Daphne du Maurier has a gift for creating atmosphere. In Rebecca, it was the story of a young woman fighting her unseen rival when she enters a marriage without knowing all there is to be known. In Jamaica Inn, du Maurier takes us back to the beginning of the 19th century, and with the elements of an ordinary Gothic romance she creates something a little more brooding, a little more spectacularly sinister, with deft touches here and there that keep the reader fascinated until the end.
Mary Yellan is an orphan. She leaves her pleasant home with some sadness, but looks forward to seeing her pretty Aunt Patience and to being of some use to her at Jamaica Inn on the Cornish coast. What she finds when she arrives, however, is threatening and distressing: Aunt Patience has become a grey, nervous, idiot wreck of a woman, enslaved by her huge brute of a husband, Joss Merlyn. Uncle Joss keeps Jamaica Inn, not as a tavern for travelers, as any honest person might do, but as a solitary ruin of a house, dank and filthy with neglect. Not even the mail-coach will stop there. Every few weeks, the bar is crowded with the dregs of humanity, and they drink themselves half-blind, perform some unknown task, and then disperse in the dark. Uncle Joss has warned Mary that she must never try to find out what his work is, or her life and her aunt’s will be at stake. It’s clear to Mary from Aunt Patience’s terror that it must be even worse than common or garden smuggling — but what it is, she has no idea.
Mary’s only escape from the dreadful atmosphere at Jamaica Inn is to wander the moors. (It was news to me that there are moors in Cornwall — I thought they were only in Yorkshire and Scotland!) As she walks, familiarizing herself with the rivers, hillsides, and rough tors, she meets two very different men: Francis Davey, the vicar of Altarnun, whose pale eyes and halo of albino hair give him a strange appearance, and Jem Merlyn, her uncle’s brother. Jem is a horse thief, not much better than Joss, to all appearances, and certainly no more genteel, but he’s attractive and he makes Mary laugh — a rare commodity at Jamaica Inn. How these characters all come together in an atmosphere of danger to create a thrilling climax, I’ll leave it to you to find out.
I really enjoyed this book, as I have everything else I’ve read by du Maurier, and I definitely recommend it as a quick, enjoyable, escapist read. I did wish that Jem had been more believable as a romantic hero, though. He’s crude, misogynistic, and ungenerous to Mary. There’s a passage in the book where Mary thinks about how romance is just a flowery illusion, and how reality is about mating — she’s physically attracted to Jem, and that’s all that really matters. I couldn’t help thinking, in the voice of Flora Poste, “Mother Nature is all very well in her way, but she mustn’t be allowed to make things untidy.” It’s all very well to be swept off your feet by a beguiling fellow, but I didn’t want to see brave, smart Mary Yellan following in her Aunt Patience’s footsteps.