There are times when, faced with the need to read, a girl reaches for familiar comforts. Jamaica Inn is mine. Before we get to the review, I’ll explain our history.
As a kid, I thought Jamaica Inn would be about pirates. It’s a logical guess by someone who watched a lot of Errol Flynn movies as a kid. I pulled my mum’s copy off the shelf, discovered it involved a girl in Cornwall and put it back in disgust. Half a decade later, I took it back down, tried again and fell utterly for Daphne du Maurier’s fiction. That copy is the one I still have. The paper is so thin you can see the text on the other side. The blue fabric covers are faded to lilac by the sun. There are a mountain of printers’ errors, possibly due to it having been printed in 1947.
There is no other physical book that is so comforting to me. Which is strange, as the story is discomforting.
After Mary Yellan’s widowed mother dies in 1820, Mary follows through on her promise to sell the family farm and to go live with her lively Aunt Patience. Patience has married the landlord of Jamaica Inn, Joss Merlyn, and Mary will help them run the coaching house high on Bodmin Moor. Except no stagecoaches stop at Jamaica, and the waggons that come by night carry a dreadful cargo.
The story is in some ways a standard romance. Despite his bad family and open life of crime, upright church-going Mary falls for Jem Merlyn (her uncle’s younger brother). There’s a supporting cast of squires and pedlars, along with the albino vicar of Alternun.
What makes the novel stand out, though, is the descriptions.
They would be born of strange stock who slept with this earth for a pillow, beneath this black sky.
There was a silence on the tors that belonged to another age; an age that is past and vanished as though it had never been, an age when man did not exist, but pagan footsteps trod upon the hills. And there was a stillness in the air, and a stranger, older peace, that was not the peace of God.
The book hums with a love of Cornwall: the stark high moors, the soft greens of the south coast valleys, the crash of surf on the northern cliffs. This is what brings me back to the novel again and again. The vividness of the description includes the vicar’s paintings, infused with an alien green light, and the brittle, brutal wildness of a tor in winter.
There are also great character touches. Though Mary Yellan curses that she is a woman and thus cannot fight her uncle physically or her attraction to his brother mentally, she is strong and independant. She takes action when she can, she holds her own against the villains. She faints only when she has endured dreadful events. For a historical romance heroine, written in the 1930s, she’s tough and modern.
The vicar of Alternun isn’t a jovial churchman, he doesn’t provide a warm sanctuary for Mary. Even the terrifying Joss Merlyn isn’t one dimensional: when drunk he is haunted by the people he’s killed.
Jamaica Inn is the best kind of romantic novel: it isn’t comfortable or sweet. It’s tough and beautiful, and is much a romance about the sublime landscape as it is human relationships.
Years back, going over the A30 (the prosaic name for the high moor road) we passed the real Jamaica Inn. It was on the other side of the road to the way I’d always pictured it. Despite having seen it for real, I still picture it the way du Maurier described it.