Blog Tribute #4, dovegreyreader: Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier

Purchased from the Folio Society

dovegreyreader requires no introduction to book blog visitors. The map on her site shows visitors from 181 countries; the number of hits her blog gets every day puts the rest of us to shame. While books of all kinds are her main stock in trade (and she is an avid supporter of Canadian works), knitting, quilting and exploring Devon, Cornwall and even occasionally London are often featured. Our tastes don’t always overlap but I am certainly a regular visitor to “dovegreyreader scribbles” — and will admit that those visits in the last year have brought me more information about things like knitting and quilting than I have ever possessed before.

It is the walks and hikes — and the accompanying pictures of the Tamar Valley, Devon and Cornwall — that inspired this particular post however. I have never read Daphne du Maurier and when the Folio Society recently produced a set of four of her Cornish novels, I quickly purchased them. They are shelved in direct view from my reading chair and every time DGR ventures around the west of England I look up and remind myself that it is time to begin the du Maurier read (here is a link to a series of DGR’s posts on the 2008 du Maurier festival). I finally got the project started with Jamaica InnRebecca, Frenchman’s Creek and My Cousin Rachel will follow eventually.

Mary Yellan was raised a farm girl in Helford, in the softer, kinder region of south Cornwall. As a final pledge to her dying mother, she promised to go to live with her Aunt Patience in the much more brutal north of Bodmin Moor where her Uncle Joss is landlord at the Jamaica Inn — while the story is set in the early nineteenth century, the inn survives to this day (and I would be very surprised if DGR has not stopped in for a research visit at some point). We meet Mary on a coach — the last passengers have departed at Bodmin and she is preparing to head on to Jamaica Inn. du Maurier wastes no time in supplying some dramatic foreshadowing:

The woman came down the steps and peered into the coach.

“It’s a wild rough place up there,” she said, “and if it’s work you are looking for, you won’t find it on the farms. They don’t like strangers on the moors. You’d be better down here in Bodmin.”

Mary smiled at her. “I shall be all right,” she said. “I’m going to relatives. My uncle is landlord of Jamaica Inn.”

There was a long silence. In the grey light of the coach Mary could see that the woman and man were staring at her. She felt chilled suddenly, anxious; she wanted some word of reassurance from the woman, but it did not come. Then the woman drew back from the window. “I’m sorry,” she said slowly. “It’s none of my business, of course. Good night.”

The driver began to whistle, rather red in the face, as one who wishes to rid himself of an awkward situation. Mary leant forward impulsively and touched his arm. “Would you tell me?” she said. “I shan’t mind what you say. Is my uncle not liked? Is something the matter?”

Thus prepared, we meet Uncle Joss a few pages later when Mary is unceremoniously dropped at the Jamaica Inn and the coach hurries off across the moor:

He was a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high, with a creased black brow and a skin the colour of a gypsy. His thick dark hair fell over his eyes in a fringe and hung about his ears. He looked as if he had the strength of a horse, with immense, powerful shoulders, long arms that reached almost to his knees, and large fists like hams. His frame was so big that in a sense his head was dwarfed, and sunk between his shoulders, giving that half-stooping impression of a giant gorilla, with his black eyebrows and his mat of hair. But for all his long limbs and mighty frame there was nothing of the ape about his features, for his nose was hooked, curving to a mouth that might have been perfect once but was now sunken and fallen, and there was still something fine about his great dark eyes, in spite of the lines and pouches and the red blood-flecks.

That introduction to her uncle is bad enough for Mary, but the appearance of Aunt Patience is even worse. Mary remembers an outgoing, cheerful woman from when she knew her aunt as a child — what she finds at Jamaica Inn is a cowering, timid creature dominated by fear. Mary knows on her first night that she must escape Jamaica Inn but she feels bound by her pledge to her mother. She will not leave unless she can take her aunt with her.

It does not take long to discover that Uncle Joss is running a quite sophisticated smuggling ring from the Jamaica Inn (with more than 100 participants we eventually learn). They lure cargo ships to the rugged Cornish coast where they wreck — the ring scavenges the goods (and kills off any surviving sailors) and then distributes them from the inn. While Joss seems to be the leader, the possibility exists that he too might be taking orders from someone higher up. He responds to crises with extended benders, when his tongue tends to loosen.

Be forewarned that Jamaica Inn is a melodrama — Raleigh Trevelyan says in his introduction to the volume I read that “Daphne also once hinted to me that when writing Jamaica Inn she had been influenced by Hardy.” I certainly found Hardy influences and didn’t mind them at all — but you have to grant the author a fair bit of licence to allow the book to proceed. Mary falls in love with Joss’s younger brother, Jem, almost at first blush. Given that he’s a horse thief who comes from a family of criminals, that is a bit of stretch, but it is necessary for the book to move along.

I have always found it worth my while to allow Jane Austen and the Brontes some unlikely plot developments and found no reason to deny du Maurier the same forebearance. She needs it to develop all of her characters, the naive Mary in particular. More important, however, is that it creates the environment where she can describe the moor and the tors around Jamaica Inn — I quoted the description of Joss at some length; her desciptions of the landscape are even more powerful. I’ve never been to Bodmin Moor (but did visit Dartmoor once); I certainly feel that I have come to know it through this novel.

All of which means I am looking forward to the remaining three Cornish novels on my shelf even more — Trevelyan’s essay indicates that they are somewhat less desolate than this one. And the next time dovegreyreader posts pictures from one of her exploration trips, I’ll appreciate those with a new sensibility. We don’t get a lot of fog in Alberta — DGR’s pictures and du Maurier’s descriptions supply an excellent counterpoint on what we are missing.

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11 Responses to “Blog Tribute #4, dovegreyreader: Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I have never read anything by du Maurier, though I love the film version of Rebecca (from Criterion, whom I liken to Folio when it comes to great film products; except for their choice to at Armageddon to their collections — I really don’t know who was in charge that day). Lately I’ve been struggling to find the book that fits my mood perfectly. I’m not sure why I can’t seem to satisfy the mood I’m in — probably because I can’t define the mood I’m in — but this sounds like it just might be it. Then again, I’ve felt that way about a number of books over the past month, and while they’ve been pleasing not one has quite hit the spot.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I can’t really comment, Trevor, since you yourself can’t figure out your reading mood. I certainly appreciated the book, but did regard it as an entry into a four-book reading project. I’d compare it to Hardy and early George Eliot, both of whom I respect. And I will admit I was in the mood for some rugged English setting, which I certainly got in spades. Watching some episodes of Wycliffe (a not very-good British tv detective series) helped because it is set in Cornwall so it brought some visual perspectives to du Maurier’s descriptions.

  3. Trevor Says:

    Ahh! You just reminded me of something I might have never thougt of again! A few years ago I stayed in Cornwall for a week and drove around for a lot of the time. On one of those drives someone pointed out a hotel or a pub or something that was the basis for one of du Maurier’s books. I need to figure out if this is it!

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’ll bet it is. Google it and you’ll find lots of pictures. If you remember that part of Cornwall with fondness, I’d say it would move the book up in interest — du Maurier’s moors, tors and coast are the strength of the book.

  5. Trevor Says:

    Hmmm, I looked it up on a map, and I don’t think that was it, Kevin. I was staying in Falmouth and driving mostly along the coast, and I’m pretty sure it was somewhere along there that we passed the, uhh, structure. I can’t believe how awful my memory of this moment is. Then again, I did drive around the whole of the area, so her descriptions of the area, the coast especially, will bring back fond memories (I hope!).

  6. kimbofo Says:

    I went to Cornwall last year and visited Jamaica Inn – sadly, it’s one of those horrible over-priced tourist traps. Pics and post here: http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/2008/03/the-inn-that-in.html

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: Thanks for the link — I had scanned the net and did get the impression that contemporary commerce had overtaken literary history. That’s why I posted the pub sign instead of a picture of the inn as it is now. Doesn’t make the book any worse, thankfully. And I can’t help but note that the food, drink and service at the Inn were dreadful in the book as well — so it would appear that not much has changed in the last two centuries. :-)

  8. john h Says:

    I’ve only read Rebecca by du Maurier and a few of her short stories. I don’t know why but it seems as though she’s never had that much credibility in literary circles. Hopefully, that’s changing a little bit as Patrick McGrath recently edited a book of her stories. She is certainly a very atmospheric writer. Rebecca is a hell of a lot better than a lot of so- called literary novels.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I agree, John — I suspect her prickly personality had something to do with it originally. Since this is the only novel I have read, I can’t say much more. If you go through to DGR’s posts on the link I provided, you’ll see that there is a resurgence of interest in England, at least in some circles.

  10. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin I’m catching up at last and thank you for your kind words.
    Jamaica Inn as kimbofo says is a real disappointment and I sometimes wonder how much more Cornwall can milk the du Maurier theme before it overdoes it.
    I can recommend The Scapegoat as a very different Daphne read.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    DGR: Thanks — I’d say you and kimbofo have offered enough advice to say that the fictional Jamaica Inn of the nineteenth century is much more interesting than the actual Jamaica Inn of the the twenty-first century. I’ll add The Scapegoat to my du Maurier list as well.

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