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