Jamaica Inn

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

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.

Jamaica Inn
Daphne du Maurier
(Virago Modern Classics, 2003 [my edition, Victor Gollancz 1947])

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.

Mrs de Winter

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Mrs. de Winter
Susan Hill
(Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd, 1993)

The first du Maurier I ever read was Jamaica Inn. The second was Frenchman’s Creek. The third? Rebecca. I can’t remember if I’d already seen the Hitchcock film by then (by the way, Joan Fontaine? Still not dead) but it seems highly likely I had given how much I love Hitchcock. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that du Maurier’s gothic romances were a mainstay in our house. Virago Modern classics have done a wonderful reprint of them all.

So when I spotted Mrs de Winter last year, I had to add it to my pile of published fanfiction. Or sanctioned follow-ups. Or meta-fiction. Or whatever you want to call them. Mrs de Winter is set a decade or so after Rebecca. The de Winters have spent it all abroad, travelling to avoid any unpleasantness (including, it seems, the second world war) but a family duty drags them unwillingly back to England.

There are many things these meta-novels need to achieve to be a success. The new author has to clearly understand the original’s style and tricks. Hill does. She ladens the opening pages with carefully observed descriptions of the Cornish countryside, scattering some dark birds amongst it to make the reader recall du Maurier’s The Birds. Rebecca opens with the famous line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”. Mrs de Winter starts with the de Winter’s return to Cornwall. Hill also ensures that the narrator remains nameless, defined solely by her relationship with her husband. She is always “Mrs de Winter”, denied her own identity.

Hill also understands that one of the key things that drives a reader through Rebecca is sheer frustration with the narrator. The second Mrs de Winter is so aggravatingly timid and passive that you want to grab her by her drab twinset and shake her into action. Maxim remains an equally annoying alpha male: silent, unemotional, stern. Their co-dependence is galling.

Yet you keep reading. I switched from reading a couple of chapters a night, to reading it whenever I got a chance. The chap’s attempts to talk to me whilst I had the book open were doomed. Even as you despair at the heroine’s inaction, you want to keep reading. You want her to have a happy ending. When she does finally take action, when she starts to build a stable future for herself, it goes diasterously wrong. Her solo trip to London reconnects her with the past they’ve been fleeing all this time, and it slowly, painfully crashes back into their new life. That’s another du Maurier trick – the slow, creeping build up to the heroine’s world suddenly overturning. It’s why she was such good source material for Hitchcock.

If you loved Rebecca, this works as a sequel. If you’ve never read Rebecca then you really should.

Proceed with extreme caution

Monday, 16 March 2009

children on motor bikes everywhereI’m back from an overnight trip to Cornwall, where we stayed in the lovely Lizzy and Dave‘s TPO camping coach at St Germans, drank lots of wine and waved at trains. Sometimes whilst wearing Cybermen or Dalek Sec helmets. Hen nights, eh?

We also wandered around the village the next morning, including into the pub for a breakfast and then across a field in which the sheep singularly failed to turn out into ravenous hordes, and got sunburnt in March. Truly, Cornwall is a magical place.

The night before we had cocktails at Exeshed (overpriced and weak, to my mind – I miss Rachel at the Kino bar), followed by sangria in La Tasca (because I wanted spanish food), a trip to another bar and then, finally, a farewell to arms. In other words, a 45 minute visit to upstairs at Timepiece where I realised that the smoking ban makes nightclubs a lot less fun. Or, perhaps, reveals just how dank and desperate they always were. I think it is safe to say I am not filled with grief at leaving that world behind.

Thank you very much to all the friends that came along: aren’t you impressed I didn’t actually a) throw up, b) start a fight or c) get thrown out of anywhere? Well, technically, we were thrown off the landed gentry’s estate, but that may have been the most polite and genteel ejection from a place I’ve ever had and certainly didn’t involve any armlocks.

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