Checking into Jamaica Inn

There’s things that happen at Jamaica, Mary, that I’ve never dared to breathe. Bad things. Evil things. I can’t ever tell you; I dare not even admit them to myself. Some of it in time you’ll come to know. You can’t avoid it, living here. Your Uncle Joss mixes with strange men, who follow a strange trade. Sometimes they come by night, and from your window above the porch you will hear footsteps, and voices, and knocking at the door… You must lie in bed, and put your fingers to your ears. You must never question me, for if you came to guess but half of what I know, your hair would go grey, Mary, as mine has done, and you would tremble in your speech and weep by night, and all  that lovely careless youth of yours would die, Mary, as mine has done. –Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn (1936) is Daphne du Maurier’s fourth novel, following The Loving Spirit (1931), I’ll Never Be Young Again (1932), and Julius (1933). Like many of du Maurier’s novels, (Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Frenchman’s Creek, Rule Britannia, The House on the Strand) the story is set in Cornwall, the peninsula in the southwest of Britain.

Mary Yellan moves to Jamaica Inn to live with her Aunt Patience after the death of her parents. Her aunt’s last visit had been nearly twelve years ago–Mary remembers her as a beautiful and young butterfly, laughing and full of plans for her wedding to Joss Meryln. Patience is now a frail, frightened, half-mad creature, cringing away from her husband and rushing to do his bidding. Joss, the landlord of Jamaica Inn,  is a giant of a man, cruel and harsh.

Besides the obviously horrible relationship of her aunt and uncle, much about the inn just doesn’t make sense. There is little custom: respectable travelers, Mary is told on her journey, avoid the place. Still, men are heard coming and going at all hours of the night. Mary sneaks out of her room one night and overhears Joss taking shocking orders from an unidentified man, then passing those orders along to the band of ruffians that he leads.

The book makes no mystery of the fact that Joss is a bad ‘un–from his introduction, at the end of chapter 1, he’s obviously and unmistakably a villain. Even the details of the “strange trade” are revealed fairly soon in the narrative. But the identity of Joss’s superior–someone in the neighborhood, well-spoken, authoritative– is unknown. This provides the primary source of tension in the novel: in the face of unmistakable danger, who is she to trust? Mary meets and suspects various men in the village; the most likely candidates for chief villain are the engaging and attractive Jem Meryln, younger brother of Joss and criminal in his own right, and the helpful albino vicar Francis Davey.  As Mary tries to figure out who she can confide in, even the most innocuous exchanges become fraught with meaning and danger. 

(I find I can’t talk about this novel without a few spoilers, but I hate to ruin a surprise. Highlight the next paragraph to read what I find so problematic about the novel, or skip this part and just go order the book.)

The true horror  in the novel is not about the trade but about the relationships. Joss is abusive and cruel to his wife, Patience; Patience is cringingly devoted, protective and loyal past all belief. The novel introduces Patience as an early image of Mary–the beautiful, laughing aunt’s visit is clearly remembered years later; various statements by Joss draw similarities between their appearance and mannerisms. Just as Mary is a younger iteration of Patience, Joss’s younger brother, Jem, resembles Joss in stature; though less violent, he is shown to be on the same general criminal track as Joss. Jem is a complicated hero–he isn’t complicit with Joss’s activities at Jamaica Inn, but he’s hardly trustworthy. Given the structure of the book, it is fairly obvious Mary is going to end up with him.. but he’s so similar to Joss that I keep expecting him to back-hand her when she doesn’t get into the wagon quickly enough. Mary needs a counselor, a kick-boxing class and a safe house, in my humble opinion. The ending makes me feel like an old village woman, shaking her head over the foolish choices of the young. 

I almost think that the conflicted ending adds to the novel–it seems much more in line with the spirit of the work to be left with a sense of lingering menace rather than have all threats strictly contained and removed. After all, the book is about unseen evil, unsuspected malevolence masquerading behind a smiling facade. Although Mary has discovered what lies at the heart of Jamaica Inn, how naive to assume that was the only unknown peril. 

 Jamaica Inn: if you haven’t read it, check it out!

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