‘I’m not drunk enough to tell you why I live in this God-forsaken spot, and why I’m the landlord of Jamaica Inn.’
Thus Joss to his outwardly timid niece, Mary, who, now orphaned and driven by poverty from her family farm at the death of her mother has come to stay with her mother’s sister, Patience, and her husband, a giant of a man with volatile temper to match his brutish size. Once a busy posting house on the remote market road on a bleak stretch of Bodmin Moor, the Inn now welcomes no visitors other than a local crew of boozers from time to time and is more generally shunned. Mary and Patience form a close intimacy and it’s soon clear that the aunt is sickeningly overborne by her husband’s cruel behaviour; Mary takes brief refuge from the claustrophobic atmosphere and threatening circumstances in which she now finds herself in lonely tramps across the moor. Scarce any domestic comfort, disturbing noises in the night, the raucous evenings of drink and merriment in the locked bar…it’s a grim situation and Mary stays only to support her frightened, lonely aunt. The interim nocturnal traffic of men and loaded wagons points to some nefarious activity about which Mary eventually learns and, caught in a trap of deception, unwilling to put herself or her aunt at even worse threat than already broods over them, Mary finds promise of help in an unexpected encounter, this against the backdrop of night, the solitary moors, the secret tracks, the fogs and barely suppressed violence of inebriation, the veiled menace…it all feeds into a potent sense of misery, confusion, claustrophobia, imprisonment.
Du Maurier weaves a careful web of intrigue, the threads of which she untangles with great dexterity. This is adroitly worked mystery and suspense. The evil-doing surfaces: horse theft, wrecking, smuggling (Jamaica rum, hence the name, and the rest). An apparent avenue of rescue disappoints and the dénouement works a clever, an arresting, twist.
However, in the course of building a story of sinister dealings, innocence betrayed, psychological contradiction, du Maurier also plumbs another unexpected depth: the nature of love, its conflicting power, the subversion of dream unsullied by reality. Torn in her sense of filial duties, Mary confronts another, overwhelming force: that of emotion. ‘She loved him in the weakness of her flesh.’ The Protestant overtone is clear but the raw fact does not differ for that. And this insight hits Mary even as she unearths, in her own perception, the truth of what is happening in the supposed haven to which she has fled, Jamaica Inn. She stays because she hopes to extricate her aunt to a better repose, the two of them safe in what had been the place of both sisters’ companionship and happiness, home, before life, the toils of existence snared them and death both separated them and offered reunion. Of her uncle, she says to his brother – another meeting of which I leave you to find out – ‘You’d best have a care for [him]…His mood is dangerous; whoever interferes with his plans now risks his life. I tell you this for your own safety.’ She says this in a sort of transfer because it’s more herself to whom she speaks this unseemly truth and it very nearly undoes her.
I once visited a picturesque bay on the Orkney island of Hoy, Rackwick, named for the local wreckers – active there years past as on other ironbound coasts in the British Isles principally in Cornwall and Scilly. It was sunny, peaceful, serene, that morning, the soothing wash and hiss of the tide, the yelp of the gulls, the gentle heave of the sea, a pleasant place, amiable, but what a dark story lurked in those waters. Read a version of it here in this captivating novel.
One character says to Mary who arrived as a naïve creature, now stiffened into a knowing young woman, an enterprising creature ready to grasp escape and redemption on her own initiative and courage: ‘There is a fire about you that the women of old possessed. Your companionship is not a thing to be thrown aside…Poor Mary, with your feet fast in the nineteenth century and your faun face looking up to mine, who admit myself a freak of nature and a shame upon your little world.’
The same man speaks of his rejection of Christianity, having found it to be ‘built upon hatred and jealousy, and greed – all the man-made attributes of civilisation, while the old pagan barbarism was naked and clean.’ The paradox is central to the book’s compelling force, the challenge of self-knowledge thrown full-pelt at received wisdom and supposed safety.
Jamaica Inn is published by Virago. The cover shown is of the Virago Modern Classics edition.