What strikes me most about Jamaica Inn is just how much Daphne Du Maurier’s writing improved in the novels that followed this romantic thriller. If she’d written nothing else, I suspect she’d have fallen into obscurity along with a lot of other popular women writers of her day. I read Jamaica Inn at the same time as I was reading a collection of her late stories from the 1970s and while I enjoyed both books, if it wasn’t for the same name on the cover, I probably wouldn’t have recognised them as works by the same author. But, having said all of that, Jamaica Inn does point the way towards Du Maurier’s later works.
The novel is set in Cornwall in the 1820s. Our orphaned heroine, Mary Yellen, goes to live with her mother’s sister Patience at the isolated Jamaica Inn. To her alarm, she finds her aunt a shadow of her former self, utterly dominated by her brutal husband, Joss Merlyn. Worse is to come when Mary realises there are wicked doings afoot at the Inn, the least of which is smuggling. Determined to discover the truth and get her aunt away from Jamaica Inn, Mary finds herself locked in a dangerous battle of wills with her uncle. Matters are further complicated when she meets two other men, Joss’s devilishly attractive younger brother and the strange, elusive Vicar of Altarnun. Who can Mary trust to help her in her predicament?
Jamaica Inn is still an entertaining, if rather dated, read. It has a certain gothic atmosphere and there are some effective scenes. However, the dialogue is stilted and the pacing is all off, with most of the action taking place in one extremely eventful night. There’s too much description and “telling” and not really enough plot to sustain its length. The villain is a weakness too because his representation is so clichéd (not to mention offensive) that you’ll spot him straight away. The characterization is fairly thin, although Joss Merlyn is memorable and Mary herself quite well done.
I wouldn’t call Jamaica Inn a feminist text, but it does contain some of the feminist themes developed more fully in Du Maurier’s later work, especially around the unequal distribution of power between men and women, and the question of how women can have sexual agency in a patriarchal world. One of the problems for Mary is that she lives in a world in which a woman can’t be both sexually active and safe. This is represented in the constant threat of rape that hangs over her throughout the novel. But she’s no helpless, trembling heroine and I like the way Du Maurier gives her some agency. Mary thinks about her situation, makes decisions and takes action. She also acknowledges her sexual desires and is determined not to allow herself to be swept away.
I think one of the biggest problems with Jamaica Inn is that it’s a romance and Du Maurier doesn’t believe in romance, at least not in any straightforward or conventional sense. She’s just too cynical. I don’t think she had much faith in the relationship between Mary and Jem. You get the feeling Du Maurier suspects Mary would have a happier life without Jem, but that she’s more likely to go off with him in the end, perhaps because that’s what the conventions of romance dictate.
Jamaica Inn feels like a literary experiment by a young writer trying out ideas and genres. Du Maurier’s true potential as a writer lies in her capacity to recognise her own strengths and jettison the weaknesses. In her later works, she allows her cynicism to flourish, giving us the twisted, anti-romances of Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel. The power struggle between the sexes is one of the best bits of Jamaica Inn and in her later novels she really gets into exploring the sinister implications of this unequal relationship. She also goes on to use the Gothic in more subtle ways and, while she continues to explore the attractions of evil, she develops far more nuanced characters to do it with.
It’s also kind of reassuring to see that you can publish a clunky novel or two and still go on to write some excellent ones.