the hope within her heart had tired, and that rather gallant courage which was so large a part of her, and had stood her in such stead during the long agony of her mother's illness and death, was now shaken by this first fall of rain and the nagging wind.
The country was alien to her, which was defeat in itself. As she peered through the misty window of the coach she looked out upon a different world from the one she had known only a day's journey back. How remote now and hidden perhaps forever were the shining waters of Helford, the green hills and the sloping valleys, the white cluster of cottages at the water's edge. It was a gentle rain that fell at Helford, a rain that pattered in the many trees and lost itself in the lush grass, formed into brooks and rivulets that emptied into the broad river, sank into the grateful soil which gave back flowers in payment.
This was a lashing, pitiless rain that stung the windows of the coach, and it soaked into a hard and barren soil. No trees here, save one or two that stretched bare branches to the four winds, bent and twisted from centuries of storm, and so black were they by time and tempest that, even if spring did breathe on such a place, no buds would dare to come to leaf for fear the late frost should kill them. It was a scrubby land, without hedgerow or meadow; a country of stones, black heather, and stunted broom.
There would never be a gentle season here, thought Mary; either grim winter as it was today, or else the dry and parching heat of midsummer, with never a valley to give shade or shelter, but grass that turned yellow-brown before May was passed. The country had gone gray with the weather. Even the people on the road and in the villages changed in harmony with their background. At Helston, where she had taken the first coach, she had trodden familiar ground. So many childish memories clung about Helston. The weekly drive to market with her father in the vanished days, and, when he was taken from them, the fortitude with which her mother held his place, driving backwards and forwards, winter and summer, as he had done, with her hens and her eggs and her butter at the back of the cart, while Mary sat at her side, clutching a basket as big as herself, her small chin resting on the handle. Folk were friendly in Helston; the name of Yellan was known and respected in the town, for the widow had had a hard fight against life when her husband died, and there were not many women who would have lived alone as she did with one child and a farm to tend, with never a thought of taking another man. There was a farmer at Manaccan who would have asked her had he dared, and another up the river at Gweek, but they could tell from her eyes she would have neither of them, but belonged in body and mind to the man who had gone. It was the hard work of the farm that told upon her in the end, for she would not spare herself, and, though she had driven and flogged her energy for the seventeen years of her widowhood, she could not stand up to the strain when the last test came, and her heart went from her.
Little by little her stock had decreased, and with times being bad—so she was told in Helston—and prices fallen to nothing, there was no money anywhere. Up-country it was the same. There would be starvation in the farms before long. Then a sickness attacked the ground and killed the livestock in the villages round Helford. There was no name to it, and no cure could be discovered. It was a sickness that came over everything and destroyed, much as a late frost will out of season, coming with the new moon and then departing, leaving no trace of its passage save the little trail of dead things in its path. It was an anxious, weary time for Mary Yellan and her mother. One by one they saw the chickens and the ducklings they had reared sicken and die, and the young calf fell in the meadow where he stood. The most pitiful was the old mare who had served them twenty years, and upon whose broad and sturdy back Mary had first straddled her young legs. She died in the stall one morning, her faithful head in Mary's lap; and when a pit was dug for her under the apple-tree in the orchard, and she was buried, and they knew she would no longer carry them to Helston market-day, Mary's mother turned to her and said, "There's something of me gone in the grave with poor Nell, Mary. I don't know whether it's my faith or what it is, but my heart feels tired and I can't go on anymore."
She went into the house and sat down in the kitchen, pale as a sheet, and ten years beyond her age. She shrugged her shoulders when Mary said she would fetch the doctor. "It's too late, child," she said, "seventeen years too late." And she began to cry softly, who had never cried before.
Mary fetched the old doctor who lived in Mawgan and who had brought her into the world, and as he drove her back in his trap he shook his head at her. "I tell you what it is, Mary," he said; "your mother has spared neither her mind nor her body since your father died, and she has broken down at last. I don't like it. It's come at a bad time."
They drove along the twisting lane to the farmhouse at the top of the village. A neighbor met them at the gate, her face eager to impart bad news. "Your mother's worse," she cried. "She came out of the door just now, staring like a ghost, and she trembled all over, and fell down in the path. Mrs. Hoblyn has gone to her, and Will Searle; they've lifted her inside, poor soul. They say her eyes are shut."
Firmly the doctor pushed the little gaping crowd away from the door. Together he and the man Searle lifted the still figure from the floor and carried her upstairs to the bedroom.
"It's a stroke," said the doctor, "but she's breathing; her pulse is steady. This is what I've been afraid of—that she'd snap suddenly, like this. Why it's come just now, after all these years, is known only to the Lord and herself. You must prove yourself your parents' child now, Mary, and help her through this. You are the only one who can."
For six long months or more Mary nursed her mother in this her first and last illness, but with all the care she and the doctor gave her it was not the widow's will to recover. She had no wish to fight for her life.
It was as though she longed for release, and prayed silently that it would come quickly. She said to Mary, "I don't want you to struggle as I have done. It's a breaking of the body and of the spirit. There's no call for you to stay on at Helford after I am gone. It's best for you to go to your Aunt Patience up to Bodmin."
There was no use in Mary telling her mother that she would not die. It was fixed there in her mind and there was no fighting it.
"I haven't any wish to leave the farm, mother," she said. "I was born here and my father before me, and you were a Helford woman. This is where the Yellans belong to be. I'm not afraid of being poor, and the farm falling away. You worked here for seventeen years alone, so why shouldn't I do the same? I'm strong; I can do the work of a man; you know that."
"It's no life for a girl," said her mother. "I did it all these years because of your father, and because of you. Working for someone keeps a woman calm and contented, but it's another thing when you work for yourself. There's no heart in it then."
"I'd be no use in a town," said Mary. "I've never known anything but this life by the river, and I don't want to. Going into Helston is town enough for me. I'm best here, with the few chickens that's left to us, and the green stuff in the garden, and the old pig, and a bit of a boat on the river. What would I do up to Bodmin with my Aunt Patience?"
"A girl can't live alone, Mary, without she goes queer in the head, or comes to evil. It's either one or the other. Have you forgotten poor Sue, who walked the churchyard at midnight with the full moon, and called upon the lover she had never had? And there was one maid, before you were born, left an orphan at sixteen. She ran away to Falmouth and went with the sailors.
"I'd not rest in my grave, nor your father neither, if we didn't leave you safe. You'll like your Aunt Patience; she was always a great one for games and laughing, with a heart as large as life. You remember when she came here, twelve years back? She had ribbons in her bonnet and a silk petticoat. There was a fellow working at Trelowarren had an eye to her, but she thought herself too good for him."
Yes, Mary remembered Aunt Patience, with her curled fringe and large blue eyes, and how she laughed and chatted, and how she picked up her skirts and tiptoed through the mud in the yard. She was as pretty as a fairy.
"What sort of a man your Uncle Joshua is I cannot say," said her mother, "for I've never set eyes on him nor known anyone what has. But when your aunt married him ten years ago last Michaelmas she wrote a pack of giddy nonsense you'd expect a girl to write, and not a woman over thirty."
"They'd think me rough," said Mary slowly. "I haven't the pretty manners they'd expect. We wouldn't have much to say to one another."
"They'll love you for yourself and not for any airs and graces. I want you to promise me this, child, that when I'm gone you'll write to your Aunt Patience and tell her that it was my last and dearest wish that you should go to her."
"I promise," said Mary, but her heart was heavy and distressed at the thought of a future so insecure and changed, with all that she had known and loved gone from her, and not even the comfort of familiar trodden ground to help her through the bad days when they came.
Daily her mother weakened; daily the life ebbed from her. She lingered through harvest-time, and through the fruit-picking, and through the first falling of the leaves. But when the mists came in the morning, and the frosts settled on the ground, and the swollen river ran in flood to meet the boisterous sea, and the waves thundered and broke on the little beaches of Helford, the widow turned restlessly in her bed, plucking at the sheets. She called Mary by her dead husband's name, and spoke of things that were gone, and of people Mary had never known. For three days she lived in a little world of her own, and on the fourth day she died.
One by one Mary saw the things she had loved and understood pass into other hands. The livestock went at Helston market. The furniture was bought by neighbors, stick by stick. A man from Coverack took a fancy to the house and purchased it; with pipe in mouth he straddled the yard and pointed out the changes he would make, the trees he would cut down to clear his view; while Mary watched him in dumb loathing from her window as she packed her small belongings in her father's trunk.
This stranger from Coverack made her an interloper in her own home; she could see from his eye he wanted her to be gone, and she had no other thought now but to be away and out of it all, and her back turned forever. Once more she read the letter from her aunt, written in a cramped hand, on plain paper. The writer said she was shocked at the blow that had befallen her niece; that she had no idea her sister was ill, it was so many years now since she had been to Helford. And she went on: "There have been changes with us you would not know. I no longer live in Bodmin, but nearly twelve miles outside, on the road to Launceston. It's a wild and lonely spot, and if you were to come to us I should be glad of your company, wintertime. I have asked your uncle, and he does not object, he says, if you are quiet-spoken and not a talker, and will give help when needed. He cannot give you money, or feed you for nothing, as you will understand. He will expect your help in the bar, in return for your board and lodging. You see, your uncle is the landlord of Jamaica Inn."
Mary folded the letter and put it in her trunk. It was a strange message of welcome from the smiling Aunt Patience she remembered.
A cold, empty letter, giving no word of comfort, and admitting nothing, except that her niece must not ask for money. Aunt Patience, with her silk petticoat and delicate ways, the wife of an innkeeper! Mary decided that this was something her mother had not known. The letter was very different from the one penned by a happy bride ten years ago.
However, Mary had promised, and there was no returning on her word. Her home was sold; there was no place for her here. Whatever her welcome should be, her aunt was her own mother's sister, and that was the one thing to remember. The old life lay behind—the dear familiar farm and the shining Helford waters. Before her lay the future—and Jamaica Inn.
- On Sale
- Dec 17, 2013
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company