We picked this as our bookclub read because we wanted to have something more on the ‘classic’ line. I have always thought I’d read it in my teens or early twenties, and vaguely remembered Mary Yellan arriving at Jamaica Inn and finding it full of smugglers. I even look out for the Jamaica Inn when travelling down a A30 to Cornwall. It’s at Bolventor, about halfway between Launceston and Bodmin, if you’re interested. And it’s on top of the moor, a bleak and windswept place in bad weather, and since the story takes place through autumn and winter, it surely was as bleak and Daphne Du Maurier paints it. Whether it was the haunt of smuggles – the distribution depot, even, is another story.
Du Maurier paints a fine contrast between the green and pleasant Helston farmland, which Mary has to leave when her mother dies, leaving Aunt Patience as her only relative, and Bodmin Moor, where her towering brute of an uncle runs the Jamaica Inn – an inn that is neither bar nor hostelry. It is closed up, barred and shuttered, save for the occasional window (like Mary’s) which has broken window panes but let light in. The author discloses its secrets one by one, and Mary’s spirits, at first so determined to solve the puzzle of her aunt’s weakness and her uncle’s midnight trysts, and driven down, down and down by the secrets unearthed. I confess I wondered why the secret was so deep, since it was ‘just smuggling’ in my mind – which in itself is interesting, since as a kid I thought smuggling was wicked, defrauding the government of its dues. Now the government seems to defraud us of so much, it’s every man, woman and child for him or herself, but that’s not a matter for a book review, nor my blog for that matter.
The pace of the story thus far makes you wonder whether the author is making an awful lot out of a very scant tale, but her description of Bodmin Moor is detailed, atmospheric and, if you know moors, tantalisingly evocative. It’s just the final summary statement that irritated me. You know, a wonderful paragraph evoking the wind, rain, cold and wet grass, summed up with “It was bleak.” At that stage, though, I still felt Mary Yellan was making too much of her situation. Then it got deeper. Much deeper. If I read this before, I didn’t read it properly. Or maybe I locked it away so deeply in my mind I’d forgotten it.
[Spoiler alert] Yes I’d heard of wreckers. It’s one of those dark deeds of English lore. Sending a ship to its doom by leading it astray with false lights. Getting the cargo off the beach and stealing away with it. But somehow, I’d never appreciated what it really was. And the way Du Maurier makes Joss Merlyn tell his niece the truth of it is horrific, just as the deed itself. [end spoiler]
After that, we get a good adventure tale, but in truth, the twist is predictable and the end is what it should be in a novel of its times. I still think the detail of the moor is overdone, and it drags the pace down, especially at the end, but the nub of the story is beautifully executed. By today’s standards it needs a good edit, and putting out as a novella thriller!
I read a library book as part of my bookclub reading programme.
PS The recent BBC dramatisation got a lot of criticism, not least for inaudibility. I’m glad I didn’t watch it!