Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier follows 23-year-old Mary Yellan as she carries out her mother’s dying wish that she seek out and live with her Aunt Patience. Mary makes a sad journey across the bleak moorland of Cornwall to reach Jamaica Inn, her aunt’s home. The coachman warns her against going to Jamaica Inn, telling her that “Respectable folk don’t go to Jamaica any more… We whip the horses past and wait for nothing.”
When Mary arrives she encounters her uncle Joss, who quickly establishes himself to be an intimidating, drunken brute. Aunt Patience is no longer the smiling woman of Mary’s childhood memories, but a beaten-down, half-mad, cowering person who has aged beyond her years. Mary decides against fleeing, and stays at Jamaica Inn for the sake of Patience, hoping to eventually convince her to run away. But soon she discovers her uncle’s violent secret; he is much more than a mere brute.
I’ve tried not to reveal too much about the main plot points, since I think if I had known more about the story I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much. Du Maurier did a great job of establishing the setting, her descriptions of the desolate moors surrounding the inn enhanced the book’s gothic feel. The violent characters of Jamaica Inn and the prominence of the moors reminded me a lot of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
Mary’s romance in the book is an unusual one, in that it was not made very prominent and both Mary and du Maurier dealt with the relationship with a clear cynicism of romance in general. I liked this, I felt it suited both the tone of the book and the natures of the characters involved. Mary knows courtship will be replaced by the mundanity of married life, with the man “calling sharply that his supper was burnt, not fit for a dog, while the girl snapped back at him from the bedroom overhead, her figure sagging and her curls gone, pacing backwards and forwards with a bundle in her hands that mewed like a cat and would not sleep… No, Mary had no illusions about romance. Falling in love was a pretty name for it, that was all.”
Du Maurier drew inspiration for the novel from her visit to the real Jamaica Inn in the 20s. It still stands today, catering to tourists with ghost tours and a smuggling museum.
Don’t read Jamaica Inn with the expectation of it being as good as Rebecca. It isn’t. But if you can appreciate it for what it is and not force it to stand in the immense shadow of du Maurier’s most-loved work, it’s an excellent, gripping read.