“Defying Man and Storm”: Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn

jamaicaI’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.

“He was my shadow, or I was his”: Daphne du Maurier, The Scapegoat

The Scapegoat is the third novel I’ve read recently with a plot that turns on stolen identities. It’s really interesting how differently they deal with the dangerous temptation to be someone else. In each case, the usurper is at least somewhat sympathetic because what he wants is so simple and recognizable: belonging, acceptance, communion. But while in Highsmith’s Tom Ripley this longing becomes an amoral readiness to betray or kill to protect his deception, and in Tey’s Brat Farrar it leads to unexpected heroism in defense of the people he intended to defraud, in du Maurier’s John it becomes something deeper still: in taking over the life of Jean de Gué, our protagonist is drawn not only into a history and a family steeped in their own secrets and lies, but into his own soul. What kind of man does he want to be — is he capable of being? How can his presence, as an undetected stranger in their midst, change the lives of the people Jean de Gué has damaged and now abandoned? In taking their pain and suffering into himself, can he free them somehow from the burdens of their past, even as he’d hoped that to be among them would liberate him from his own failures?

When the novel opens, John, a repressed English scholar and lecturer in French history, has been traveling in France. His pleasure in the sights has been haunted by his sense that for all his expertise, he remains an “alien” among the people whose language he speaks like a native:

Years of study, years of training, the fluency with which I spoke their language, taught their history, described their culture, had never brought me closer to the people themselves. . . . My knowledge was library knowledge, and my day-by-day experience no deeper than a tourist’s gleaning. The urge to know was with me, and the ache. The smell of the soil, the gleam of the wet roads, the faded paint of shutters masking windows through which I should never look, the grey faces of houses whose doors I should never enter, were to me an everlasting reproach, a reminder of distance, of nationality. Others could force an entrance and break the barrier down: not I. I should never be a Frenchman, never be one of them.

He longs to come out from the shadows of his “pale self,” to let loose “the man within” and discover “what urgings and longings he might possess.” Though his new identity is not freely chosen but thrust upon him, it is also the realization of his dream “to unlock the door”; no wonder that as he drives towards the chateau to take up Jean’s life, John finds himself rejoicing:

I drove faster still, overtaking the cars ahead of me, possessed by a reckless feeling I had never known before, the sensation that I myself did not matter any more. I was wearing another man’s clothes, driving another man’s car, and no one could call me to account for any action. For the first time I was free.

At first it’s just a lark to John, who can hardly believe nobody realizes he’s not really Monsieur le Comte. That’s a stretch for the reader’s credulity too, I have to say, but the dog at least growls at him (much to the family’s puzzlement), and we learn eventually that Jean’s mistress, too, was not taken in (“A woman would have to be a great fool not to distinguish between one man and another, making love”) — though she hasn’t turned him away either. Figuring out the puzzle that is Jean de Gué’s life is initially interesting and confusing but not terribly meaningful to John; his own missteps cause no deep feeling or alarm. Before long he realizes, though, that in moving into the chateau he has, however inadvertently, inserted himself into a complex and still unfolding story, and the shift from “library knowledge” to real life is fraught with dangers, the worst of them not physical but moral. To be “one of them” is to be called upon to act, even (as head of the family) to lead. But with what motive, and to what result?

Du Maurier brilliantly evokes the chateau’s brooding atmosphere, which we see, through the eyes of John the historian, as part of a broader national story of threat and struggle, of longing and destructive indifference:

The chateau, which had seemed a jewel in sunlight, was more forbidding at the approach of dusk. The roof and turrets that had blended against blue took on a sharpened tone against the changing sky. I thought how like a bastion it might have been when water filled the moat, before the eighteenth-century facade of the central portion linked the early Renaissance towers. Were they any more lonely, the silken ladies peering through those slits, than the Renée and the Françoise of today, with the clammy water damping the mouldering walls, and the forest, thick and shaggy, shrouding the very door? Did the wild boar, fiery-eyed, come rooting where the cattle wandered now, and the thin horn of the huntsman sound in early morning when the mist still clung about the trees? What drinking, roystering nobles of Anjou must have clattered forth over the drawbridge to hunt and fight and kill; what love-making by night, what long uneasy births, what sudden deaths? And now, in another time, how much of this was repeated, oddly, in a different way, with stifled emotions and hungers more obscure. Cruelty was of a deeper kind today, wounding the spirit, hurting the secret self, but then it was more openly brutal: only the tough survived, and the lonely Françoise or the frustrated Renée of that age went like blown candles into disease and death, lamented or forgotten by their lords, who, prototype of Jean de Gué, feasted and fought, shrugging a velvet shoulder.

It’s more recent events, of the kind that wound the spirit, that have set in motion the particular conflicts of Jean’s generation, and thus John’s new reality: the war-time occupation, and the subsequent brutal accounting between resistance fighters and collaborators, have set family and friends against each other, but also provided useful cover for other, more personal, reckonings. As John untangles the threads of Jean’s past actions and current relationships, he gradually feels himself becoming part of the history that he had previously only read about in books, and this in turn fills him with a powerful longing to do right by not just the people but the place:

I was no longer isolated, watching apart, numb with exhaustion, but one among many, part of St. Gilles. . . . I knew suddenly, with conviction, that it was not a stranger’s curiosity that drew me to them, a sentimental attachment to the picturesque, but something deeper, more intimate, a desire so intense for their wellbeing and their future that although akin to love it resembled pain. This longing, strongly felt, was yet somehow impersonal: it did not spring from a wish to stand well with them, and it embraced, in some curious fashion, not only the village people and those who now seemed part of me, sleeping within the chateau, but inanimate things beyond — the contour of a hill, a sloping sandy road, the vine clinging to the master’s house, the forest trees.

 Even before this point John has, rather bumblingly, been trying to act in the best interests of his strange, unhappy new family. He’s not overtly successful, but his good intentions are perhaps what Jean’s mistress acknowledges when she remarks, “you have something that he doesn’t possess . . . You may call it tendresse.” It may be, though, that his best course is not to live among them but to leave, taking with him everything he has learned, every burden or grief or sin he has shared while in Jean’s place. When the novel begins, John is contemplating a stay at the Abbaye de la Grand-Trappe: perhaps there among the monks, he had hoped, he would “discover what to do with failure.” “They might not give the answer,” he confides in Jean de Gué on the night of their fateful meeting, “but they could tell me where to look for it.” He ends up at the chateau instead: it is in action, not silence and solitude, that he finds his answer, and his belonging.

But is this success?  John believes it is just failure in another form: “[failure] merely became transformed. It turned into love for St. Gilles. So the problem remains the same.” After all, he doesn’t belong — not really — and as the novel ends he is once more on the road to the Abbaye, now with a different question that is somehow also the same one: “What do I do with love?” In seeking freedom, he found new obligations; in being someone else, he became, more than ever, himself.