I’m no connoisseur of romantic suspense, but it’s hard to imagine it being done better than Jamaica Inn. Really, this book has it all: a grim, windswept, yet beautiful landscape; a grim, brooding, yet charismatic villain; a grim, twisted, yet convincing plot; Jamaica Inn itself, “a house that reeked of evil . . . a solitary landmark defying man and storm”; and, in Mary Yellan, a heroine bold and determined enough to survive them all. There’s also a deceptively colorless vicar, a dubiously trustworthy horse thief, and a whole supporting cast of rogues; there’s treachery, murder, and, of course, true love. If it sounds like the stuff of clichés, it is — and yet, amazingly, it really isn’t, because du Maurier is just that good.
The most terrifying part of the novel, for instance, is not a scene of rapidly unfolding action or immanent violence (though there are such scenes, and they are plenty suspenseful). Instead, it’s a story told over the kitchen table. “Did you never hear of wreckers before?” is the speaker’s chilling question, and the pictures his words paint haunt us as they will Mary, his unwilling audience:
‘When I’m drunk I see them in my dreams; I see their white-green faces staring at me, with their eyes eaten by fish; and some of them are torn, with the flesh hanging on their bones in ribbons, and some of them have seaweed in their hair. . . . Have you ever seen flies caught in a jar of treacle? I’ve seen men like that; stuck in the rigging like a swarm of flies. . . . Just like flies they are, spread out on the yards, little black dots of men. I’ve seen the ship break up beneath them, and the masts and the yards snap like thread, and there they’ll be flung into the sea, to swim for their lives. But when they reach the shore they’re dead men, Mary.’
He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and stared at her. ‘Dead men tell no tales, Mary,’ he said.
Mary can only hope that when she reaches the safety of her own bed, she can hide from what he has told her in the stark cold of the kitchen:
Here she could see the pale faces of drowned men, their arms above their heads; she could hear the scream of terror, and the cries; she could hear the mournful clamour of the bell-buoy as it swayed backwards and forwards in the sea.
It’s not just crime Mary comes face to face with that night, but evil. It’s embodied in Joss Merlyn, the landlord of Jamaica Inn, who is Mary’s uncle through his marriage to her Aunt Patience. Patience was a bright, happy young woman when she married Joss, but she is now a “poor, broken thing,” cowering and apologetic and fearful, but loyal, too, and loving, in her pathetic way. Joss is a wonderfully terrible figure of a man: huge, almost monstrous, but capable of an unexpected delicate grace that Mary finds more sinister than his overt cruelty. In her introduction, Sarah Dunant calls him “a Mr. Rochester without a Jane to redeem him,” which fits well enough, except that for all his faults, Mr. Rochester was never as bad as this! Patience must have married him “for his bright eyes,” Mary mockingly speculates, and it turns out that the power of sexual attraction to lure people off course is one of the novel’s central interests. Mary herself feels its pull (and understands Patience’s bad choice better) when she meets his younger brother Jem, who (to Mary’s dismay) almost charms away her suspicions:
He was too like his brother. His eyes, and his mouth, and his smile. That was the danger of it. She could see her uncle in his walk, in the turn of his head; and she knew why Aunt Patience had made a fool of herself ten years ago. It would be easy enough to fall in love with Jem Merlyn.
But Mary’s not looking for love. A farm girl, “bred to the soil,” she has no romantic ideas. At the same time, she understands the demands of the flesh:
Jem Merlyn was a man, and she was a woman, and whether it was his hands or his skin or his smile she did not know, but something inside her responded to him, and the very thought of him was an irritant and a stimulant at the same time. It nagged at her and would not let her be. She knew she would have to see him again.
I was fascinated by Mary’s frankness about her own desires: “Falling in love was a pretty name for it, that was all.” Her aunt’s abjection should be cautionary tale enough, you’d think, but even as Jem jokes “Beware of the dark stranger,” they kiss in the shadows.
Mary worries about giving “too much away,” about losing her independence and finding that her weakness for him makes “the four walls of Jamaica Inn more hateful than they were already.” The mixture of heady excitement and mistrust she feels for Jem adds, also, to the mysteries of the novel: how far is he involved in the murky activities of his brother? how much does he know about what happens at Jamaica Inn under cover of darkness? why does he ask Mary so many questions? Will her love for him save or destroy her? Du Maurier keeps her, and us, guessing as Mary struggles to figure out the answers and find her own way through the moral and physical dangers of her situation.
There are both predictable and implausible elements of the plot, but I forgave them both because they come with the territory and because du Maurier writes so well. When I wrote about Frenchman’s Creek I described her prose as “purple” (“royal purple, richest velvet,” to be precise). I expected more of the same here, despite having recently read The Scapegoat — which surprised me by being restrained and shadowy, not purple at all. I’m now adding du Maurier to my list of writers who impress by their versatility: she can clearly “do” the novel in different voices to suit her purposes. Jamaica Inn could easily have been full of cheap thrills, but for all its melodrama it never struck me as silly (whereas I called Frenchman’s Creek “ridiculous” — mind you, that was in 2010, so I may have been reading / judging differently). It’s not really a novel of character, and Joss especially borders on caricature, but (partly through Jem) he is humanized enough to be monstrous, but not a monster. I’m not so sure about the other chief villain, but at any rate he’s not a stock figure but has his own unique style of nastiness. For me, though, it was the scenery that made the novel truly memorable. The descriptions are vividly sensual without being florid, as here:
The drive was silent then, for the most part, with no other sound but the steady clopping of the horse’s hoofs upon the road, and now and again an own hooted from the still trees. The rustle of hedgerow and the creeping country whispers were left behind when the trap came out upon the Bodmin road, and once again the dark moor stretched out on either side, lapping the road like a desert. The ribbon of the highway shone white under the moon. It wound and was lost in the fold of the further hill, bare and untrodden. There were no travellers but themselves upon the road tonight. On Christmas Eve, when Mary had ridden here, the wind had lashed venomously at the carriage wheels, and the rain hammered the windows: now the air was still cold and strangely still, and the moor itself lay placid and silver in the moonlight. The dark tors held their sleeping face to the sky, the granite features softened and smoothed by the light that bathed them. Theirs was a peaceful mood, and the old gods slept undisturbed.
Jamaica Inn is this month’s reading for the Slaves of Golconda book group. Come on over to read more posts and join in the discussion! It is also (fortuitously!) the book I’ll be discussing with my local book group in another week or so. I’m eager to find out what everyone else thought. If they had as much fun as I did, we might do My Cousin Rachel next, which was our second choice this time around. If not, I’ll certainly read it myself, if only to find out what else du Maurier can do.