I’ve muddled Frenchman’s Creek (1941) and Jamaica Inn for years. That’s why I started watching the 2014 mini-series of Jamaica Inn because I thought I’d read the book already; but, I hadn’t, so I stopped watching after the first episode. Now, at last, a great reason to sort out this muddle!
In one sense, it’s easy to fall into Jamaica Inn: this story of Mary Yellan, who is pulled away from everything she knows and holds dear, pushed into unfamiliar territory with sadness at her back.
When her mother is ill, she exacts a promise from her only daughter; if she dies, Mary is to live with her aunt (her mother’s sister) at Jamaica Inn. From the book’s title, everyone knows from the start how Mary’s mother will fare.
“‘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.”
So Mary is relatable; readers are sympathetic to the difficulties, the stressful adjustments that will ensue.
In another sense, it’s a challenge to fall into this story. The first chapter’s chunky paragraphs have little dialogue and are overloaded with description. All the adjectives weigh as heavily as the mud and grime.
“On the other side of the road the country stretched interminably into space. No trees, no lanes, no cluster of cottages or hamlet, but mile upon mile of bleak moorland, dark and untraversed, rolling like a desert land to some unseen horizon.”
Ah, but I absolutely loved these dense thickets of atmosphere, especially of the seemingly uninhabitable landscape and of the inn itself.
“It was a dark, rambling place, with long passages and unexpected rooms. There was a separate entrance to the bar, at the side of the house, and, though the room was empty now, there was something heavy in the atmosphere reminiscent of the last time it was full: a lingering taste of old tobacco, the sour smell of drink, and an impression of warm, unclean humanity packed one against the other on the dark stained benches.”
It’s quite a contrast for Mary, who is accustomed to “the warm and soft climate of Helford, / with its high hedges and tall protecting trees. Even the wind had been no hardship there, for the arm of the head-land acted as a defence to those on land, and it was only the river that ran turbulent and green, the wave-crests whipped with foam.”
And, as if that wouldn’t have been hard enough, the man whom Mary’s aunt has married is very more difficult and challenging than the wind and the land:
“He laughed again, mocking her, his laugh bellowing through the house, acting like a lash on the strung nerves of Mary.”
Joss Merlyn’s influence on the establishment makes it even more foreboding and threatening. “The very walls of Jamaica Inn smelt of guilt and deceit, and to speak aloud in earshot of the building courted disaster.”
Readers quickly adopt Mary’s “fatal fascination” with the events which transpire at Jamaica Inn, behind closed doors and (nearly) out of sight and earshot.
In the past, I’ve been frustrated by some of du Maurier’s characterization of female characters (those in her collection The Birds really rankled, seeming more types than characters). But I’ve always enjoyed her devotion to setting and mood (The Flight of the Falcon was very entertaining too).
Jamaica Inn has been a delight to read. And I see, by the dates on those posts, that it’s been ten years since I read du Maurier; well, almost—last year, I began reading Rule Britannia for Ali’s DDM week, but finished it many weeks later.
Ali has created a new page for 2020’s DDM reading event, which she is updating with links to other reviews and posts, here. (It’s also her birthday week: Happy Birthday, Ali!) After this, I’m going to reread (and rewatch) Rebecca, too, but likely after this event has finished. (But maybe, if she consults the small print, this extension will entitle Ali to some additional cake somehow.)