I am a fan of Dame Daphne du Maurier, but there is certainly an unevenness in my opinion
of her writings as a whole. This one is definitely not one of my favorites, for several reasons. I liked the historical/travel aspect of it. (It takes place in
the Cornish countryside which was du Maurier's homeland and the setting of a great many
of her novels.) It was published in 1936, but set in 1820. I also liked the aspect of suspense and terror, which is du Maurier's trademark. But it is the
romantic aspect, and especially the unrealistic personality of the heroine herself, Mary Yellan, that I found rather silly. It borders on a trashy romance
novel, of which I most absolutely am not a fan. Still, I had no problems reading it and didn't want to put it down. It isn't a bad book, but just not
one of my favorites. Hitchcock made a movie of it, but the plot was greatly changed to accommodate the ego of Charles Laughton. The movie was thus rejected
by both Hitchcock and du Maurier.
What I really found most repugnant with this novel was the two female characters and their refusal to leave their situation of brutality. Mary Yellan, a farm girl growing up in the loving village of Helford, finds herself alone at age twenty-three when her mother, long ailing from the exhaustion of running the farm and the inability to heal from the grief of her husband's death, finally gives up and dies. Her last request is that Mary go live with her sister Patience, whom both remember as carefree, charming and loving. As the long journey nearly ends, Mary is shocked to find that her aunt now lives in the middle of nowhere in the dilapidated Jamaica Inn on the Bodmin Moor, where no traveler will stop because of its reputation of horror. Neither Mary or her mother had met the husband of Patience, Joss Merlyn, and when he comes to greet Mary upon her arrival, she realizes he is a brutal beast and a drunk. But her shock is even greater when she sees her aunt, reduced to a whimpering ghost, living in terror of her husband and his activities.
Mary's first thought is to escape, but she cannot even get her aunt to communicate with her, so therefore she is determined to endure the situation. Bad choice, but of course without this choice there would not have been a story. Mary, however, is headstrong, not as easily intimidated with Joss, and stands up to him. In fact she makes a lot of risky and ridiculous mistakes, making her seem more silly and even artificial, rather than brave and heroic.
Though they live in an inn, there are no guests and the place is a wreck. However, on certain nights, there are crowds of shady visitors, and on the first occasion, Mary is ordered to work the bar, where she is repulsed by the vermin she must serve. She finally leaves without permission. Joss doesn't stop her, but orders her to mind her own business and to not further investigate anything she thinks she sees. She disobeys, of course, and the horrors she discovers that evening are even more shocking than what she saw in the bar. She believes she has witnessed a murder.
Joss takes off on a regular basis, not returning for days, and during these periods, Patience becomes a little more of herself, but mostly she is irreversibly lost. Mary begins to wander the Moors, sometimes venturing a long way off. It is on one of her journeys that she meets the vicar of Altarnun, Francis Davey. He is an albino, and there is something creepy about him, but he is a vicar, and seems to care. Mary pours out her troubles. He assures her that he will always be there for her when she needs him.
Meanwhile, she meets Jem Merlyn, the younger brother of Joss, and she is immediately attracted to him. And this is where it gets kinda stupid. She knows the whole Merlyn lot is bad to the bone. The boys watched their father beat their mother, and he eventually was hung. The other brother drowned in the marsh. Jem isn't as brutal as his brother, but he is an admitted horse thief and a Merlyn just the same.
By this time, Mary has a pretty good idea of what is going on at Jamaica Inn. It is a meeting place for smugglers, but when she finds out how the smuggling takes place, it is then that she vows, no matter what, in spite of her aunt, to see her uncle hang. Their gang, and it is very large and widespread, are what was known as wreckers. According to Wikipedia, wreckers took advantage of wrecked ships and plundered whatever valuables they could from them. But these people actually caused the wrecks by using false lights to lure them into unsound waters. Wikipedia states that, while this practice was depicted in stories and legends, it is uncertain that it actually happened. In any case, in the story, Mary recalls from her childhood seeing a shipwreck and the horror of the drowning people.
While determined to turn Joss into the law, she now begins to protect Jem, and doesn't act quick enough to prevent a terrible catastrophe that she is forced to watch. But all goes awry, and the whole gang knows the game will soon be over.
I have probably told more than I should, but there are still lots of surprises. As I said, it is not one of my favorite du Maurier novels, but it is a quick and entertaining read. I have read that du Maurier avoided closed or satisfying endings because she wanted her books to haunt her readers. This one certainly applies.
Incidentally, Jamaica Inn is a real pub on the Bodmin Moor, where du Maurier stayed in the 1930s. This novel is her depiction of it from 1820, when it did have a reputation for smuggling. And here it is in the present, showing the entrance to the "Smuggler's Bar."
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