The cold walls of Jamaica Inn smelt of guilt and deceit. Its dark secrets made the very name a byword for terror among honest Cornish folk. Young Mary Yellan found her uncle the apparent leader of strange men who plied a strange trade. But was there more to learn? She remembered the fear in her aunt’s eyes…..
Out on wild, rough moors there were only two people to befriend her – a mysterious parson and an insolent, likeable rogue who broke the law every day of his life.
Written by Daphne du Maurier. First published in 1936 by Victor Gollancz ltd. This edition published by Pan Books 1976.
Set on the wild, windswept moors of Cornwall in the early 1800’s, Jamaica Inn is a beautifully written gothic romance cast amidst the murderous backdrop of the nineteenth century criminal underworld.
Following the death of her mother and the gradual ruin of their family farm, our heroine, 23 year old Mary Yellan, decides to sell up and leave town to go live with her mother’s sister Aunt Patience. Mary has had little contact with her Aunt over the years, only remembering her as a pretty, smiling woman who had lost contact with the family when she married ten years ago. Now Patience lives with her husband, Joss Merlyn, the landlord of Jamaica Inn on Bodmin moor.
Suspense and foreboding literally drip from the pages as we accompany Mary on her rain lashed journey through a desolate November night to get to the inn. Right from the start the omens aren’t good and they certainly do not get better. Once she arrives Mary is greeted by a barren, unlit husk of a building out of which looms the powerful and frightening figure of her uncle, Joss Merlyn. The inn is as bleak inside as out and Mary is dismayed when she finally meets her Aunt – an unrecognisable shadow of her former self, reduced to a nervous, tattered wreck by her vicious, drunken husband.
Well, as a bleak November night unfurls into a bleak and dreary mid-winter, things get stranger and scarier for Mary. Jamaica Inn never seems to be open to the public and only caters to a select band of vagabonds befriended by the bullying landlord. Strange noises and furtive comings and goings in the dead of night hint at a darker purpose to this inn and all is soon revealed to Mary by landlord Joss himself when he slips into a drunken stupor, revealing the shocking truth behind his business.
From the moment she set foot in the inn her heart has been telling her to flee but, determined to do right by her Aunt, Mary decides to stay, perhaps even to bring justice and an end to the practices of her murderous Uncle. But she has to tread carefully as her own life is in peril and early on our canny heroine knows she should trust no-one – not even her Uncle’s brother Jem, a horse thief who steals her heart and swears he has nothing to do with his brother’s dastardly deeds. And what about Francis Davey, the soft spoken, albino Vicar of Altarnun, who comes to her rescue more than once when she finds herself stranded on the moors. Perhaps Mary has found an ally in him – or has she?
Like Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Jamaica Inn is one of my favourite winter reads. This is a tale steeped in mystery and suspense which grips the reader right up to the end. And this book is dark - really if you thought your Christmas was looking grim have pity on poor Mary Yellan. The prose is beautiful, full of atmosphere and brimming with all things gloriously gothic. We have murder, madness, passion and mayhem; stark landscapes, stormy seas and blood curdlingly horrifying crimes. It’s no surprise that Daphne du Maurier’s works are still in print to this day (though I think I prefer the cover art on my edition!). This is the perfect book to curl up with on a dark winter’s evening. Five out of five stars.