Thursday, January 30, 2014

Jamaica Inn: A Guest Post

[I'm happy to share these thoughts from Dorian Stuber, a regular reader who wanted to join in our discussion of Jamaica Inn. I'm sure he'd welcome comments. -- Rohan]

I’ve never posted here before, but feel obligated since I voted for Jamaica Inn and the margin of victory was so narrow. I’ve enjoyed reading these posts; they’ve helped me pinpoint some of the things I like about the novel.

I like Teresa’s idea that the novel revises our ideas about the heroines of the Gothic literature from the period in which it is set. Certainly, I enjoyed the text’s deployment of elements I’m familiar with from certain 19th century texts (the Brontes, Hardy), if not from Romance literature, of which I have no real knowledge. As someone interested in 20th-century British literature, I spent some time trying to figure out how to place Du Maurier amongst other literature from her own time. Is there anything modernist about this work, for example? Would it be useful to think of it as a Modernist take on the Gothic?

In the end, I think Jamaica Inn is too solidly aligned to the conventions of its genre (and I don’t say that as a criticism!) for that to be the case. But the ending is quite intriguingly open. In my edition (the Virago), at least, the penultimate page ends with Jem asking, “'Do you love me, Mary?’” To which she responds, rather ambiguously, “'I believe so, Jem.” I thought the book ended here, and was immediately reminded of the famously irresolute ending of Lawrence’s Women in Love (or The Fox or indeed any number of other Modernist works). But then I realized there were another few lines to go on the real last page, and the ending became a little less irresolute.  But I think the gender ambiguities that the text repeatedly offers us remain even with the ending we do get. Besides, Mary’s professed dream of farming by herself didn’t seem to me in any way conventionally gendered.

And yet it was just this professed dream of Mary’s that most puzzled me about the book. The thing that didn’t quite work for me was the disjunction between Mary’s repeatedly expressed longing for her lost home in Helston and the reality of the place as presented by the text. Helston may be more temperate than the moors, but it’s hardly gentle: think about the sickness that kills the county’s livestock, which Du Maurier describes so resonantly, at such length: “It was a sickness that came over everything and destroyed, much as a late frost will out of season, coming with the new moon and then departing, leaving no trace of its passage save the little trail of dead things in its path.” (This could be a description of the novel, except that sharp “little” couldn’t be said to apply to the things that happen at and around the inn.) The death of the livestock prefigures the death of Mary’s mother, which is itself presaged by the “eager” pleasure Mary’s neighbour takes in explaining to Mary and the doctor that the patient’s condition has worsened. The man who buys the farm after the mother’s death (admittedly a stranger from a nearby town) makes plans to change all the things he doesn’t like about the place; Mary, “an interloper in her own home,” can only watch “in dumb loathing.”  

I’m unconvinced, in other words, that Helston is quite so wonderful. And yet I also didn’t get the sense that the text was criticizing or making even gentle fun at Mary here. Mostly, the text presents Helston and Mary’s life before coming to the inn as a real lost paradise rather than, like all paradises, as one already lost. (And necessarily so, if there is to be a novel, that is, if Mary is to be catapulted into the events of the plot.) I rather hoped that the novel would more overtly suggest its, at least, if not its protagonist’s, awareness of the difference between memory and reality. One effect of that awareness would have been to give us a Mary who is na├»ve, blinded or misguided, at least in this regard, but I think that would only have made her more interesting, not less. Still, if the novel doesn’t overtly tell us that Helston is no more a place for Mary than Jamaica Inn, it is explicit that the era of the wreckers is fast coming to an end, with the advent of lighthouses, beacons, and the like. In that regard, there is a striking belief in progress, even modernity at the heart of this Gothic text.

-- Dorian Stuber


LauraC said...

I am no expert at literature and do not feel up to commenting on most of what Dorian has said, but as to Mary's former home being so wonderful--"there is no place like home." No matter how tarnished it is, the place where we were brought up (as long as our childhood was fairly normal)is remembered with quite a polishing job done to it by our minds. It isn't until we return, having moved away, that we realize most of its flaws. How many times have you been shocked to return to a childhood haunt, to see just how grubby it really is? And yet, at age 55, those childhood places are the ones that I still live in as an adult in my nightly dreams. The fact that Mary's thoughts of her mother are all located there too just adds to the power of the place. I think that this aspect of the story was very realistic.

Stefanie said...

I like what you say about Helston. I wasn't so convinced by Mary's dream of farming on her own there either. Farming is hard work and I never got the impression that she actually did much of it before her mother died. But I suppose compared to Jamaica Inn Helston did seem like paradise even though it definitely was not.

Rebecca H. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rebecca H. said...

I completely agree with you that the gender ambiguities remain even with Mary's decision, and that's one of the things I like about the book. It reaches a satisfying conclusion without settling the characters into stereotyped places. Interesting point about Helston. This hadn't struck me as a problem as I read, but I think you're right. For me, it makes the ending even more satisfying, as she rejects the (false) paradise and heads in the other direction. Perhaps on some level she knows that Helston won't be what she hoped for and that's why she doesn't go there? But yes, that could be signaled more strongly in the text.