‘Respectable folk don’t go to Jamaica any more. That’s all I know. In the old days we used to water the horses there, and feed them, and go in for a bit of a bite and drink. But we don’t stop there any more. We whip the horses past and wait for nothing, not till we get to Five Lanes, and then we don’t bide long.’
This coachman’s warning is the first Mary Yellan hears of the forbidding reputation of her new home, Jamaica Inn. Mary is going to live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss following the death of her mother. She is dismayed when she arrives at the Inn to find it derelict and ignored by drinkers and travellers alike. It is remote, several miles from the nearest homes, on top of Bodmin Moor. Its inhabitants are even bleaker.
Joss Merlyn is ‘a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high, with a creased black brow and a skin the colour of a gypsy’. He is an alcoholic, marked by his pouched and bloodshot eyes. He has bullied Mary’s Aunt Patience from a pretty and sparky young woman to a hollowed-out drudge living in fear of his moods and his fists, and he has done worse than this, as Mary soon learns. Joss Merlyn is a wrecker, leader of a band of ruthless killers who lure ships onto the coast and pillage their remains. He is known and feared across Cornwall, but seemingly unstoppable.
Mary Yellan is introduced as a young woman from a coastal village, recently orphaned, to whom forty miles represents the farthest she has ever been from home. We hear about the ‘gallant courage’ that has helped her through recent difficult times, but more about her fears of beginning a new life on Bodmin. It is tempting to think of the delicate and cloistered heroine of Rebecca, but Mary Yellan is no second Mrs de Winter. From the start, her courage shows through. Incredibly, on her very first night on Bodmin she threatens her uncle with the magistrate. By day two she is nagging her aunt for information, and soon she is sneaking down to listen to goings-on in the bar.
Joss Merlyn sees this trait in her and, curiously, respects her for it (not that this stops him bullying her):
‘I’m fond of you, Mary; you’ve got sense, and you’ve got pluck; you’d make a good companion to man. They ought to have made you a boy.’
A central theme of the book is gender:
There’s a certain grim satisfaction in this struggle with my uncle that emboldens me at time, and I feel I’ll have the better of him in the long run, whatever he says or does. I’d planned to take my aunt away from him, and then, when it was all over, to find work on a farm somewhere, and live a man’s life, like I used to do […] I don’t want to love like a woman or feel like a woman.
Mary has a streak of independence which ultimately serves her well despite manifesting as confrontation and stubbornness. Both she and the various men she interacts with identify this trait as masculine. ‘They ought to have made you a boy’ and similar sentiments appear regularly in the text. Womanhood is equated with vulnerability – personified for Mary by down-trodden Aunt Patience, who she decides to save from her husband.
Despite her independence, there is a love story in the midst of the smuggling. Who is there for Mary to fall in love with in such a desolate place? There are two candidates – the horse-thief Jem Merlyn (Joss’s younger brother), and the parson Francis Davey. No prizes for guessing which one Mary likes.
(Mary, by the way, is not as innocent as Mrs De Winter. Almost her first thought about her uncle is that he will try it on with her, and she is relieved on her first night at Jamaica Inn that he carries on walking past her door on his way to bed. She heralds love, when it hits her, as a biological process that basically lies outside her control - ‘she was bred to the soil, and she had lived too long with birds and beasts, had watched them mate, and bear their young, and die.’)
Things eventually come to a head at Christmas. Mary is dragged deeper into her Uncle’s affairs than she bargained for, experiencing a disturbing night of violence and shock: ‘a hideous scrap of tooth and nail, of teeth smashed by stones, of eyes cut open by broken glass.’ She is lucky to survive the night, and yet even worse dangers follow. The final few chapters are crammed with trials and tribulations. The last twist in the tale is a bit obvious, but really ratchets up the tension for the finale.
So, why should a modern reader pick up Jamaica Inn? Maybe like me you have enjoyed Rebecca but never found the time to read another book by du Maurier (my copy was a Christmas present from a friend). Or maybe you enjoy a history-mystery that’s very well written and heavier on atmosphere than research.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.