When her mother died, the orphan, a young woman named Mary Yellan, moved north to Jamaica Inn to live with her aunt Patience. Before even arriving at the lonesome inn on the moors, Mary began to hear rumors about the inn’s evil reputation. It turns out that Mary’s uncle, Joss Merlyn, is both a drunk and a criminal. At first, Mary assumes that his only crime is smuggling, but soon she learns of the murderous nature of his crimes and wonders how she might convince her aunt to escape with her. Can the vicar she keeps meeting on the moors help her? And what about Joss’s brother, Jem, a confessed horse thief? What is Mary to do about her growing attraction to him? Is he more involved in Joss’s activities than he will admit?
This book is a great example of how a book can be entirely predictable, yet extremely suspenseful. It’s a pretty neat trick. So how does she manage it? The predictability of the book lies in its employment of a lot of tropes we’ve all become used to seeing in literature and film, some perhaps influenced by du Maurier. Jem the horse thief, for example, is presented as a rogue with a heart of gold, ready to give Mary gifts and attention but never forcing himself. It’s clear to the experienced reader that he’s a romantic lead long before Mary realizes it. But du Maurier holds back just enough information to keep readers in doubt as to the real nature of his relationship with his brother. He may be a romantic lead, but is he a good man? And how good must one be to be considered good, anyway? And how evil to be considered evil? Mary ponders this question when she learns of Joss’s smuggling:
Smuggling was dangerous; it was fraught with dishonesty; it was forbidden strictly by the law of the land; but was it evil? Mary could not decide.This question underpins many of Mary’s decision-making processes. When is a dishonest action evil? Just about every character in this book is morally compromised in some way, but at what point do they cross the line?
When Joss eventually crosses the line for Mary, her way becomes clear:
Mary did not consider her uncle any more. She had lost her fear of him. There was only loathing left in heart, loathing and disgust. He had lost all hold on humanity. He was a beast that walked by night. Now that she had seen him drunk, and she knew him for what he was, he could not frighten her. Neither he nor the rest of his company. They were things of evil, rotting the countryside, and she would never rest until they were trodden underfoot, and cleared, and blotted out. Sentiment would not save them again.Evil turns a human into something other than itself, into a thing that can and must be fought. And Mary, as a good person, has the strength of will to fight.
Mary herself is a sort of commentary on the prototypical Gothic heroine. du Maurier sets her novel in the early 1800s, the time of Ann Radcliffe and her many fainting heroines. Mary faints once, early in the book, and she despises herself for it. For the rest of the book, she’s the type to swear to give herself courage, jump off a porch roof, walk for miles in the cold, and offer to confront a dangerous man at gun point. She is fearless, we are told, and much like a boy.
This point, that Mary in all her boldness, is being boyish for standing up her herself fascinates me, though I disagree with it on principle. Mary is, in most respects, the kind of heroine many woman want to see in novels. She’s plucky and fierce and smart, and she claims to prefer farming to romance. She’s certain that, given the chance, she’d be able to run her own farm. But she’s sometimes doubtful of her own strength, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. When she kisses the rakish Jem, she’s not sorry to have done it, but she’s determined to be the master of her emotions and not let her heart drive her into dangerous ground. At one point, this dilemma about Jem is treated as a battle between her boyishness and her girlishness. What a woman would do, and what a man would do is a minor obsession of the narrative. But I think du Maurier is being slyly subversive here because, in the end, Mary makes the choice of both a man and a woman. She refuses, right up to the end, to be tied down by these categories.
Jamaica Inn reads like a good old-fashioned potboiler, but there’s a lot going on inside, once you scratch the surface. This is the fourth book by du Maurier that I’ve read, and with each book that I read, I love her more.
Cross-posted to Shelf Love