Jamaica Inn is the most guilty-pleasure-y of the Daphne du Maurier books I’ve read. The romantic and melodramatic elements are over the top; it’s salacious, it’s predictable, and yet it’s so entertaining. That said, I don’t want to knock it too hard for its cliched elements as some of the set pieces were perhaps less tired in 1936. You may see the end coming a mile away, yet you’ll want to keep reading. For a book whose problems could be solved with a cell-phone in five minutes, it has aged astonishingly well.
The Goodreads blurb is fantastic because it not only captures the main drive of the plot, but the tone as well:
Her mother’s dying request takes Mary Yellan on a sad journey across the bleak moorland of Cornwall to reach Jamaica Inn, the home of her Aunt Patience. With the coachman’s warning echoing in her memory, Mary arrives at a dismal place to find Patience a changed woman, cowering from her overbearing husband, Joss Merlyn.
Affected by the Inn’s brooding power, Mary is thwarted in her attention to reform her aunt, and unwillingly drawn into the dark deeds of Joss and his accomplices. And, as she struggles with events beyond her control, Mary is further thrown by her feelings for a man she dare not trust….
When I read a book set in the early 1800s, I want to have a sense of that time. Plenty of modern authors dabble in historical fiction, but the setting often feels like a gimmick or opportunity to showcase period-related trivia. There also tends to be a sheen of romanticism over the whole thing that says, “Oh, to live in a simpler time!” Much of Jamaica Inn’s climax centers on the flow of information between parties situated within about ten miles of each other. The idea that this is a difficult distance to travel has been lost in modern life; it’s a quick spin by car and only onerous by bus or train if there happen to be many stops along the way. And yet, when these short distances were thrown around during the climax, I felt genuine stress. “Four miles??!” I thought. “But there’s not enough time!”
The smugglers are vicious, so no added romanticism there—they’re not cool, swashbuckling pirates. As to the cliched tropes (which are very fluffy): There’s a “bad boy” type whom Mary despises at the novel’s outset. How do you think she feels about him by the end? ‘Nuff said. Mary is the most lively character in the book and is therefore charged with bringing a little life to the cardboard cutouts around her. Her uncle, Joss Merlyn, is almost impossibly fiendish; whatever vice can be attributed to him is. He’s a murderer, looter, smuggler, abuser, and alcoholic. He’s well-written in the sense that he maintains an air of unpredictability courtesy of his sudden rages, but this isn’t enough to make him feel like a person.
He lowered his voice; bending down to her ear and seizing her wrist, he doubled it behind her back, until she cried out in pain.
“All right,” he said; “that’s like a foretaste of punishment, and you know what to expect. Keep your mouth shut and I’ll treat you like a lamb. It doesn’t do to be curious at Jamaica Inn, and I’ll have you remember that.” He was not laughing now, but stared down at her, frowning, as though he would read her thoughts. “You’re not a fool, like your aunt,” he said slowly; “that’s the curse of it. You’ve got a clever little monkey face, and a ferreting monkey mind, and you’re not easily scared. But I’ll tell you this, Mary Yellan: I’ll break that mind of yours if you let it go astray, and I’ll break your body too. Now go upstairs to bed, and let’s hear no more of you tonight.” (37)
Mary, in contrast, is quite good with a strong sense of self. Her feelings for Jem Merlyn confuse her, if not the reader, and watching her wrestle with these feelings isn’t compelling. Jem is partially nuanced, but only because the reader can tell he’s not as bad as Mary fears. There is one plot turn that is interesting, but I can’t get into it here because of spoilers, so you’ll have to take my word that it adds a nice zing to the ending.
Despite the campiness, it’s a fun read meant to be read during a cold, blustery winter. There’s lots of crying and depictions of the moor, but there’s always that little thread of romance tickling underneath:
His tones were persuasive, and Mary could almost have trusted him. But she could not forget he was Joss Merlyn’s brother, and as such might betray her. She dared not make a confidant of him—not yet, anyway. Time would show whose side he was on. (60)
Time will show, indeed.
Overall: 4.3 Jamaica Inn’s weakness is the cheesiness that both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel sidestep so neatly. While it’s a good read, it’s less polished. I wonder if this score would be even lower if I weren’t a fan of du Maurier…
Translation: Read it, but know that it requires a little goodwill and indulgence to get through and enjoy.