In The Spotlight: Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s sometimes quite an overlap between what we think of as the Gothic novel, and what we think of as crime fiction. It’s not surprising, either, when you consider what makes these genres ‘tick.’ To show you what I mean, let’s turn today’s spotlight on an interesting example of crime fiction that also ‘counts,’ I think, as Gothic fiction. Let’s take a closer look at Daphne du Maurier’s historical novel Jamaica Inn.

As the novel begins, it’s 1820 in Cornwall, and twenty-three-year-old Mary Yellan is in a coach on her way from her home in Helford to Jamaica Inn, between Bodmin and Launceston. The weather is horrible, the road is lonely, and several people have already warned Mary about Jamaica Inn, but she has an important reason for going: she’s keeping a promise she made to her now-dead mother. Mary’s Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn run Jamaica Inn, and it was her mother’s last wish that she should go to them.

When Mary finally arrives at the inn, she sees right away that it’s a cold, forbidding place. From the first moment, her Uncle Joss is boorish and abusive. He treats Mary badly and Patience even worse, and he’s physically strong enough to do far worse damage than verbal insults. Patience is, as you can imagine, frightened and passive, doing everything she can to keep her husband from having an outburst.

As if the domestic situation weren’t bad enough, the inn itself is not hospitable. No-one ever stays there. Mary’s been told it’s because the inn has a bad reputation, but it’s never been made clear to her exactly why. It seems that the locals are too afraid of Joss to talk about it. For another thing, the place is old and in need of repair and refurbishing. It’s not in the least bit comfortable.

Mary is lonely and unhappy at the inn, disgusted by her uncle, and homesick for Helford. But she is also worried about Aunt Patience. She is sure that her aunt won’t survive long without her presence. So she grits her teeth and stays. It’s not long before she learns that something eerie is going on at the inn. Strange people come to the inn at night, seem to leave boxes there, and then go away again. When she asks her aunt about it, the only response she gets is fear, and the admonition to say nothing and do nothing.

With Aunt Patience unwilling or unable to help, Mary can’t resist trying to get some answers for herself. Her determination to take care of Aunt Patience as best she can, and to find out the truth, get her into very grave danger, especially when Joss discovers that she’s found out more than she should. Matters only get worse as Mary learns more and more of the Merlyn family history, and even more so when she learns what the inn is really hiding.

Then, there’s murder. Now, Mary is in peril not just because of what she knows about the inn, but because the killer may strike again. She’ll have to get to safety if she’s to stay alive.

This story has several elements of the Gothic novel in it. For one thing, there’s the crumbling and truly creepy inn. Here, for instance, is a description of Mary’ room:

‘The walls were rough and unpapered, and the floorboards bare. A box turned upside down served as a dressing-table, with a cracked looking-glass on top…The bed creaked when she [Mary] leaned upon it, and the two thin blankets felt damp to her hand…A noise came from the far end of the yard, a curious groaning sound like an animal in pain. It was too dark to see clearly, but she could make out a dark shape swinging gently to and fro. For one nightmare of a moment…she thought it was a gibbet and a dead man hanging. And then she realized it was the signboard of the inn, that…had become insecure upon its nails and now swung backwards, forwards, with the slightest breeze.’

It really isn’t a pleasant place. The terrain is inhospitable, too, with rain, chill and fog. It’s bleak and blasted.

Also present here, as in many Gothic novels, is the element of horror and fear. A few times in the novel. Mary is in very real danger, and we feel her vulnerability. There’s one scene, for instance, where some of Joss Merlyn’s compatriots come to the inn for drinks and food. When they meet Mary, they make no secret of what they’d like to do with her, and it is scary. There’s also a sense that she has nowhere very much to turn. There’s also an element of murky history in the novel, as we learn how the Merlyns came to own the inn and why everyone dislikes the family so much. And there’s real horror when Mary discovers the truth about the inn.

Mary is the central character in the novel, and her battle of wits with Joss forms an important thread of tension and suspense. But there are other characters who figure in the story. For instance, there’s Joss’ brother Jeremiah ‘Jem.’ He’s a self-admitted horse thief and opportunist who dislikes his brother almost as much as Mary does. And there’s Francis Davey, the Vicar of Altarnun. He’s an enigmatic man who has a way of being unnerving, even as he remains soft-spoken and calm. At the same time as Mary depends on his help, she also is anxious about him. There’s also Squire Bassatt, from whom the Merlyns bought the inn. He, too, has a history with the family.

As to Mary Yellan herself, she’s smart, resourceful and brave. She’s badly frightened by what happens at the inn, and sickened when she finds out the real truth about it. And, like anyone else in a similar kind of danger, she is both vulnerable and anxious. But at the same time, she is doggedly determined not to give up. She is faced with some difficult choices and situations, but she doesn’t shrink from what she has to do.

The story takes place in 1820, and was published in 1936, so as you can imagine, there are a lot of attitudes that we might find offensive today. And there’s a great deal of sexism, and even some misogyny. Mary herself is a product of the times, and sometimes behaves in ways that today’s young women would eschew. In that sense, the novel is a period piece, if you can use that term for an historical novel.

The mystery itself – what is really happening at Jamaica Inn and why – makes sense given the context, and the truth is very sad. The solution to that and the murder case is at the same time sad and quite scary. Like other Gothic novels, this one has a hint of otherworldliness about it, but it isn’t a supernatural sort of story. Rather, it’s the spooky feeling that the old, creaky inn, strange characters, layers of lies and bleak setting give to the story.

Jamaica Inn is the story of what happens when a young woman tests her limits in a truly eerie place. It features a harsh setting, a tragic case of mystery and murder, and some enigmatic characters. But what’s your view? Have you read Jamaica Inn? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 27 July/Tuesday 28 July – The Blackhouse – Peter May

Monday 3 August/Tuesday 4 August – Working Girls – Maureen Carter

Monday 10 August/Tuesday 11 August – Massacre Pond – Paul Doiron


Filed under Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn

26 responses to “In The Spotlight: Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

  1. I’m pretty sure I read this one years ago, but I didn’t remember much about it. I think it’s time for a reread!

    • In some ways, Pat, it’s a bit of a ‘period piece,’ but some a lot of aspects of it hold up well. If you do get the chance for a re-read, I hope you’ll enjoy it again.

  2. Patti Abbott

    Read it a million years ago. Should reread.

  3. I love the way du Maurier can get that spooky, ambiguous feel about her stories, without overtly crossing the line towards supernatural. I read this one as a teenager but must admit to having only quite vague memories of it. I had high hopes for the recent TV dramatisation, but I’m afraid they were dashed. Guess I’ll have to join the other re-readers!

    • I know what you mean, FictionFan. Du Maurier could evoke all sorts of spookiness without, as you say, pushing the ‘otherworldliness’ too far. And you do get a delicious creepiness in this novel. As to the adaptation, I have to confess I’ve not seen it, so I can’t comment on it. But I will say you’re not the first who’s been disappointed in it…

  4. Col

    Hmm…not my cup of tea, I’m afraid, though I’m not knocking it! 🙂

    • No, Col, I honestly wouldn’t have expected this one to be up your street. But that’s what makes the genre great; there are a lot of different sorts of books out there.

  5. This was one of my favourite books as a teenager.I had a couple of holidays in Cornwall and we drove past Jamaica Inn on the way – then it was a lonely desolate place, and I could picture the tragic events taking place there, but I’m sad to say it was very different a few years ago when I went that way again – spoilt by commercialisation for tourists!

    It was the mystery and the tragedy I loved as a teenager. I’m hesitant to re-read it now in case I find it too melodramatic – and disappointing. Don’t bother watching the TV version – you couldn’t see anything (too dark) and the speech was incomprehensible. I was so looking forward to it, but just couldn’t watch it,

    • Oh, what a shame that the place has been spoilt like that, Margaret! That’s so disappointing when that happens. I’ll bet it must have been quite evocative before the commercial types got their hands on it.
      There is real tragedy in the novel, so I’m not surprised that aspect of it stayed with you. I know what you mean about re-reading books; if you do decide to re-read this one, I’ll be interested in whether you think it stands up. In the meantime, it sounds as though the adaptation is not worth the effort….

  6. It’s a long time since I read Jamaica Inn, but I certainly remember it as being decidedly spooky. I agree with the other comments above – don’t bother watching the recent adaption. Much of it was in the dark and you couldn’t hear the dialogue properly. There was a big outcry here at the time.

  7. This era isn’t my cup of tea, however, it does sound intriguing with the creepy inn aspect and a promise to a dying mother, which alone can be a powerful reason to continue living in an uncomfortable position. Of course, you make everything sound so wonderful. 🙂

    • That’s very kind of you, Sue. And it’s interesting about that promise. Mary isn’t bullied by her mother; in fact, they have a good relationship. I think that’s part of the reason she feels so strongly about keeping her word. And then, when she sees how Patience Merlyn really lives, and what she has to deal with, Mary’s determined to take care of her. Powerful forces, really. And about the era? It’s not everyone’s cuppa, that’s for sure.

  8. I’ve seen this one, but never read it. Think I need to put it on my TBR list.

  9. Margot, thanks for a wonderful review. It’s a shame I haven’t read Daphne du Maurier yet. She was prolific. I remember my dad having some of her books in his collection.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Prashant. The fact is, no-one has time to read every author, even well-known authors. If you do ever get the chance to read du Maurier’s work, I hope you’ll like it.

  10. The only thing I remember about Jamaica Inn is not liking it, not because of the story or the writing but the creepiness. Melodrama is not my favorite genre. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good, just not for me! I think your analysis is excellent. What you did, for me, is make me want to compare a definition of “Gothic novels” to the present day “Goth music”. My husband is a GREAT fan of the Goths and that music. Subsequently, I hear it ALL THE TIME. Your description of the gothic elements of Jamaica Inn, reminded me of some of the emotional “aura” of Goth music! Thanks! I like having a new research topic. I’m definitely going to pursue this — how are Gothic Novels and Goth Music similar! 🙂

    • Oh, that’s an interesting question. My guess would be that there’s a lot of similarity, actually, between the elements of the music, and the elements of the genre. And you’re absolutely right about the creepiness of Jamaica Inn. Not a warm and welcoming place…

  11. I love Jamaica Inn: love the melodrama and the creepy atmosphere and the villains. And, I love Mary Yelland for a proto-feminist heroine – brave and resourceful and knows her own mind.

    • I do too, Moira! Given the times (and the time in which the book is set), she’s a great character and du Maurier did a fine job giving her a strong personality, but also one that fits the times. And yes; the book has a great atmosphere!

  12. I don’t usually like creepy, but maybe someday I will get to this one.

    • Creepy isn’t for everyone, Tracy, no doubt about that. I think du Maurier does it well, though. If you ever do read this one, I’ll be interested in what you think of it.

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