30 Before 30: Jamaica Inn

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When I first heard Tori Amos sing of pirates, trust, and cliffs of rock in her song ‘Jamaica Inn’ from The Beekeeper album, I was instantly filled with a desire to read Daphne Du Maurier’s book of the same name. Though I knew very little about the book, other than that it was based on the history of a centuries old inn on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, I’d heard many glowing reviews of it. Imagining a dark tale of gothic romance, I was pleased to discover (about eight years later!) that my theory was correct. From the first page I was completely enthralled, swept into the bleak and desolate nineteenth century landscape of the Cornish moors and the literary territory of the gothic novel through Du Maurier’s use of compelling imagery.  Descriptions of the ‘granite sky and a mizzling rain’ and a coach ‘rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man’ propelled me into a story of darkly dramatic proportions, immediately creating the tone of gothic intrigue that permeates the entire novel.

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To summarise, Jamaica Inn is the story of a young woman, Mary Yellan, who obediently complies with her dying mother’s wish that she goes to live with her Aunt Patience and her husband, the landlord of Jamaica Inn, after her death. Arriving to find that her once happy Aunt Patience has become a nervous and almost childlike woman, scared of her violent husband, and that Jamaica Inn is a place feared by the locals, Mary begins to suspect that something is amiss. Unable to depend on her feeble aunt, Mary determines to discover the secrets of Jamaica Inn and her uncle, Joss Merlyn, but soon finds that it is impossible to bear the terrible burden alone. Finding herself drawn to two very different men, Joss’ brother Jem, a magnetic but roguish horse thief, and Francis Davey, a strange and distant vicar, Mary must decide who to trust as events begin to unfold outside of her control.

Besides some beautifully atmospheric descriptions that make the novel immensely readable, what I loved most about Jamaica Inn was Du Maurier’s characterisation of its central protagonist, Mary Yellan. Spirited and courageous, Mary is an extremely likeable character- in fact, I’d even go as far as saying that she is my new favourite fictional heroine (though I still love Elizabeth Bennett)! As someone who has been raised on a working farm, she is hardy and practical, preferring the idea of independently running a farm to the notion of marriage. Moreover, she seems to understand, beyond the conventions of the age in which she lives, the restrictions that are imposed on most married women, recognising her Aunt Patience as an embodiment of the married woman’s metamorphosis from autonomous individual to voiceless shadow of her former self. That is not to say that she is strictly anti-men, however. Despite her revulsion for her uncle’s treatment of her Aunt Patience, Mary understands and experiences desire and the complications that arise from it. Although she enjoys solitary wanderings and relishes the idea of returning to her former home to live a life of independence, Mary’s ambivalent feelings towards the mysterious Jem Merlyn mark her out as a character of complexity. The reader is never quite sure what she will do next, yet there is no doubt that Mary Yellan will continue to remain true to herself, executing her plans with good judgement, resolve and integrity.

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Mary Yellan is not the only complex character in the book, however. In Joss Merlyn, Du Maurier carves out an extremely flawed character- who is both detestable and fascinating at the same time. Finding myself sympathising with Joss on more than one occasion, I viewed him as an alternative Heathcliff. Whereas Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff denies his roots to climb the social ladder, ultimately becoming a self-made man, Joss seems to use his as a justification for his depraved behaviour, blaming his father and grandfather’s genetic influence for his own misdemeanours on his path to self-destruction. Though he is guilty of heinous crimes, Joss’ humanity emerges through drunken revelations and the dreams that haunt him, reminding the reader that, despite his seemingly evil personality, he is, after all, merely human. I don’t think anyone could describe Joss Merlyn as a likeable character, yet I found that there is something quite pitiful about this ‘great husk of a man’  which almost helps to mitigate the severity of his crimes.

To say that Du Maurier’s novel isn’t predictable would be untrue; I was able to guess some of the outcomes halfway through the book. This never diminished the enjoyment of Jamaica Inn for me, however, as I was far more interested in the psychology of the characters than the actual plot. Whilst many readers have drawn comparisons with Du Maurier’s most famous work, Rebecca, suggesting that Jamaica Inn is a much weaker novel, I personally found Jamaica Inn to be a much more enthralling read. With all the elements of a traditional Gothic novel, including a suitably dreary landscape and the archetypal Gothic building, Du Maurier’s story never failed to excite me. In fact, if I didn’t still have another 24 books to read, I’d start reading it again!

Now that I at least partly understand Tori Amos’ song, I think it may be time to plan a literary pilgrimage to the real Jamaica Inn so that I can truly understand its significance in Cornish and cultural history. Hopefully there’ll be no bands of criminals to contend with, but, like Mary Yellan, I’d be more than happy to stumble upon a real-life Jem Merlyn!

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